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Sit down with Trinidad State’s Dr. Epper

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Dr. Rhonda Epper

Dr. Rhonda Epper took the helm as president of Trinidad State on June 1. Since then, she has been a fixture at community events and forums as she learns about the college, thepair of communities and diverse student body Trinidad State serves.

Epper has made herself visible, in part, in an effort to further one of her chief priorities early in her tenure here, that being to foster further collaboration among Trinidad State, its partners and neighbors.

Recently, Dr. Epper talked with The Chronicle-News about settling into Trinidad and Trinidad State, her priorities for the college and what she is looking forward to this Fall.

The following is some of the information gathered from that sit down Q&A session. Here’s what we learned about our new Trinidad State president:

Q&A

 

How is it going so far and are you getting some footing here?

Dr. Rhonda Epper: It’s going very well so far. I’ve spent a lot of time at the college and out in the community. I have been trying to get to know people, get to know community organizations, and better understand who our partners are here in Trinidad as well as in Alamosa.

I’ve met with school superintendents, county commissioners, the mayor, city manager, city council members, business leaders, non-profit leaders, and many more. I also joined the Trinidad Rotary, and am really enjoying the networking and service opportunities available through that group.

What I’ve learned is that Trinidad State is tightly woven into the fabric of this community. It’s vital to the economic success of this entire region. And almost everyone I meet has a connection to the college – either as an alumni or staff member or has a family member who was here. That makes this college hold a special place in the heart of this community. Someone even suggested to me that Trinidad State is the heart of Trinidad.  

What have you been doing in your free time – any hobbies or interests?

Dr. Epper: I’ve been impressed with just how much activity is going on here. Every weekend there is some kind of event or festival. My husband and I attended the Fourth of July festivities at Central Park, the Triggers game, the Stampede Parade in Monte Vista, and other family oriented events like the Mt. Carmel Festival — which is really heartening to see how much the community comes together.

We have also enjoyed taking in the sheer beauty of this area. We went on a drive around the Highway of Legends, and went hiking up by Cuchara Pass. We’ve been hiking out at Trinidad Lake State Park, and also visited the Great Sand Dunes.

We’ve been to art galleries and concerts and the theatre. I could go on and on. It’s been really fun to get to know the people and the beautiful area here in southern Colorado.

Did former TSJC president Simone have any words of wisdom?

Dr. Epper: I haven’t talked to her yet, but I will reach out to her soon. She did a lot to get our college on a stable financial footing and we owe her a debt of gratitude.

What are you focusing on now, prior to the school year?

Dr. Epper: My first priority during the summer was building connections with the community. It’s important to me that we reach out and collaborate with our public school partners, our four-year partners, the city, community organizations and employers because it’s going to take all of us working together to ensure that our students are successful and can make a living wage when they graduate. We want our students to stay in this community when they graduate. But they must have both a reason and a means to stay. The cultural richness of this community gives them a reason to stay. A family-sustaining job will give them the means to stay. So, I think the college can play a critical role if we are able to leverage all of these relationships and grow these relationships to improve the cultural vibrance and economic prosperity here in Trinidad.

Is there a type of student the college is looking for, is there something that makes the TSJC student unique?

Dr. Epper: One of the great things about community colleges is that we serve any student who walks through our doors. We serve students who are underprepared, who are in need of basic literacy through our adult basic education program; we serve students who are at the collegiate level, who may have taken classes in high school and plan to transfer to a four-year institution. We have students who are really focused on their career enrolled in one of our technical programs such as nursing, welding, or gunsmithing. For these students, we are preparing them with the skills to go directly into the workforce.

Our student population is quite diverse at Trinidad State. We are a Hispanic Serving Institution (a college with enrollment that is at least 25 percent Hispanic [Trinidad State is 44 percent Hispanic]), and one of my goals is to raise our degree attainment rate for that particular group. Historically our attainment rate for Hispanic students is lower than other groups. We are focusing on equity in outcomes for all our students.

Are there other priorities you have identified in your first few months as president?

Dr. Epper: Yes. Another priority for me will be to strengthen our concurrent enrollment partnerships with high schools in the area. This program provides an excellent cost savings for families and helps get students started on a pathway toward college. Students who take advantage of this program are more likely to enroll in and complete a college degree, so it’s something we should be promoting and helping students and families, as well as high school counselors understand the options.

For all of our students, we will be working to streamline and clarify degree pathways. Some of the ways in which we present options to students are in language that is not always easy to understand, or navigate. We will be implementing “Guided Pathways to Success,” which is part of a larger community college reform initiative at the state and national levels.

We will also be revisiting our master planning process for facilities. Many of our buildings on campus are aging and in need of renovation. I will be asking for the community’s participation and support in this effort.

What are you looking forward to about this fall semester?

Dr. Epper: I’m really looking forward to meeting the faculty once they are back on campus and getting to know the students. I’m looking forward to athletics, as that is something I haven’t experienced at my previous college. I think it’s going to be a lot of fun and I’m excited to cheer on the Trojans!

 

Anything else to share with the community?

Dr. Epper: I just think there is a lot of positive energy here in the City of Trinidad and I feel it everywhere I go. I am looking forward to building on that energy and making sure the college continues to support the trajectory that the city is on. We are going to be deeply engaged in the work that is happening in both Trinidad and the San Luis Valley. For example, we are actively working with Colorado Parks and Wildlife, The Nature Conservancy, and The Trust for Public Land on potential educational opportunities with the acquisition of the Fisher’s Peak (Crazy French) Ranch. We are looking at cultural, historical and archeological projects, teacher education, wildlife, trail building; habitat improvement (heavy equipment), and even property signage via our welding and metalworking program. We’re also looking to provide entrepreneurship training to support recreational business development related to this new state property acquisition. In the Valley, we are working with local businesses on how the college can support the burgeoning hemp and unmanned aircraft (drone) industries, as well as existing agricultural and healthcare industries.  

Overall, I would say I am committed to continuing our “Students First” philosophy by building a stronger, more relevant, and connected college. 

About Trinidad State’s Dr. Epper

Formerly, Dr. Rhonda Epper was the provost and vice president for academic affairs at Community College of Denver (CCD). Epper was also credited with working collaboratively to further the expansion of college level dual enrollment programs throughout Denver Public High Schools.

Prior to CCD, Epper was a chief academic/student affairs officer at the Colorado Department of Higher Education. She also served the Colorado Community College System (CCCS), at the system level for nine years in various roles, including assistant provost and co-executive director of CCCOnline.

About Trinidad State: Trinidad State serves students of southern Colorado and northern New Mexico on campuses located in Trinidad and Alamosa. Trinidad State’s last president was Dr. Carmen Simone, who left to take a job in South Dakota. The interim president was Dr. Kerry Hart.

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