In its first year of operation, the New Mexico Highlands University Raton Center has increased academic offerings and student enrollment while celebrating its first graduates.The School of Social Work was added in fall 2008, and two commuting Colorado students will be the first to complete their master’s degree in social work through the center’s accelerated program. The center’s overall enrollment jumped from 44 students in spring 2008 to 76 in spring 2009, said Raton Center Coordinator Vince Garcia.Garcia said interest in The School of Education remains strong. Two education students earned their undergraduate degrees in the 2008 fall semester, and two education graduate students will complete their degrees this spring. Enrollment is also strong in the School of Business in both the graduate and undergraduate programs. In addition, students are enrolled in the criminal justice degree program. A Department of Nursing is in the works. “I’m grateful to John Davidson and all The Learning Center board of directors because they were the foundation for our Highlands’ Raton Center,” Garcia said.The Learning Center was a nonprofit Raton education foundation Davidson organized 16 years ago with the goal of someday becoming a university offering undergraduate and graduate degree programs. That goal became a reality when the Highlands University Raton Center opened in January 2008 in the 8,000-square-foot facility The Learning Center gifted to the university.Garcia said the Raton Center offers university courses in traditional classroom settings, as well as interactive television, or ITV, classes, and online classes. Outside Raton, the center serves students from the surrounding communities of Springer, Maxwell, Cimarron and Clayton. “Our students are the best,” Garcia said. “The average age of our students is 25 and many work full time. They really appreciate the high number of evening and Saturday classes we offer to accommodate their work and family responsibilities. Our center belongs to the community and my staff works very hard to provide a friendly, welcoming university environment to our students.”Lisa Lopez is a full-time kindergarten teacher at Longfellow Elementary School in Raton. She will receive her master’s degree in special education from the Highlands’ Raton Center in May. “For me it’s been such a great asset having Highlands here in Raton, and I feel like I’ve become a better, stronger teacher with my additional special education training,” Lopez said. “I’m thrilled to be completing my master’s degree. Vince and Paula have been such wonderful resources for me, and they are always willing to go the extra mile for all the students.”Paula is Paula Cacciatore, who Garcia said brings dedication and heart to her Raton Center position of administrative assistant. He added that her knowledge as a former employee of The Learning Center is also invaluable. Garcia said the center’s faculty is highly qualified and dedicated to helping students succeed academically. Jim Spengler, PhD, of Raton is teaching English composition and beginning speech this semester at the Highlands’ Raton Center. He is an experienced professor, having taught at the University of Arkansas, St. Louis University, and Southern Illinois University, among others. “I haven’t seen such cooperation and desire to learn in a long time,” Spengler said. “My students come to class prepared and work hard. I’m blessed to be teaching at the Highlands’ Raton Center.” Garcia said the university’s Raton Center also serves high school students through its Dual Credit Program. The program gives eligible high school students a chance to earn university credit while also satisfying some high school graduation requirements. Highlands University waives course fees for these students. Students from Raton High School and Maxwell High School are participating in the Dual Credit Program, and Garcia said he’d like to see students from more neighboring communities join the program. Technology upgrades at the center in the last year have enhanced the learning environment for students, Garcia said. For example, the interactive television classrooms have doubled from three to six and computer lab upgrades are underway, thanks to a grant. Looking ahead, Garcia said an articulation agreement is being developed with Trinidad State Junior College in Colorado, which is less than 20 miles north of the Raton Center.”What the articulation agreement will mean is that students who complete their associate’s degree at TSJC can easily transfer to our center to complete their bachelor’s degree,” Garcia said. “One important thing this articulation agreement does is help assure that the content of the junior college courses prepare the students academically for higher level courses at our center.”Raton Mayor Joe Apache said: “The Highlands’ Center is exactly what our small community needs. The university provides an opportunity for our young people — our most precious resource — to further their education right here in Raton, and possibly stay here and have a good quality of life.” For more information, visit the Highlands University Raton Center at 130 Park Ave., call the center at 575-445-0445 or go online at www.nmhu.edu/raton.