The night before her first college class at Pueblo Community College in Bayfield, Heather McKee, 42, couldn’t sleep.
“I was very nervous. Mostly because I knew the high school kids would be there, and I thought they would look at me like, ‘Oh my gosh, why are you here?’” she said. “But it just kind of went with the flow.”
Bayfield officially became a college town this fall when the PCC Southwest site opened for enrollment. For adults in eastern La Plata County, the easy access to classes is a life changer.
The site, located at the former Bayfield Primary School, offers classes for high school students interested in college classes and adults furthering their education. While the site could spur the local economy, it is connecting adults to opportunities for greater financial stability and a better life.
“I didn’t know I was going to want to go back to school until I started, and now I’m seeing all kinds of different doors opening,” McKee said.
McKee plans to start a career as a surgical technician. Her second income will help her ranching family financially.
“The farming industry goes up and down. It’s so unpredictable,” she said. “It’s hard to raise a family with that.”
Of the 41 students, 29 are high school students concurrently enrolled in college classes. About 12 students are adults continuing their education.
PCC students can earn certifications, take not-for-credit classes, get college credit and earn an associate’s degree. PCC credits are guaranteed to transfer to any four-year institution in Colorado.
The Bayfield site offers general education classes during the business day, and administrators hope to add evening classes in the future.
“The potential of that site is big. This is just the beginning of it,” said Sam Dosumu, executive dean of the southwest campus.
The site will expand its class selection based on community requests, he said. This spring, students can take early childhood education and business management. Administrators plan to expand technical education courses for the automotive, welding, construction or agricultural industries.
“I personally hope that we’ll offer more business classes at that location because that area looks like it would be conducive to small businesses,” Dosumu said.
An investment in business education would align with Bayfield’s efforts to support entrepreneurs and revitalize its downtown area. The site also brings students from outlying areas, like Pagosa Springs and Ignacio, into town. Some students, like Rachel Stewart, 31, eat out at local restaurants between classes.
Stewart said her PCC experience has been beyond expectations.
“I love that it’s right there. I can literally walk to school and walk home,” she said. “And it’s all done before my kid gets out of school.”
Stewart, who is pursuing an associate’s degree in accounting, pursued a college degree several times at several institutions. However, balancing raising a child, working a full-time job and taking classes always proved too difficult.
PCC is similar in quality to her other experiences, only its registration process is more streamlined. Not only that, but its process is similar to Fort Lewis College, and guaranteed course transfers are a huge benefit, she said.
“You can come over here to Pueblo, pay cheaper rates and work with a schedule that’s going to work for you in a location closer to you,” Stewart said.
Three continuing education students said location was a major reason they chose the Bayfield site. McKee wished the site had more classes available but thought the class length and online options were helpful. She said the staff helped her search for financial aid, which resulted in a $1,000 scholarship.
“I want to be able to supplement our income with this degree, but also be a part (of the family business) still,” McKee said. “I think that by doing this, that’s possible.”
George Johnson, 71, is taking American Sign Language – not for credit – but to learn how to speak to his grandson who is deaf. He said the class at the Bayfield site was more expensive than a similar class at San Juan College in Farmington.
“It’s a great opportunity to have (the site) there,” he said. It would help “if PCC could acknowledge people who are not degree-oriented and make it cheaper for them,” he added.
For degree-seeking students, going back to school can be overwhelming, but the PCC staff is invested in helping students succeed, Stewart said.
“It will be (worth it). Right now, it’s not. I’m dead tired all the time, but I’ll be an accountant someday. ... I’ll only have one job,” she said. “You have to convince yourself that it’s worth it.”