Marta Yera Cronin works to extend the reach of Columbia Gorge Community College
By Kathy Ursprung
For the new president of Columbia Gorge Community College, access is a priority: access for remote communities, career seekers and diverse populations, and access to community education classes and financial aid.
Marta Yera Cronin has lived and worked in urban settings most of her life, yet she sees many parallels with her role in a rural community college.
“I grew up in urban poverty with a single mother, so I know what that’s like,” Marta says. “I would not have been able to afford housing. If I had not had the train, I would not have been able to go to school.”
Poverty, housing and transportation are issues that translate from an urban to a rural setting. Education as the pathway to a better life is a mantra emphasized in Marta’s family since childhood.
“That’s why it became so important to me for people on the outskirts to have access,” she says.
Marta is working to expand CGCC’s reach so students in communities outside the college service area have access to services comparable to what students have in The Dalles and Hood River. She and her administration are working on outreach to Sherman and Gilliam counties, and she envisions working with Wheeler County.
“Some students may go into family businesses, whether farming or whatever, but some of them maybe don’t want to,” Marta says. “They need to have opportunities. For me, access is the important thing we do here.”
Fall enrollment at CGCC increased 6 percent. Marta credits part of that to ending the practice of putting students on a wait list when classes are full. Now, they open a new class section.
“It’s important for students to have reliable access to the classes they need,” Marta says.
SOAR—CGCC’s student outreach team—has increased its efforts to build partnerships with high schools and generate buzz and excitement about the college.
One of Marta’s early priorities as head of CGCC has been to review the roles of members of the leadership team.
“We identified strengths and people we weren’t really putting to good use,” she says. “That’s one of the first things we needed to do before we decide where we are going: make sure the right people are in the right places.”
CGCC plans to get high school students started in programs earlier. Part of that effort is expanding the virtual cam- pus so more students can take college- level classes while still in high school.
“We know, in some cases, students are not able to make the drive,” Marta says.
Marta hopes availability of new student housing and a new skill center will improve access.
“We’re not going to neglect academic and transfer students, but we want to be sure we are offering all the vocational and Career Technical Education tracks needed in the area,” she says. “We could easily triple the welding program, but we don’t have the space for it.”
The college is working to secure $3.5 million of funding for the housing and skill center projects before the end of January.
Surveys have indicated other needed career tracks include fiber-optics installation and mechanics.
On the academic side, CGCC is redoing the general education portion of the curriculum, including math, science and English—the core courses needed to transfer to a four-year institution.
State university transfer requirements vary, so some students end up with surplus credits they don’t need, which can unnecessarily spend financial aid.
“There are limitations on how many credits financial aid will pay for,” Marta says. “We don’t want them to get to their bachelor’s degree and run out of aid.”
To ensure students don’t lose credits in transfer, the state is developing universal degrees, starting with English, biology, teacher’s education and business.
Marta hopes to encourage more vibrant campus life.
“Student government this year is very active,” she says. “They are working on more events and are encouraging students to offer more clubs.”
Some of the spaces on campus are being re-envisioned, including the library.
“We want it to be more of a hub, with a coffee bar and a tutoring center,” Marta says.
Expanded scholarship and financial aid opportunities are also a high priority. College teams are visiting high schools to help students and parents complete the free application for federal student aid. The foundation director’s position has increased from part-time to full-time to help grow scholarship opportunities for students.
“We’re also trying to get more word out on Pell grants,” Marta says. “Most students are eligible for Pell grants, and that’s money you don’t have to pay back.”
Marta is continuing with minority outreach efforts—a key strategic goal of the college since before she took office.
“We want all of our high school students, no matter what their race or ethnicity, to be able to take advantage of all sorts of classes, whether academic or not,” she says. “It used to be that a lot of our dual-credit classes were academic. Now we’re moving in the other direction because not every student is an academic student.”
While settling in at the college, Marta, her husband and her dogs are also settling in their new home in The Dalles. It took some time to find a house, which she says speaks to similar challenges for students.
“I’m loving small-town life,” says Marta, who grew up in Manhattan and moved to The Dalles from a college district of 300,000 residents. “It’s interesting to me to go places and be recognized. I was at the farmers market and was recognized by so many people. Back home, I had 265 faculty and could go out on a weekend and not run into a single one of them. This is more like a family environment. There is such strength in how the community works together. You don’t see that in a lot of other places.”