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40% of grads first in families to get degrees

Leah Butler, left, and Daniela Romero are graduating from the University of New Mexico today. Both women overcame difficult childhoods to get their degrees. They are among 1,267 undergraduates walking at UNM. (Marla Brose/Albuquerque Journal)

Leah Butler, left, and Daniela Romero are graduating from the University of New Mexico today. Both women overcame difficult childhoods to get their degrees. They are among 1,267 undergraduates walking at UNM. (Marla Brose/Albuquerque Journal)

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Leah Butler and Daniela Romero share a knowing glance as they sit in the sun on the University of New Mexico bookstore steps, each of them recounting the rocky childhoods they once thought would prevent them from graduating middle school, let alone college.

“I didn’t think of myself as a college person. I didn’t see myself as someone other than a secretary,” Butler said this week as she finished her last college final and prepared to graduate with her bachelor’s degree.

She and Romero are part of a class of about 1,267 undergraduates turning their tassels during UNM’s commencement tonight. UNM issued another 677 degrees at its branch campuses and at its upper degree ceremony Thursday. Central New Mexico Community College’s commencement is Saturday, with an estimated 1,757 graduates.

Romero, 24, starts her story with her parents disappearing into addiction and prison on drug charges, and staying there for a decade while she lived with her great-grandmother and two older sisters in the Los Duranes neighborhood in the North Valley.

Fabiola Ortega, now 88, fed the girls and loved them the best she could, Romero said, but she herself was educated just to the eighth grade and Romero’s mother had only a ninth-grade education.

At age 8, Romero started smoking pot and was drinking by age 12. By 13, she was skipping so much school to baby-sit her sister’s children or to party that she dropped out. Ortega was unaware that Romero was doing more than just missing school to help the family – the way generations of their family had done – and didn’t impose strict rules.

“We come from a family like that. She did the best she could,” Romero said. “I thought I was going to have a sixth-grade education forever.”

But a friend lured Romero back into school at Los Puentes Charter School. It was there that some caring and passionate teachers lit a fire in her, insisting she should and could go to college. She especially remembers Valerie Lepore.

“They believed in me, and told me I was going to college and didn’t have a choice about it,” she said.

In short order, she graduated high school in 2009 and then graduated from Central New Mexico Community College with two associate degrees in 2012.

She moved onto UNM in 2013 and graduates tonight with two undergrad degrees, psychology and criminology, and a minor in anthropology.

Also walking tonight is Butler, with a degree in English and a minor in sociology.

It has taken Butler, now 35, about 16 years to get to this occasion.

She grew up in the neighborhood by Central and Atrisco with her sister and their mom, who then brought home $17,000 a year as a secretary at the Public Service Company of New Mexico.

Butler missed so much school she just stopped going in 10th grade, returning off and on at the insistence of her mother, who forced her to take the ACT college entrance exam. Butler scored so high she was accepted to UNM with a full scholarship.

She started at UNM in 1999, but dropped out three years later after an emotional crisis. She started working as a secretary at PNM, just like her mother.

She doesn’t expect to use her degree, at least right now, to find new work as she enjoys her job at PNM.

“I did it for the sense of self-accomplishment and showing others you can do it,” Butler said.

Both women, like 40 percent of the UNM student body, are the first in their families to get college degrees.

“I am so impressed with our graduates,” UNM President Bob Frank said. “Each has a unique story with its own challenges and rewards. Many are first generation college students. Some are veterans. Some are parents who balanced taking classes with raising families. All are Lobos who should be proud of their accomplishments here at UNM and inspired to take on the world.”

About 1,944 UNM students are expected to receive degrees this week, including 1,267 bachelor’s degrees, 363 master’s degrees, 61 doctorates, 18 juris doctorates, four medical doctorates, 33 graduate certificates and two education specialists, according to the school.

CNM President Kathie Winograd said that, over the past 10 years, the number of students graduating annually at CNM has increased 236 percent. The school graduated 1,885 students total in 2004-2005 and 6,232 graduates total in 2014-1015.

“We are incredibly proud of the culture at CNM that really is focusing on changing the lives of our students,” she said. “We are very, very proud of that and we really feel like we are all focused, from the business office to the faculty to the student service people, on getting our students to meet their goals and graduate.”