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Program gives real world experience

RIO RANCHO, N.M. — An exclusive UNM West initiative has students networking and delivering professional projects to select Rio Rancho companies.

The program, called UNM West Connect, groups a senior-level capstone course with a professional deliverable project set by a local business.

Laura Burton, full-time faculty member at UNM West, said she came up with the idea to pair real-world applications with theories students have learned throughout college.

According to Burton, local companies come up with projects that can be done by her class in a semester’s time frame. The students bid for the company they want to work for, and are responsible for contacting and setting up meetings with team members.

“It’s similar to (an) internship, but it’s different in that students get semester-long mentoring by the faculty member,” Burton said. “This program teaches the students project management and gets them connected to the community.”

Burton said she asks many local businesses if they would be willing to work with UNM West students before the beginning of each semester so they can come up with a viable project.

“The goal is that it is a meaningful project for the student and organization,” Burton said. “They’re not filing, they’re not doing menial things, they’re contributing in a professional way to the organization.”

Melissa Romine, executive director of communications and outreach at UNM Sandoval Regional Medical Center, said the program is a great opportunity to interest students in joining the health field.

“Many people don’t think about other areas or professions in health care, like communications and marketing,” Romine said.

After finding out that Burton had some students interested in health care professions, Romine said she was excited to connect and mentor them.

“It was a win-win situation,” Romine said. “We would get fresh ideas from students and the students would get some real world experience using what they are learning in class.”

Romine said she is working with a couple of UNM West students on two projects this semester.

“If we have a position available in the future, it would be something these students could apply for,” Romine said. “That would be our hope that we could look here locally for new talent.”

Jenifer Luna, a senior majoring in organizational communication, said she wasn’t quite sure how she could contribute to a local business as a student.

After a few emails and a couple of face-to-face meetings, Luna found her comfort level with her business mentor, she said. Luna’s project involved building and maintaining social media sites for El Pueblo Health Services Inc., a nonprofit health clinic in Rio Rancho.

“I am a self-motivator, so I really enjoyed this project because I could work on my own and create ideas.” Luna said. “I think everybody should take this course … it gives you more experience than just a book in a classroom.”

Luna said she is excited about graduation and a new job opportunity that awaits her because of the program.

“This class opened a new door for me, I didn’t realize the many opportunities out there,” Luna said. “I didn’t even expect it but, after going through this whole course, this is what I want to be doing.”

Burton said UNM West Connect has been successfully introducing students to local companies for four semesters.

“I thought last semester, ‘Why don’t we give an opportunity to these students to showcase what they have been working on and share it with the community,'” Burton said.