My path after high school didn’t take me immediately to college. At the time, I wasn’t in a position to invest in a college education without knowing what I wanted to do. I wanted to first see the world and backpack through Europe — and that’s what I did, visiting 17 different countries along the way, putting a college education on hold for the time being.
Years later, however, I found myself in a situation where I knew I had to do better for my kids. In 1997, as a young, single mother of two with no child support, I was struggling to make ends meet. That’s when a friend told me about a program that could help.
The Gateway Program, a partnership between Colorado Mountain College and the Garfield County Department of Human Services (DHS), gave me both the financial and personal support I needed to begin and complete an associate degree.
I met with Marianne Hotchkiss, a CMC advisor (who later became the director of the college’s Gateway program). When she initially laid out all the required coursework in front of me, I was quite overwhelmed and had doubts whether I could do it. I was already feeling overwhelmed on so many other levels in my life, juggling parenthood and as many as three jobs at a time.
But Marianne and so many others encouraged me every step of the way. I began by taking just one class at a time, and focused on just one semester at a time. Though it was a tough time, it was an incredibly supportive time. The faculty and staff were so helpful. My passion for learning was reignited, and I soon began to feel that a college education was well within my reach.
Through DHS, I received assistance through the Family Self Sufficiency (FSS) Program, which provided bonuses as I met my educational goals. I remember when I graduated from CMC, I had enough money in my FSS account to get a good used car.
I know firsthand it’s hard to ask for help, and I empathize with others who find asking for support challenging. After I earned my degree, I got involved with Gateway’s Links to Success classes that help build self-esteem and self-reliance. I knew how important these things were for those who came into the Gateway program because so many of them had been told they are incapable, unlovable and unworthy.
I was invited to help restructure the Links classes, supporting skill growth in emotional literacy, taking personal responsibility and establishing personal and professional goals.
It’s my hope that those who need help — like I did — will ask for it, and that those who seek help will get the support they need to reach for, and realize their highest potential.
Conley earned a bachelor’s degree and went on to get her master’s degree in spiritual psychology, and now runs her own private counseling practice. She has taught Gateway’s Links to Success classes and at one time served as its interim director. She currently sits on the program’s advisory board, and is among those who’ll be celebrating the program’s 25th anniversary in May.