Dawn Blue Sky-Hill, director of the Student Support Services TRIO program at the University of New Mexico, has been with SSS TRIO for 20 years. In that time, she has helped and mentored students from all walks of life to set them up for success in academia and beyond.
According to its website, SSS TRIO’s mission is to “increase the college retention and graduation rates of program participants at the University of New Mexico main campus. The SSS program draws upon a holistic framework where committed participants receive individualized support by addressing their educational and personal needs.” As director, Sky-Hill helps facilitate this support through coordinating mentors, advisors, tutoring and more.
As a UNM undergraduate student, Sky-Hill had a work-study job as a student recruiter working with at-risk high schoolers to “get them to consider attending UNM.” After graduation, she worked at nonprofits doing similar work, helping at-risk and minority youth go to college as well as providing mentorship.
In 2001, the position of director of the SSS TRIO program Sky-Hill currently holds was posted and, according to Sky-Hill, the job description fit her resume perfectly; the position described all the things she had done in the past. Her familiarity with UNM’s campus was also a plus, as she not only attended as an undergrad, but she was a senator for the Associated Students of the University of New Mexico as well.
“On my first day on the job, I was handed a packet of paper, and it was the proposal, and they basically told me, ‘Here’s your program; get it started,’” Sky-HIll said. “I asked them, ‘Do I have a staff? Do I have an office? Is there a phone system?’ and I was informed there was nothing.”
The SSS TRIO program is federally funded by the U.S. Department of Education. While it had existed at UNM previously, it was formatted completely different from the proposal the University gave to Sky-Hill, meaning that she had to start the program from scratch.
With the information that the program she was hired to run didn’t exist, Sky-Hill told herself that since she had started similar programs in the past and she had knowledge of UNM, starting the program seemed doable. However, when she wanted to learn more about the federal rules and regulations of the grant, she ran into problems immediately.
“There was nobody on UNM’s entire campus who was familiar with the (SSS TRIO) grant proposal in terms of its policies and guidelines,” Sky-Hill said. “At that point, I just told myself I will have to become the master of this information because it does not exist.”
Sky-Hill attended federal TRIO program trainings at every opportunity possible to learn the program inside and out, and she made it a point to find mentors in the TRIO community because there was no one at UNM who could provide her with that guidance.
“Over those (early) years, it was a lot of learning to get the program up and running,” Sky-Hill said. “But I committed myself to the program, to get it going. It definitely was a hard couple of years but in doing so I’ve learned (a lot) experience-wise.”
Avelina Martinez, friend and mentee of Sky-Hill, commended her for always being an available, willing mentor and guide as Martinez tried to get her footing as the SSS TRIO director at UNM’s Taos branch herself.
“When I started, she already had 10 to 15 years of experience as director, and so she was always someone I could turn on to call and help me navigate TRIO legislation and regulation from the Department of Education perspective, but also how to navigate the UNM system working as the awardee with the TRIO grant,” Martinez said.
Martinez said Sky-Hill is “constantly looking for how she can develop students through her program.” She emphasized Sky-Hill’s dedication to helping the students that come through SSS TRIO.
Sky-Hill said she sees herself in “those students coming from rural communities” who are often first-generation students without a lot of money and who experience imposter syndrome. Her experiences as an underprivileged student herself made her even more committed to the students she works with today, and she feels invested in their long-term success.
“When I began working with the students, their personal stories and challenges and accomplishments really meant a whole lot to me,” Sky-Hill said.
Martinez said a big part of what Sky-Hill and her team at SSS TRIO do is guide first-generation college students in navigating a four-year campus and help them ask the right questions so they can achieve their goals.
“Dawn has compassion, and to be able to work in an environment that’s constantly changing to support students from marginalized backgrounds is incredibly important,” Martinez said. “When you’re working with a TRIO student, you need to … be able to see the whole student and have understanding and patience.”
Emma Trevino is the culture editor at the Daily Lobo. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @itsemmatr