In the New Mexico legislative session that concluded mid-February, multiple bills were passed aimed at helping higher education students in the state, specifically for the University of New Mexico. Individuals from the Associated Students of UNM advocated for funding for the lottery scholarship, the opportunity scholarship and infrastructure improvements at UNM. The bills are currently awaiting signatures from Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham to officially become law.
These initiatives were advocated for in large part by the ASUNM Governmental Affairs department, whose team spent time during the legislative session in Santa Fe lobbying for funding.
The funding for the lottery scholarship in House Bill 2 totals $140 million and ensures total coverage of tuition for the next five years. The funding for the opportunity scholarship in Senate Bill 140 totals $85 million and will ensure funding for the next year.
ASUNM chose to advocate for the lottery and opportunity scholarships to help provide security for students who are reliant on the scholarships to attend school, according to Suha Musa, director of the Governmental Affairs department.
“I think the lack of certainty was just a huge motivator for us to work towards more permanent funding options,” Musa said.
The opportunity scholarship is open to all New Mexico residents taking 6-18 credit hours and who maintain a 2.5 GPA. The scholarship completely covers tuition and fees after other state financial aid is applied. It was a big priority for ASUNM because it can also help cover other fees that the lottery scholarship may miss along with helping students continue their education who may have lost the lottery scholarship due the academic requirements, according to ASUNM President Gregory Romero.
Romero said since the legislation has passed, he has already received friends reaching out to him about how the opportunity scholarship will impact them and allow them to continue their educational pursuits once the governor signs it.
“I had multiple (people) reach out to me in this past week and say, ‘I'm going to go back to school. It's going to be paid for. I can finally finish my degree.’ They've had issues with GPA or just having to work for certain reasons, and now they're like, ‘I'm excited to get back in and even take six credit hours and finish my degree,’” Romero said.
This work was close to home for some of the ASUNM representatives, including ASUNM director of communications Krystah Pacheco, who said she personally benefits from the scholarships.
“I think the most rewarding thing was just being able to advocate on behalf of students, and I think just the relatability. I'm an in-state student — I'm from Mora county, a very small town, and I rely on a lottery scholarship. I would not be able to attend college if it weren't for that,” Pacheco said.
This year provided the perfect opportunity to secure the funds because of money from the Coronavirus Aid Relief Economic Security Act, which allocated extra federal funding to states, according to Musa. She hopes in the following years, the next Governmental Affairs committee will be able to continue these efforts to secure it even more permanently.
“The next step is how do we have permanent funding solutions so that a student who's in eighth grade right now doesn't have to worry,” Musa said.
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Sen. William Soules, D-N.M., chair of the Senate Education Committee, was a strong advocate during legislation for funding the scholarships as a future investment in the state and supported ASUNM in their efforts.
“Investments in education are some of the best we can make and they're never lost in the next economic downturn, and the more that we can get students additional training and additional education, those are good for the state of New Mexico and building economic growth and development,” Soules said.
There were four main projects ASUNM also advocated for within Senate Bill 212, titled the Capital Outlay Projects: infrastructure safety improvements on campus, Duck Pond repairs and renovations, Popejoy Hall renovations and central campus security. These four projects total approximately $1.3 million.
The Capital Outlay Projects were a major priority for ASUNM because of the vote on the Senate ballot that asked UNM students what their priorities were in terms of infrastructure improvements, according to Musa. She said students were overwhelmingly in support of projects to improve transportation safety, specifically at the Redondo @ Yale bus stop, which is utilized by a lot of commuter students.
“Our capital outlay proposals that we worked with other university partners on helped develop the infrastructure and make campus safer, which is a huge — I mean a huge — win that students have a potential to directly discuss what's important to them safety-wise,” Musa said.
Soules said sometimes he feels like students underestimate their voice and power and encourages more students to make their voice heard in the state legislature because they have a profound impact.
“I love when students come up there. And I don't think the students always realize how powerful their voice (is), and legislators do listen to them when they go around advocating for (legislation).”
Madeline Pukite is a beat reporter at the Daily Lobo. They can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @maddogpukite