a tan brick building sits in the background of a stone sign that reads pueblo community college
Pueblo Community College's Gateway to College program is one of 33 in the national network. There are programs in at least 19 states and more are being added each year (Image Credit: Nick Fouriezos).

Editor’s Note: A version of this story first appeared in Mile Markers, a twice monthly newsletter from Open Campus about the role of colleges in rural America. You can join the mailing list at the bottom of this article to receive future editions in your inbox.

Growing up in Florida, where medical marijuana is legal, Elijah wasn’t naïve. He had been around pot. He had older brothers and would occasionally see adults smoking. 

Still, Elijah was surprised when his family moved to Pueblo, a factory town on the farmland slopes of southeastern Colorado. Not only was everyone at his middle school smoking, but many of their younger siblings were too. 

“Here, it starts off really young. Like 6 or 7,” says Elijah, now 17, whose last name we’ve omitted since weed is still illegal for those under 21. 

There isn’t clear evidence for how the state’s legalization of weed in 2014 has affected youth consumption. Some studies suggest it has dipped, but they are based on self-reported data. 

In Colorado, where fentanyl deaths have doubled in recent years, fretting about pot use might seem misguided. However, several studies have shown the negative effects of THC on adolescent minds, and the prevalence of pot has downstream cultural effects, too. 

“It’s sad. A lot of kids are raised to live like their family lives,” Elijah says. “They’re just taught to come and repeat the same stuff.” 

In 2019, Elijah struggled to get through his 8th grade year. And even before the pandemic sent everyone home, his freshman year of high school was often interrupted by fights that would break out in the hallways. 

He fell further behindwhile stuck at home with his brothers and stepdad, who has a heart condition but financially supports them with the money he makes trimming weed. 

Those influences, and his growing challenges with mental health, soon compounded: He failed one class, and started regularly skipping classes once in-person learning resumed. 

In order to graduate at all, he would need an educational intervention.

From At-Risk to Graduating with College Credit

Janelle Soto-Quintana is sitting at her desk at Pueblo Community College, contemplating two drugs that are doing the most damage to her community. 

“Fentanyl,” she finally says. “And weed. God, I hate weed.” 

It’s an issue she is acutely aware of as director of the Pueblo Gateway to College program, which helps students who have dropped out of high school and those who aren’t on track to graduate. Her team members will do everything from driving students to school if they need a ride to offering them meals. Plus, they get to take courses in a college environment. 

Soto-Quintana grew up around pot, like most here in Pueblo, and tried it when she was younger, although her asthma made the experience particularly harsh. 

Still, it’s not just her personal distaste that has her so frustrated—it’s the way it impacts her students and community, particularly since legalization, which has made professors loathe to intervene even when it’s clear their students aren’t learning. 

Soto-Quintana encourages them to say something anyway. 

“If they’re too high, say something,” she tells instructors. “I always say to the students, ‘Would you come to class drunk?’”

Soto-Quintana notes that most local businesses have stopped drug testing entirely, and work quality has suffered in some places, such as the factories with which her husband works. 

More Rural Higher Ed News

‘Boots on the ground economists’ step into rural America. Laura Ullrich is a senior regional economist at the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond, which will host the Investing in Rural America conference in Roanoke this April. This Daily Yonder piece takes a look at her work as she writes about NC Tech Paths, a program we wrote about earlier this year as it helps rural North Carolinians enter tech.

Iowa rural colleges seek aid. Four universities—each more than a century old and with enrollments ranging from 820 to 3,072 students—are requesting $48 million of Iowa’s $1.48 billion in recently released American Rescue Plan funds. Their request comes on the heels of Gov. Kim Reynolds’ decision to deny funding for Iowa Wesleyan University, the state’s second-oldest college, which is now expected to close in May.

“Rural institutions of higher education are economic drivers for the regions they serve,” the institutions wrote “Our four universities play a vital role in the strength of our rural areas. We are the primary employers in our communities and provide a wide range of educational, economic, workforce, social, and cultural opportunities.”

USC joins STARS network. The Trojans are becoming part of the Small-Town and Rural Students (STARS) College Network, a partnership of 16 universities—from Brown and Yale to Ohio State and Maryland—that are working on expanding pipeline programs and campus events for students from more remote areas.

“I try to chase quirky moments.” This Rural Schools Collaborative profile focuses on Jennifer Maras, a Minnesota teacher who has students write personal letters to companies and pitch their ideas “Shark Tank” style in her business classes. She was named a 2022 Educator of Excellence by the Minnesota Rural Education Association.

“It hasn’t happened overnight, but it has happened. And I don’t think our community realizes it, so our students don’t realize it. As a community, we’re all just like ‘It’s too much to bite off.’ So we’re just letting it go,” she says. 

Still, Soto-Quintana has seen significant progress for students in her program. Participants have outperformed a number of benchmarks set by the nonprofit Achieving the Dream, which leads Gateway to College programs in community colleges nationwide. 

More than 90% of Soto-Quintana’s Pueblo students passed their first term in the program —which mostly focuses on remedial-level high school courses—compared to 50% on the national level. 

Nearly three-fourths of Pueblo students completed their second year of studies and graduated from the program, compared to about half of students nationally. On average, they also finish with 25 college credits. 

Still, it hasn’t been easy, particularly since weed was legalized and the pandemic spurred mental-health challenges for students. Her own 17-year-old son, “a social butterfly” who hated taking classes online, is now part of the Gateway to College program after falling behind. 

The diversity of challenges is reflected in the composition of her more than 130 at-risk students, who come equally “from affluent families to poor ones, and all colors,” she says — including one of Elijah’s older brothers, who participated in the program’s welding track and has now been offered a job immediately after graduation if he wants it. 

Seeing his brother succeed motivated Elijah to join the program himself. It’s another example of how one student’s progress can create a ripple effect for everyone in their family. 

Simply being on the college campus, where he can work out in the early mornings at the gym and do his homework at the library, has been life-changing. 

And while Elijah initially thought he would just stay in the program long enough to get his high school diploma, he is now thinking bigger…much bigger. 

“I know it sounds like a pipe dream, but I want to become president,” Elijah says. “For me, it’s about having a big dream. If you set your goals high, you’re going to accomplish something.”

This article first appeared in Mile Markers, a twice monthly newsletter from Open Campus about the role of colleges in rural America. Join the mailing list today to have future editions delivered to your inbox.