Anne Gardetto grew up on a small farm in Weldona, Colo., with eight siblings. Though some would consider her family low-income, she never felt poor. Her parents knew their children would need to pursue opportunities besides farming.
“Our father and mother, who valued education very highly, always impressed upon us the idea that no one can take education away from you,” said Gardetto, 62, who retired in 2010 as the associate director of student services at Eastern Wyoming College in Torrington. “We knew that education was going to be a way out for all of us in terms of improving our life circumstances. So it was a given that each and every one of us would pursue a college education.”
Gardetto graduated in 1973 with a bachelor’s degree in sociology and Spanish from Ft. Lewis College in Durango, Colo. She worked for a short time at Head Start where she started to form her philosophies of how education could be used to lift whole families out of poverty. In 1974, she moved to Torrington to begin her career at Eastern Wyoming College which serves a rural county with an 18 percent poverty rate. She stayed for 36 years, working her entire career to improve educational access for minorities and nontraditional students.
Gardetto won the Wyoming Woman of Achievement Award in 1987, the Outstanding Young Women of America Award in 1976 and 1986, and the Outstanding Community Service Award in 1977. She ran unsuccessfully in two races as a Democrat for Goshen County Commissioner in 1975 and then again for the Wyoming State Senate in 1988.
Though now retired, she still sees education as the primary pathway to opportunity. Not only to economic opportunity, but to a greater sense of self-esteem, self-confidence and life fulfillment.
“One of the gifts that I believe I was given in life was the opportunity to work at a community college,” she said. “In my view, one of the precious tenets of working in a community college is the principle of providing equal access to educational opportunity to all students who walk through the doors.”
What led you to a career in a community college?
Working at a community college aligned with my own personal values and the love of being able to serve others by providing educational opportunity, which I see as a primary pathway to improving the quality of life for themselves and their children. I believe education is a right and it should be accessible to anyone who wants an education.
What did you enjoy most about your work?
I had a lot of pleasant memories working there, primarily serving the community. I was hired under Charles Rogers who was president at the time and he was very keen on orienting new staff on the importance of community service. One of the projects was implementing a women’s community needs assessment of Goshen County. I recruited 50 area women, very strong women with high leadership capabilities, and they in turn interviewed 1,200 women in Goshen County. We also mailed a survey in the outlying county college service area to about 400 women.
We wanted to understand how the college could better serve our area families, and in particular, to look at the educational goals of area women and the obstacles they faced in college re-entry. Personally, I felt that it was very important that we design a comprehensive instrument that would provide a more holistic understanding of their needs. So we were able to glean a very deep and intimate insight into the barriers they faced generally and what impeded upon their particular life circumstances with a special emphasis on their educational opportunity.
What did you find?
We found that there was a very high level of interest about going back to school but great fear about their academic preparedness, whether or not they would be able to compete effectively with the younger students. Many of our nontraditional students who did return had been out of school 5, 10, or up to 30 years. Many of them, in fact, gave testimony about driving up to the college several times and sitting in their cars afraid to go through the doors. So, I think that strongly indicated to any institution of higher education that we must be prepared to meet their needs.
We also found that for women 50 or older, there was a dramatic decline in the rate of participation in college-sponsored programming. We did another assessment looking at those women, and from that we developed our senior adult educational programming unit that became a part of our Adult Re-entry Center.
Through our accessibility and the rapid growth and retention of nontraditional students, the administration could see that the program was paying for itself. And they were profiting. At that time, the school was funded by full-time enrollment, so the more students we had on campus, the more money the college would receive through state funding. The fact of the matter is, our non-traditional students became amongst our best students. They set the academic pace for the traditional students because they were very serious about being there, they knew why they were there, they had a tremendous sense of responsibility in improving the life circumstances for their family.
How did the college react to all these changes?
For some that was a demographic change that came about too quickly. Our reputation for serving non-traditional students well became widespread and we had a lot of referrals from human services, from the family violence programs. It was through the Department of Family Services that we developed the family linkage project, where recipients who were receiving food stamps had the option of going out and doing a job search or pursue college re-entry. They overwhelmingly chose college re-entry. And through that project in particular, we were able to increase our ethnic minority population by 300 percent in a year and a half.
Who are some of your role models?
I had wonderful role models. My grandmother who is active politically in her community; a great leader, a great organizer. I think we all follow in those footsteps when we have wonderful mentors and role models like that. My grandmother, Katie (Caterina) Lorenzini, played that role very much for me. My mother and father realized the importance of political awareness and the importance of public policy and their impacts on families of lower income. And of course, I always felt that their advice was sage.
Describe your leadership style.
I take a very personable approach. I believe in making the extra effort to reach out to our community. I recruited all of the women that served as surveyors, but I asked other women for recommendations and then I pursued those recommendations personally. You have to be able to incite interest and know your community well. And you have to follow up.
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