This was definitely not your mom's or dad's high school career fair - if they even had such things back then.

Now in its fifth year, the Taos High School career fair took inspiration from the community school model, pulling in just about every college and university, state and local agency and social service it had room for, not to mention a dozen in-school clubs and programs.

"We really tried to get the word out so that the parents as well as the kids knew what they could do while they were in high school as well as after," said THS Principal C. J. Grace. "One of the things our parents have asked for is more information about the clubs and activities so that their kids can find their niches at the high school."

Culinary arts

Upstairs in the Clubs and Programs section, Lavender Tafoya was pitching culinary arts, one of the high school's premier programs. A THS grad and recent staff hire, Tafoya is assisting Adam Medina, head chef and program chair who took up the reins following the untimely death in summer 2019 of much-loved master chef Benjie Apodaca.

Tafoya was promoting culinary arts classes as well as the EduCafé, an on-campus community favorite that serves student-made delicacies to anyone who cares to drop in.

The café, which is currently getting a makeover, will host a grand reopening next Thursday (Feb. 27), 8:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m.

She also talked up a couple of competitions staged by the program. "In the chef's competition, you have to make a three-course meal in less than an hour with no electricity, no running water - just a two-burner gas stove," she said.

There's also the restaurant management contest, in which teams of students come up with a concept and menu for a restaurant and then build the (virtual) restaurant from the ground up.

"Our whole restaurant management team is graduating this year," said Tafoya. "So we're also recruiting kids for the program so we'll have a fresh management team next fall."

Senior Mia Tafoya (no relation to Lavender) said she'd been in culinary arts since her freshman year. "It's really built my confidence, and it helps a lot of the younger students come out of their shell," she said. "Our EduCafé is open to teachers and the public, so the kids have to learn how to be social and talk to people in a real-life setting."

UNM-Taos Natural Resources program needs students

Kari Malen, program coordinator for University of New Mexico-Taos' Natural Resources Management, said she's having trouble finding enough locals interested in the program.

"So we're trying to recruit students from this area who care about the land so they can get the education to qualify," she said. "That way, we place people who are culturally and historically aware in management positions.

"Having young people who've grown up here actually helps manage the lands they love - that's the ideal scenario," she continued. "If your family is here, you're more likely to stay here and care about what happens at the community level."

The program requires students to get some hands-on experience so they can better decide whether they really like this kind of work. It also makes them more eligible for positions by the time they graduate.

"We hold an internship fair in March where the students come with their résumés ready to interview and get a position for the summer," Malen said. This year, the fair will take place March 13 at the UNM-Klauer campus.

The program partners with the Forest Service, Rocky Mountain Youth Corps and Taos Land Trust, which provide most of the internship opportunities.

Malen said they currently offer a "two years here - two years there" program that enables UNM-Taos students to complete a four-year degree at New Mexico Highlands University. "We're also in discussion with four other schools to set up two-plus-two programs," she added. Of these, UNM-Albuquerque and Fort Lewis College in Durango are the closest to going live.

"We're happy to receive support from the U.S. Department of Agriculture [which oversees the Forest Service] and proud of our 100 percent job placement rate," Malen said.

U.S. Bank teaches financial literacy

"We've talked to 50-plus kids today," said vice president Rhonda Sanchez, who was holding down the U.S. Bank table along with Olivia Valencia. "We're letting them know about scholarships we offer, different job opportunities we have - also the benefits of having a student checking account with us."

If someone started fresh out of THS as a teller, does U.S. Bank offer tuition assistance to help them get a degree while they're working there?

"Yes, we do," said Valencia. "We also offer two local scholarships each year for students majoring in business management. "They can bring their applications to me at the main office," said Sanchez.

To apply for the two $500 scholarships, students need to fill out a Common Scholarship Application, write a 200-word essay describing their career goals and interest in business and return them to Rhonda Sanchez at the main U.S. Bank office, 120 West Plaza, by April 1.

But possibly the greatest community service offered by U.S. Bank is a class in financial literacy for students.

"We come to the school and teach the kids how to balance their checking account," said Valencia. "We teach them how credit works and how to manage their money in general." She's currently setting up a class in April for THS students.

Indian Education bolsters connections

Renita Lujan, Indian Education program manager, and Amanda Cantu, college liaison for Native American students, were reaching out to Native kids at THS.

"Our Indian Education program helps us stay connected with our partners at Taos Pueblo and the community," Grace said. "They look for enrichment programs that our Native students might not otherwise have here at the high school."

The program provides academic support to Native students, such as tutors and liaison advisers. "Today we're recruiting kids to go to a tribal college fair," said Cantu. "Tribal colleges are much more affordable than other institutions."

Lujan was also signing kids up for a summer class that teaches students how to make traditional tribal moccasins and clothing. "That's one of the grants that I write - to be able to teach students those skills and keep them alive," she said.

The school also has an Indian Education Committee made up of parents and other stakeholders from the pueblo that advises on how to keep it relevant for Native students. "Our Indian education parent outreach is really a model for the whole district," said Grace. "Renita and her staff do a really nice job of bringing parents in as partners."

State Police say 'get your degree'

At the New Mexico State Police table, Eunique Salazar, a sophomore, was having a lengthy chat with Senior Patrolman Ronald Mantes Jr. and Sergeant Dominic Lucero.

Did they convince her to sign up? "Yeah, pretty much," said Salazar. "I had already been looking into it."

What appeals to her about it? "I don't know, I've just like been into forensics and stuff like that. The high school has a forensic science class, and I've just always been interested in it."

The two officers were advising students to get their degree before applying, however, saying it would start them at a higher salary grade and give them a better shot at promotion.

A vision behind it

"Our hope is that the kids get to see and connect with members of the community they might not think about," said Grace. "It's a right-here kind of resource, so students can talk to prospective employers, talk to future colleges. It's amazing what comes out of those conversations."

Grace said a couple of the colleges had already been to the office requesting transcripts for kids who had applied to make sure the admissions process went smoothly.

"It's a pretty amazing vision behind this," she said.

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