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Instructor talks to student at table

Paving the way to success

Pathway planning eases the road for YVC students to earn their credential

Abraham Guzman carries a long-time fascination with taxes and financial planning. But, needing to work after graduating from high school and being a first-generation college student, the prospects of turning his fascination into a career seemed remote. 

When he enrolled in courses at Yakima Valley College in 2022, however, Guzman found a key ally in his college journey: Pathway Navigator Brenda Montoya-Roman.  

“Brenda was a blessing,” Guzman says. “She really helped give me a path and give me just a scope of what I needed to do and what I need to accomplish.” 

From ensuring he completed the necessary placement tests to helping determine which courses to take each quarter, Guzman said Montoya-Roman was there to help him earn his associate degree in accounting this academic year and move closer to his dream of becoming a certified public accountant.  

And that’s the goal of YVC’s guided pathways advising and support — helping students successfully complete their degree or certificate as efficiently as possible so they save time and money on their educational journey. 

It’s not always easy [for students] to see how the academic side relates to the career side. But with guided pathways it’s an intentional pairing of the academic work with what the career is going to entail.” — Mark Fuzie, Guided Pathways Director

The guided pathways model

YVC started implementing pathway planning for students around 2012 said Guided Pathways Director Mark Fuzie, inspired by the book “Redesigning America’s Community Colleges: A Clearer Path to Student Success.” 

“The guided pathways model restructures community colleges for students who are non-traditional, students who don’t necessarily know exactly what they want to do,” Fuzie said. 

Instead of students picking courses from an overwhelming number of course offerings — oftentimes with little guidance — guided pathways creates a smaller number of more clear and coherent academic pathways. That simplifies the choices that students need to make. 

“It’s not always easy [for students] to see how the academic side relates to the career side,” Fuzie said. “But with guided pathways it’s an intentional pairing of the academic work with what the career is going to entail.” 

That makes it easier for students who are uncertain what specific career they want to pursue, but do know an area of general interest to them, such as health care or business. 

Two male students talk to man sitting at table
ABOVE: Students talk to a recruiter from Washington State University about transfer opportunities during a Coffee With Navigators event. The events are designed to help connect students with resources that will help them be successful during their time at YVC and beyond. TOP: Guided Pathways Director Mark Fuzie, center, talks to a student during Advising Day on February 6, 2024.

Perhaps equally important as the organization of degrees and certificates into a handful of academic/career pathways is YVC’s implementation of mandatory advising.  

“It’s one of those things that students don’t always realize that they need, but we’ve seen over the years that students complete and achieve their dreams at a higher rate if they meet with an advisor regularly,” said Fuzie.  

Since full implementation of the pathways model at YVC in 2015, several key indicators for student success have seen significant improvement. Among them: 

  • The percentage of students earning 30 college-level credits in their first year at YVC has increased from 38% to 53%.  
  • The percentage of students completing math requirements within two years of enrolling at YVC has increased from 31% to 45% and the percentage completing English requirements with two years of enrolling has increased from 54% to 66%.  
  • More students are successfully completing their certificate or degree within three years of enrollment, with the graduation rate rising from 28% to 38%.  

Moreover, YVC’s post-Guided Pathways marks for all of these indicators are higher than the state average.  

Female instructor talks to female student for academic advising
Communications Studies Instructor Laura Yolo, center, talks to a student during Advising Day on the Grandview Campus in February 2024.

Finding the right path

Montoya-Roman has served as a pathway navigator at YVC since 2019. Like many of the students she supports, Montoya-Roman was a non-traditional college student and experienced struggles that threatened to derail her education.  

“We take a look at students holistically and we try to meet them where they’re at,” she said. “We ask them about what career or field they’re interested in to help pinpoint which pathway is best for them. We also ask them questions about what does their time outside of school look like; do they have time to dedicate to being full-time or should we look at enrolling part-time.” 

She also helps students balance the need to get into the workforce quickly so they can start earning a paycheck versus their longer-term goals and the educational pathways that will prepare them for better-paying, more fulfilling career opportunities. 

Montoya-Roman says that the pathways model is helpful in allowing students explore their interests by taking introductory classes in different fields without getting stuck in a certain track. 

“I let them know like that as long as you’re furthering your education and you’re gaining those skills, for example you’re learning how to communicate well, those are all assets that companies here in the valley are looking for,” she said.

Having the right advisor, it just clears everything. It’s like, ‘Hey, here’s this road, I’m going to help you be successful, let’s go together’.” — Abraham Guzman, YVC accounting student

Inescapable engagement 

But the role of pathway navigators and advisors goes beyond helping students plan their class schedules each quarter says Fuzie. They also help connect students with college resources that support their success and help navigate the college landscape. 

“Higher education can be complicated, so we’ve increased the available touch points for students,” said Fuzie. “Our pathway navigators are specifically meant to help students navigate all of the various systems we have.” 

It’s a concept Fuzie and the college’s pathway navigators like to call “inescapable engagement,” and term they picked up from one of YVC’s Guided Pathways coaches, Christina Castorena. 

“We’ve changed our concept from a passive, ‘We’re here, come to us if you need it’ mindset, to a more interactive and proactive method for reaching out to students,” he said.  

Guzman said he appreciated that approach.  

“Brenda, she would actually be proactive in reaching out to me like ‘Hey I know your classes are coming up, this is what you need to sign up for’,” Guzman said. “She would keep me responsible and on track to make sure that I’m getting what I need to get done, done.” 

The college’s pathway navigators are always on the lookout for additional opportunities to engage with students. In Fall 2023, they launched their newest effort with the Coffee with Navigators series.  

Once or twice a month, navigators set up shop in Hopf Union Building on the Yakima Campus and the Student Activity Center on the Grandview Campus to connect with students — with coffee and a donut or some other snack as a hook. 

“It gives us a time to discuss important topics with students, such as how to find your advisor or applying for graduation or our YVC Foundation Scholarships,” Montoya-Roman said. “We try to center them around information that students need to know to be successful here and all of those ideas have come from our students.” 

College staff member talks to two students
Bertha Gonzalez, one of YVC's Pathway Navigators, talks to students during a Coffee With Navigators event on the Yakima Campus.

Coffee with Navigators events typically draw 50 to 70 students in Grandview and more than 100 in Yakima. While many interactions are with students just passing by, a number of students make it a point to come and talk with the navigators. 

“We’ve built a lot of relationships with students through our events and repeat students who say, ‘Hey, you helped me last time, I know you’re going to help me again’,” Montoya-Roman said. “So, they come back for whatever they are needing at the time.  

“It’s also really a credit to our students that when we meet with them and we’re able to build a relationship with them that they feel comfortable in telling us what their needs are so we can then project that out a little bit louder to help other students,” she said.  

As Guzman prepares to continue on to a four-year school to earn his bachelor’s in accounting, encourages other students to build relationships with a pathway navigator from the start of their time at YVC. 

“Navigators can pretty much be the cornerstone to your success at YVC, they make a world of difference and without Brenda, honestly, I truthfully don’t know if I would have been as successful,” Guzman says. “Having the right advisor, it just clears everything. It’s like, ‘Hey, here’s this road, I’m going to help you be successful, let’s go together’.” 

Story by Dustin Wunderlich, director of community relations. Photos by Wunderlich and Stefanie Menard, communications consultant.