“Education is the one thing that can’t be taken from you…”A Fireside Chat with Third Sector Client Dr. Cynthia Armendariz, Managing Director of the Colorado Opportunity Scholarship Initiative

Third Sector values deep and authentic relationships - amongst our staff as well as with our partners and clients. We had an opportunity to reflect on these relationships during our Spring 2023 Retreat where we focused as a team on “Why we do the work.” It was a privilege to welcome our long-time client, Dr. Cynthia Armendariz, Managing Director of the Colorado Opportunity Scholarship Initiative, to the retreat for a conversation with Alysha Alani, our Director, Economic Mobility, about her expertise in the college access and success field and her experience working with Third Sector over the last five years. We’ve captured some key insights from this “Fireside Chat” with Dr. Armendariz below.

1. “Our Spring Retreat theme is finding our ‘why.’ What’s your personal ‘why’ for pursuing college access & success work professionally?"

The student! I see myself reflected in them, and we've often experienced the same challenges and barriers to education. When I was a senior exploring my next steps, I knew I wanted to attend college, but I had no idea how to get there. Instead of receiving support from the school counselor, I was told I should only focus on community colleges because I wasn't good enough for UNC (the school I dreamed of attending). I wasn't an A+ student, but I always worked hard, and I didn’t understand what made me not good enough to pursue my goals. I figured it all out on my own, and I was accepted to UNC on conditional admissions. But hey, I was still in! I always wondered how many others he discouraged and who didn’t venture on their own. I want to ensure all students/learners and their families have the information and support to pursue their goals. My dad has always told us that education is the one thing that can't be taken from you, and it opens doors and opportunities.

2. Can you share any stories about the experiences or outcomes of COSI scholars and people who have benefited from COSI?

Around 59-64% of [the] students we support are students of color. Over 16,000 postsecondary credentials have been completed by students supported through COSI. We've seen success with COSI Scholars persist[ing] at a rate of 17-27% higher than their peers and 88-90% from the first to second year, depending on the program. A significant benefit of the program is the financial support; COSI scholars have up to $4,277 less debt per year than their peers. 

 3. We often say at Third Sector that systems change work is hard and slow. It's incremental. What keeps you motivated during those particularly slow and challenging moments?

I love hearing student stories about the support that COSI has provided. The end goal for COSI is credential completion by providing individuals with the support and resources to reach their educational goals.

We have a grantee that needs to spend [Matching Student Scholarship (MSS)] funds by May, and they are working with a local community college to disburse funds to students who have balance due holds. They have identified 231 students and will use about $100k to pay off/down the balances so that students can register for summer/fall. I put myself in the student's shoes and think how amazing it would be to one day have a balance of $400 and the next day, $0. It could be very impactful and allow a student to continue forward on their educational journey.

4. Why did you choose to partner with Third Sector back in 2019 and/or for the newest engagement in 2022?

One thing I've appreciated is the relationship we've been able to build over time, which has led to some open and honest conversations. For example, your team shared some really valuable, constructive feedback as we wrapped up our latest engagement, the program review & redesign, which gave us good food for thought as we scope future work. Feedback is important in our organizational culture - we often call it a gift. It was evident that the team was experienced and had done the necessary research to come prepared, showing that you respect us as an organization and are committed to the work, which is key in a consulting relationship. 

In addition to feedback, we benefited from in-person opportunities to meet, especially at the beginning, to establish relationships and set things up. We really appreciated the way the Third Sector team prioritized “social” time as a part of the process, whether that be through ice breakers or connecting over non-work related conversations, and this allowed us to have a more authentic connection between our teams, which positively influenced the work. Relationship-building was also beneficial when it came time for the next phase of work, as we already had the team as trusted partners who understood our program and could ask the right questions. [The continuity of working with] Alysha…was great for us. Since she understood COSI so well, I believe she was able to support the TS team with questions/clarity on our program. You all developed a safe space and trust for us to work within. When I want you to push back and also listen to me repeat the same thing 500 times because I can't quite get it right in my head, my favorite is when Zach would say, “I think what I’m hearing is…”. Sometimes, I had no idea what I was trying to say, but I never felt uncomfortable; I felt like it was a safe space to talk it all out. 

Alysha Alani interviewing Dr. Cynthia Armendariz

Colorado’s Finish What You Started Pilot

In 2019, Third Sector launched the “Partnerships to Achieve Student Success Cohort,” to address this challenge, bringing together four state departments to rethink how funding can be used to provide wraparound support for adult learners and support them to and through their education. The Cohort members included state systems of higher education in Arizona, Colorado, Connecticut, and Ohio.

As a result of the cohort, the Colorado Department of Higher Education’s Colorado Opportunity Scholarship Initiative (COSI) worked with Third Sector for an additional 14 months to launch the Finish What You Started Adams County pilot. In partnership with One Million Degrees (OMD), the pilot provides social, financial, and career supports to help adult learners 25 and older with some college, no degree – particularly those identifying as Black/African American, Hispanic/Latino/a, and Native American – return to higher education and complete a degree or certificate. The pilot is designed as an outcomes-based contract for student support services between COSI and OMD, one of the first of its kind in the higher education space.

The Colorado Opportunity Scholarship Initiative (COSI) was founded in 2014 by then-Governor Hickenlooper with a mandate to increase the attainment of postsecondary credentials with a focus on underserved students in Colorado. Dr. Cynthia Armendariz brings 10+ years of experience in the higher education field serving traditional, non-traditional, and transfer students with a focus on access and student success to her role as Managing Director of COSI.

Learn more here: https://cdhe.colorado.gov/cosi-about-us