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Evaluation, research program taking off at NMSU and beyond


The Southwest Outreach Academic Research (SOAR) Evaluation & Policy Center at New Mexico State University “is a perfect example of an entrepreneurial venture,” said Las Cruces Public Schools Superintendent Karen Trujillo, Ph.D.

“There was a need for a culturally responsive, comprehensive program evaluation in education programs, and the NMSU Alliance for Teaching and Learning provided the funding and structure to make the SOAR lab a reality,” Trujillo said. “I am very proud of the work I did to get started and Rachel [Boren] and her team have continued to increase their capacity. The fact that it is still in existence five years later is exciting."

Since SOAR began in 2015, it continues to evaluate NMSU programs in a number of departments, and it has expanded its outreach to include community programs that aren’t directly affiliated with the university.

“Our goal is to really help principal investigators inside NMSU or directors out of NMSU, or other nonprofits that need help,” SOAR Director Boren, Ph.D., said.

That help could be evaluating an NMSU research grant, conducting a detailed survey to help the new Doña Ana County behavioral health collaborative define the local need for services or working with The Bridge of Southern New Mexico or the Asombro Institute.

Boren said she enjoys the challenges and opportunities of working on a variety of projects “in all these different areas of social sciences and education.” In each case, it is up to Boren, SOAR Senior Program Specialist Germain Degardin and the doctoral students who assist them to find the best way to measure each organization’s goals and outcomes.

“No two projects are identical,” Boren said. “Their approach is never going to be exactly the same, and the outcomes are different.”  

Many NMSU faculty are involved in grant work, she said. They are seeking program evaluations for grant-funded research projects with the hope of obtaining an R1 “very high research” rating.

The Las Cruces-based LC3 behavioral health collaborative, on the other hand, wanted to know to better understand the gaps in local behavioral health services and how it can best serve the community.

It’s also a great opportunity for the four doctoral students who are working with Boren and Degardin “to learn about research methods and program evaluations in a real setting with real clients and real projects,” Boren said.

“Local data is the pathway to understanding the barriers we need to address in behavioral health in our community to transform a system that works for all of us, and we were happy to partner with Dr. Boren and her team at NMSU SOAR,” said LC3 Collaborative Coordinator Rose Ann Vasquez. “The community-needs assessment will inform our next step of developing new services to meet those needs, reduce stigma and increase access to behavioral health."

“The NMSU SOAR lab has been our evaluation partner on a new model for the senior year and for dual credit in New Mexico,” said The Bridge of Southern New Mexico President and CEO Tracey Bryan. “The Gadsden [school] district, Doña Ana Community College and The Bridge of Southern New Mexico partnered to launch a “blended senior year” for a group of students in Santa Teresa High School who would combine their senior year of high school with their freshman year of college.

“Thanks to Rachel Boren and the work of the SOAR Lab, we were able to track the experience and outcomes of 34 students of the school and college instructors and gain valuable information about what works well, what were the obstacles and if the model is working for students,” Bryan said. “The first-year report confirmed that almost all students succeeded in either achieving or moving toward their college credentials, maintained strong GPAs and reduced any concerns students may have had about pursuing a college degree.”

Boren said that while COVID-19 has impacted some of the projects she has worked with, work is still coming SOAR’s way despite the pandemic.

“A lot of what we were doing was already online,” she said. “People are trying to find new ways to transfer what was happening from in-person to online. Data entry, surveys, online focus groups – we’re seeing that people can participate in data collection … from all over the state, whereas before that may not have been the case. And, when the pandemic is over, Boren said, some of the online work they are perfecting will no doubt continue.

“It’s just exciting for us just to get to learn from these different experts who are so passionate about what they do,” Boren said. She grew up in North Carolina and on the East Coast and has lived in New Mexico since 2017.

“For me, constantly learning about our state and all these groups around the state, it’s exciting,” Boren said.

Contact Boren at 575-646-6477 or rboren@nmsu.edu. Visit https://alliance.nmsu.edu/soar/.