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YUMA, Ariz. -- When Arizona Western College President Glenn Mayle asked a room full of people, who among them had either taken a class from or graduated from either AWC or Northern Arizona University - Yuma, about half of those in attendance stood to their feet.

Joel Olea, director of Public Works for the city of Yuma, was one of those people that utilized the education pipeline that exits at the community college and university level in Yuma. He received an associate degree at AWC, a bachelor's degree in Arts and Liberal Studies from NAU-Yuma as well as a graduate certificate from NAU in Public Management, and also a master's degree in Administration from NAU in 2009.

Olea shared at a celebration event recently that this partnership allowed for him to receive his education while simultaneously working to support his family. During this time he also moved up the business ladder from a construction laborer to a supervisor to a manager to a director.

``None of this would have been possible for me if I didn't have the ability to attend college here locally,'' he said.

Not only that, Olea added, his education has allowed him to make a difference in the community that he grew up in.

``Just recently we were able to start a Curbside Recycling Program here in the city of Yuma,'' he said. ``It's an idea that originated from the Honors students here at AWC.''

Northern Arizona University first established a campus in Yuma in 1988 as a way to provide Arizona Western College students with an easier path to attain a bachelor's degree.

After years of an informal partnership, NAU signed a formal partnership agreement with AWC in 2000 as a way to offer a seamless pathway for students to have a four-year college experience.

The idea, as then AWC president Jim Carruthers told the NAU president at the time, "it's time we stop dating and get married already.''

Now, NAU-Yuma has seen more than 4,700 graduates receive their degrees from Southwest Arizona's only residential Baccalaureate institution in the past 25 years.

AWC, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, and NAU rededicated that agreement at a celebration event Tuesday to further emphasize to the community their commitment of working together to benefit Yuma and La Paz counties.

Larry Gould, NAU-Yuma's associate vice president and campus executive officer, shared that AWC and NAU's partnership is the envy of the state, noting that 24th Street near the college provides educational opportunities from elementary students through the university level with campuses like Desert Mesa Elementary School, Otondo Elementary School, Castle Dome Middle School and Gila Ridge High School, all within walking distance.

NAU president John Haeger shared that often times in higher education, and especially 25 years ago, institutions didn't generally work well together.

Now, he said, ``I do think we're in a different place in terms of universities and community colleges because we have the same goal in mind - we want more and more citizens with higher education degrees. We want them in their communities. The reason this partnership has been always so successful, it tends to be true that where you are educated, very often you will stay in the community and contribute positively to the economic development there.''

With the national student debt problem, Haeger continued, education choices are vital for students, not all of whom can afford four years at a private or public university.

``We really have become true partners, we're not competitors,'' he said about AWC and NAU. ``We have to take a look at what's in the best interest of the student - not the institution - but the best interest of the student - and that's what this partnership is.''

Associated Press,

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