How a CNM Geography Degree Empowered This Student to Map a New Future

For Olivia Blecha, the COVID-19 pandemic created both loss and opportunity
January 10, 2024

It started in February 2020 when Olivia Blecha— then an aspiring tattoo artist — learned her apprenticeship at a California tattoo shop had been canceled.

“I'd gotten everything packed up and was ready to go. Then the pandemic hit and tattoo artists were told we were no longer essential. That really gutted a lot of artists. It was really bad for my mental health — knowing that the thing I was so passionate about wasn't essential,” she says.

Olivia had just moved in with her long-time partner — who’s now her wife and co-parent — and she began to rethink her career path.

“I wanted a career that would be considered essential. In my love of art, I have this driving force of loving maps. Maps are kind of my reason. So I thought, ‘Why don't I go back for a degree in geography and see where that takes me?,’” Olivia says.

Looking back, the pandemic lockdown turned out to be a blessing.

“When we were locked in our houses without a lot to do, it gave me the chance to evaluate what I wanted to do long term and going back to CNM gave me that sense of direction,” she says.

Olivia had first attended CNM at 16 to get her GED. Back then she struggled to get her schoolwork done, but this time around it was different.

“Returning to CNM was a solution for me. I had a goal I could work towards obtaining. So I really gave school my all and it was so different from my previous experience as a 16-year-old,” she says. “Suddenly I was getting really good grades, I was really passionate about it and I had a major driving force.”

Over the course of one busy year, Olivia was able to earn her associate’s degree in Geography.

“I ended up finishing my degree the same year I had my first son. So I was going to school at CNM full time as a new mom, and it was great. I felt really supported. It was a wonderful experience overall,” she says.

With an associate’s degree in hand, Olivia was “pretty much instantaneously hired by a tech company.” In her position as a Data Visualization Developer and Client Liaison at Silent Falcon UAS Technologies — a company that uses remote sensing to do AI analysis and reports on airport infrastructure —Olivia takes complex data and makes it digestible for all audiences.

“Essentially, we do price forecasting for pavement repair by looking at 100 percent of the data. Airports are typically only given a 10 percent sampling, which makes a big difference in forecasting repair costs,” she says. “At the end of the day, I want to make it so an airport manager who's never seen complex software or AI programs can read it just as well as a civil engineer who just graduated with a PhD. I get to take complex data and tell stories with it.”

The next step in Olivia’s educational path is more upskilling. She’s starting with online course work in New Mexico State’s Global Campus Geomatics program, and then plans to earn a bachelor’s degree in this rapidly evolving engineering discipline.

Learn more about CNM’s Geography program.