President Hector Balderas' Student Leadership Initiative continues to make an impact
Students and graduates of Northern New Mexico College’s (NNMC) High School Equivalency Program (HEP) met face-to-face with Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, cabinet secretaries and other elected officials during Española Day at the Roundhouse Wednesday, March 15, 2022. The experience was part of President Hector Balderas’ Student Leadership Initiative, which he launched in February with NNMC’s Student Senate leaders.
"Our Student Leadership Initiative at Northern New Mexico College continues to enhance student civic engagement,” said President Balderas. "We trust and involve our students as real-world leaders to make an impact in our community."
The afternoon began with lunch with the president at Tomasita’s. Balderas then led the students on a tour of the New Mexico State Capitol and introduced them to several influential state leaders, including Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham, Senator Leo Jaramillo (D-District 5), New Mexico Higher Education Department Secretary Stephanie Rodriguez, Secretary of Transportation Ricky Serna and Deputy Secretary of Higher Education Patricia Trujillo. NNMC Board President Michael Martin, Regent Ruben Archuleta, Provost Ivan Lopez and HEP Director Jacob Pacheco joined the group.
“We coordinated this trip so our high school equivalency students could see the legislative process firsthand. In a sense, this was a civics lesson for our students who otherwise wouldn’t be exposed to this type of thing,” Pacheco said. “It was a great experience for them, just stepping foot in the state capitol and being able to visit that top floor where the governor’s offices are.”
For HEP student Mona Serna, the afternoon was transformative.
“Everyone was very open to speaking with us and encouraged us to continue our education. And coming from individuals that have these great positions in the Roundhouse, where laws are being made, meant a lot,” Serna said. “I felt supported, both by everyone there and by the college. It gave me the opportunity to explore different avenues as to where I may want to further my education.”
After the visit, Serna was motivated to explore further. That led her to Zoom a Rio Arriba County Commission meeting (where Sen. Jaramillo, whom she had met at the capitol, made an appearance) and she woke up the next morning thinking she might want to run for office someday. She attributes that to everything she heard at the Roundhouse, her job with Rio Arriba County’s diversion program and the “unlimited opportunities” she sees opening up when she earns her High School Equivalency credential.
“I have never thought about running for office, it was so far from my mind,” Serna said. “But then I woke up this morning and I was considering that for myself. I know it’s the trip and many things I’m involved in and being here at Northern. It’s all coming together and helping me to figure out where my destiny is and my passions to give different things a try.”
Several of the students were graduates of the HEP program who are now in college at Northern, including Mary Jane Romero, Adrian Juarez and Maya Medina. Romero was stunned to have a personal conversation with the governor.
“I was psyched that the governor took the time to talk to me,” Romero said. “She had things that she had to do, but she came up to me and started talking to me, asking who I was and saying it was great to see me there and wishing me the best. I just really respect her for that. She really showed an interest in me. Overall, it was just a great experience.”
Romero admitted that she had not been interested in how government works, but her meeting with the governor inspired her to become more involved. She also felt supported by the governor and encouraged to pursue her goals.
According to Pacheco, the interaction with Sec. Rodriguez was very impactful for the group.
“She let us know she’s the youngest higher education secretary in the nation. She stressed that she comes from humble beginnings, she’s Latina, she’s female,” Pacheco said. “I think that resonated with our group. It was a common theme from folks that talked to us that day. And I like that, because it’s important for our students to see representation, that people that look just like them and come from their communities are doing this hard work.”
For many of the students, like Juarez, it was their first time in the capitol.
“Our president mentioned that the Roundhouse buildings are built from all the people paying taxes. He said that it’s our building, the building for the people. It’s for the people to go and learn and see all the artwork that they have inside,” said Juarez, who was amazed by all the New Mexico art housed in the building.
The other thing that stopped Juarez in his tracks was a pass through one of the legislative chambers. As the group walked through, he had to stop and take it in.
“It inspired me to think that maybe one day we will take the positions of the people who are leading now, and what that might be like and what you could learn,” Juarez said. He realized how important staying in college might be to achieving that goal.
For Maya Medina, meeting the governor had a special connection. Her grandmother used to work with Gov. Lujan Grisham, so, “it was cool to meet her. When I told my grandmother, she has happy that I got to meet her.”
The visit to the Roundhouse also inspired Medina to be more civically active. She is just 17 years old, but she picked up a form to pre-register to vote in the next election.
Every aspect of the trip helped to boost the students’ confidence, from their interactions with governmental leaders to lunch with the president.
“The president engaged with our students and just talked with them. That’s a good experience for them, because they see him as a person now, and not just somebody in a high place in the college,” Pacheco said. “At that lunch, President Balderas really stressed to our students that the college is there to support them, and they should take advantage of all the services and opportunities the college provides.
“I think the takeaway from this trip for our students was realizing that these important folks who represent us look just like them, talk just like them and come from the communities that they’re from, so they can see that they have that potential as well. That’s what these folks really emphasized: I’m here, and you could be here too.”