Public gets first look at San Juan College's new student housing facility

Nizhoni Sunrise Suites feature lots of amenities, plenty of artwork

Mike Easterling
Farmington Daily Times
A crowd gathers outside the Nizhoni Sunrise Suites on the San Juan College campus Aug. 12 for a dedication and ribbon-cutting ceremony.
  • The facility features three stories, 150 beds and more than 37,000 square feet.
  • The opening of the building marks the first time students have lived on the campus.
  • College officials expect the opening of the facility to change the atmosphere on the campus.

FARMINGTON — San Juan College officials marked the beginning of a new era in the school's history on Aug. 12 when they celebrated the opening of the institution's first student housing facility.

The 150-bed, three-story, 37,552-square-foot project, named the Nizhoni Sunrise Suites, is much more than a standard college dormitory, school officials say. They point to the project's amenities, such as an enormous entry hall known as the Great Room that features a gas fireplace; a pergola-covered patio with a gas grill; commons areas on each floor with cable TV and couches; a communal kitchen; spacious, airy suites that come in four-, two- or one-bedroom units; and an abundance of contemporary art created by the college's faculty members and students.

San Juan College President Toni Hopper Pendergrass said the quality of the new facility — which means students will be living on the campus for the first time — illustrates her institution's long commitment to what she called a "best in class" level.

San Juan College Vice President Ed DesPlas points out some of the features of the rooms in the school's new Nizhoni Sunrise Suites before a dedication and ribbon-cutting ceremony on Aug. 12 on the college campus in Farmington.

"Dr. (James) Henderson set the standard during his tenure and made sure everything on our campus is high quality," she said, referring to the college's president from 1982 to 2002 who died in 2020. "We have always pushed to build all of our facilities to be state-of-the-art."

Ed DesPlas, the college's executive vice president, said college officials always have understood the importance of building a student housing facility that was more than a bare-bones structure.

"As hard as it is for me to say this, colleges and universities are competing against each other for students," he said. "Colleges and universities that have the old-style dorms have real moneymakers in those facilities, but a lot of students don't feel comfortable there. They're a place to sleep, and that's about it."

Hundreds of guests gather in the Great Room of the Nizhoni Sunrise Suites on the San Juan College campus in Farmington on Aug. 12 for a dedication and ribbon-cutting ceremony for the new student housing facility.

DesPlas said San Juan College officials were intent on providing their students with much more than that — a well-appointed, spacious, secure place to live that would show students the kind of standard of living they could expect to enjoy as professionals if they stay the course and earn a degree.

"So many of our students have had so many things, so many obstacles to the good things in their life," DesPlas said. "We want to make that easier for them, something that ensures their success."

He cited a conversation he and Pendergrass had with a veteran college professor who told them, "Environment affects behavior."

"The worse beginnings these students have had, the more important it is to keep this facility pristine," DesPlas said, capsulizing that conversation. "It's important that these kids see what the rest of the world sees."

Two paintings by artist VonJon created on automobile hoods hang on the wall of the Great Room of the Nizhoni Sunrise Suites on Aug. 12 on the San Juan College campus in Farmington.

In addition to the various amenities the facility offers, one of the first things a visitor notices is the enormous investment in art college officials made in finishing the building. Almost everywhere you look, there are large murals, framed paintings or Navajo weavings, or ceramic or metal sculptures — nearly all of them crafted by San Juan College faculty members or students, as Pendergrass proudly noted.

"Well, it was very important to us," she said, describing the decision to spend so much money on art for the building. "Throughout our entire campus, we have a tremendous art collection. … We wanted to continue that throughout our student suites."

All that artwork helps set the tone college officials hope to convey, she said.

Artist Don Ellis' "The Storm Is Coming" hangs on the wall of the patio at the Nizhoni Sunrise Suites on Aug. 12 on the San Juan College campus in Farmington.

"We want (students) to walk in and be amazed at what they see and know they deserve this," she said.

While a few beds remained available on Aug. 12 when the building's opening was celebrated, Pendergrass said she was confident the building would be full or nearly full within a few weeks.

DesPlas said if the school can reach and maintain that level of occupancy, it will open the door to the construction of more student housing down the road.

San Juan College President Toni Hopper Pendergrass introduces guests during a dedication and ribbon-cutting ceremony for the Nizhoni Sunrise Suites Aug. 12 on the San Juan College campus in Farmington.

"If we can hit 100% or close to 100% in the first year and second year, we'll be looking at finding financing for phase two," he said. "It's not just this year we're planning for — it's the next several years."

Pendergrass and DesPlas both expect the presence of students on the campus on an around-the-clock basis will change the atmosphere at the college.

"It's now a community here," DesPlas said. "This is where people live. It's where they live, they work, they study — they might even love here. So, yeah, it's going to take on a different vibe. It's going to have a hum, a buzzing vibe that's not going to go dark at 10 p.m."

Mike Easterling can be reached at 505-564-4610 or Support local journalism with a digital subscription: