Higher ed leader praises San Juan College: It's the 'epitome' of innovation, collaboration

Stephanie Rodriguez says college is epitome of innovation, collaboration

Mike Easterling
Farmington Daily Times

FARMINGTON − Having served as New Mexico's secretary of higher education since 2020, Stephanie Rodriguez was no stranger to the programs and facilities at San Juan College even before she received an extensive tour of the campus on Aug. 2.

But seeing photos of those facilities is one thing, she said, and seeing them in person is another, especially when such a tour is accompanied by a detailed explanation of how the college is adapting its programs to meet the needs of San Juan County's transitioning economy.

"When you think about innovation and collaboration in higher education, I think San Juan College is the epitome of that," Rodriguez said after spending two hours strolling through various campus buildings and meeting with a series of deans.

Rodriguez was in Farmington Aug. 1-2 for hearings of the New Mexico Higher Education Capital Outlay Committee. Those meetings help state officials determine which higher education projects should be recommended for funding under the next round of legislative appropriations during the 2023 session and under severance tax bonding.

New Mexico Higher Education Secretary Stephanie Rodriguez checks out some of the tools at a bicycle repair station outside the new student housing center at San Juan College on Aug. 2 while Vice President of Student Services Boomer Appleman watches.

Those hearings are held in various locations around the state and are usually accompanied by a visit to a host institution − San Juan College, in this case. But those in-person hearings were not held for the past two years because of the COVID-19 pandemic, so this week's visit by Rodriguez provided her with a fresh look at what the college has to offer and how it has used the funding it has received in the past.

"It's critical to be on campus so you can see that firsthand to explain to the Legislature and the executive branch" if the funding has been used wisely, Rodriguez said.

In the case of San Juan College, Rodriguez seemed impressed with how the institution's leadership has managed that funding. She praised college President Toni Hopper Pendergrass and the school's other leaders for the way they have built relationships with business, government and tribal leaders throughout San Juan County to make the most of that money, adding that their ability to do that "is on a whole other level. That's where we want to put state dollars."

New Mexico Higher Education Secretary Stephanie Rodriguez and Ruben Johnson, dean of the San Juan College School of Trades and Technology, stroll through the school's diesel engine repair shop on Aug. 2.

Rodriguez's visit included stops at the college's new residential student housing center, its Trades and Technology Center, its Health Sciences Building, its School of Energy and its Health and Human Performance Center. She seemed especially taken with the visit to the new dormitory, remarking repeatedly on what a different residential experience the building offers students compared to her own experience at the University of New Mexico.

She also voiced approval of the sizable automotive and diesel repair shops in the Trades and Technology Center, wandering among the huge trucks in the latter and even finding herself drawn to a classic, tricked-out Chevrolet Monte Carlo in the former as Ruben Johnson, the dean of the center, accompanied her.

While much has been made in recent years about the amount of capital outlay funding that was appropriated to county or municipal governments around the state and never used, Rodriguez said her agency has been more accountable in that respect.

"Higher ed does a better job of spending that money in a timely manner," she said, explaining that competition for students is so fierce among colleges and universities these days that they are eager to get new projects built as quickly as possible.

Accompanied by San Juan College President Toni Hopper Pendergrass, right, and others, New Mexico Higher Education Secretary Stephanie Rodriguez, center, stands under a pergola on the courtyard of the college's new student housing facility on Aug. 2.

When delays in completing those projects do arise, she said, it almost always is because of labor and supply shortages that disproportionately affect institutions in smaller communities, she said.

"It's a little bit harder for them," Rodriguez said. "The bigger schools often have access to a larger workforce, so that makes it easier for them."

New Mexico Higher Education Secretary Stephanie Rodriguez photographs a mural painted on the wall of the Great Room in the new San Juan College student housing center on Aug. 2.

The secretary said her agency keeps careful tabs on the progress of such projects around the state and has initiated a notification process to alert college officials when they are falling behind. If an institution routinely experiences problems, she said, its leaders are notified that status could affect their request for funding for future projects.

"It's going to be a discussion point" at committee hearings, she said.

Rodriguez also noted the state's Opportunity Scholarship program − which allows New Mexico residents to receive 100% of the cost of their tuition and fees at the state's public colleges and universities − applies to those enrolled in certificate programs, not just associate or bachelor's degree programs. She believes San Juan College is well positioned to attract many of those students with its numerous certification programs that are helping to retrain many of the county's residents.

"We're happy to put that money into their higher education and help them get hired in high-paying jobs in New Mexico," she said.

Mike Easterling can be reached at 505-564-4610 or measterling@daily-times.com. Support local journalism with a digital subscription: http://bit.ly/2I6TU0e.