New Mexico Rep. Teresa Leger Fernández lauds San Juan College during visit to Farmington

Teresa Leger Fernández says college takes big-picture approach with its students

Mike Easterling
Farmington Daily Times
  • Leger Fernández spent close to two hours with college officials on May 5 touring campus facilities.
  • She also visited several other sites in the area, including NAPI, downtown Farmington and Shiprock.
  • Leger Fernández highlighted her work over the years to bring broadband Internet service to rural areas.

FARMINGTON — Teresa Leger Fernández, northern New Mexico's representative in the U.S. House, got a long look at some of the facilities that were financed by the federal funding she has helped secure for San Juan College during a tour of the school's campus on May 5, leading her to single out the institution for the job it does responding to the needs of its students.

"I always knew you guys were impressive," Leger Fernández said after her tour while enjoying refreshments with members of the college's leadership team, including President Toni Hopper Pendergrass and Executive Vice President Ed DesPlas. "But I didn't know how impressive."

Leger Fernández described the institution as a community college that truly understands the needs and identity of its community, and one that has responded to those challenges by being very forward looking.

U.S. Rep. Teresa Leger Fernandez, left, San Juan College School of Energy Dean Alicia Corbell and San Juan College President Toni Hopper Pendergrass converse during a tour by Fernandez on May 5 of the college campus in Farmington.

"They see the student not just as somebody who shows up for class, but as a whole human being," she said, adding that San Juan College is providing those students with the base skills they will need to move from job to job over the course of their lifetime.

Leger Fernández spent close to two hours with college officials touring the Health and Human Performance Center, the under-construction student housing facility and the School of Energy. During the tour of the Health and Human Performance Center, she referred to a behavioral health bill she has sponsored in Congress and noted the importance of making such services available to young people.

"College is a place where (behavioral health issues) begin to manifest, but it's also a place where you can begin intervening," she said.

U.S. Rep. Teresa Leger Fernandez speaks with San Juan College Vice President Ed DesPlas on May 5 during a tour of the college's new student housing facility in Farmington.

As she walked from room with room with Pendergrass and DesPlas, she asked how the college's enrollment has rebounded since the COVID-19 pandemic.

"People are coming back slower than we anticipated," DesPlas said, explaining that while the school is offering its full complement of in-person classes, many students continue to opt for online classes.

Pendergrass said the number of students at the college is up 5% this spring, but the number of credit hours they are taking is flat.

When Leger Fernández asked how federal American Rescue Plan funding was used at the college, Pendergrass said, "It made a huge difference. … We didn't give it out all at one time. We kind of spread it out over the course of the pandemic."

U.S. Rep. Teresa Leger Fernandez, left, and San Juan College President Toni Hopper Pendergrass check out one of the kitchens in the new student housing facility being built on the college campus in Farmington on May 5.

Pendergrass said college officials made sure to funnel most of the federal aid directly to students through technology that would help them maintain their studies. That took the form of providing them with laptop computers and mobile hotspot devices, she said.

The tour also extended to the school's new student housing facility that is due to open in time for the fall semester and the School of Energy, where Leger Fernández's party was greeted by the school's dean, Alicia Corbell.

Leger Fernández was spending much of this week touring the 3rd Congressional District that she represents in Congress, a district that she noted covers an area the size of Pennsylvania. She began by visiting her hometown of Las Vegas, New Mexico, where two large wildfires continue to burn out of control nearby.

A group that includes U.S. Rep. Teresa Leger Fernandez, members of her staff and members of the San Juan College administration gather outside the new student housing facility being built on the college campus in Farmington on May 5.

As she moved to the northwest, the congresswoman's agenda also included visits to Gallup, Navajo Agricultural Products Industry headquarters south of Farmington, downtown Farmington, the Boys & Girls Clubs of Farmington, Shiprock and the Navajo Nation capital of Window Rock, Arizona.

During an interview with The Daily Times after her tour, Leger Fernández discussed how efforts to combat the fires burning near Las Vegas have been aided by funding for such endeavors that was included in the large infrastructure package passed by Congress earlier this year. She said billions of dollars in federal funding has been made available not just to battle such blazes, but to address their impact on communities after they have been extinguished.

"We are looking at trying to address the health of the forest," she said. "But you must do it in a way to partner with the community around you."

San Juan College President Toni Hopper Pendergrass, left, and U.S. Rep. Teresa Leger Fernandez talk about the impact the COVID-19 pandemic had on the school during a visit to the college's Health and Human Performance Center in Farmington on May 5.

Leger Fernández described herself as a 17th generation New Mexican and had earlier referred to how the fires near Las Vegas were destroying areas that had left her with many strong memories, including the forest and streams that were her playground as a child.

She described the infrastructure bill as a historic piece of legislation that finally had broken a decades-long logjam in efforts to provide funding not just for roads and bridges but other projects that are just as important to the nation's economic and physical health.

"Infrastructure isn't just roads, it's also forests," she said. "They provide us with clean water, recreation and fuel. … I'm impressed with the way the college addresses what infrastructure actually is."

San Juan College School of Energy Dean Alicia Corbell, left, and U.S. Rep. Teresa Leger Fernandez walk through the lobby of the school on May 5 as the congresswoman got a tour of the college campus in Farmington.

Leger Fernández said the measure also will boost long-overdue efforts to bring broadband Internet service to rural areas across the nation, including northwest New Mexico. Earlier in her tour, the congresswoman said a major change in broadband availability is coming.

"I think two years from now, we're going to be talking about a different situation as far as how people are connected," she said.

The congresswoman said increasing the availability of rural broadband was something she worked on even before she was elected to Congress. She said the difference now is that federal and state governments are finally providing the funding necessary to bring the service to those more-remote areas, many of which include Native communities.

"My district is 20% Native American," she said. "I've worked with the Jicarilla Apaches for a long time, some of the pueblos for 30 years. I know broadband doesn't exist there."

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.