ESPAÑOLA — Twenty years after earning her associate degree from Northern New Mexico College (NNMC) in May 2003, Board of Regents Vice President Erica Rita Velarde, PE, presented her daughter Devina Gonzales with her Associate of Arts in Liberal Arts degree at Northern’s Spring 2023 Commencement Ceremony Saturday, May 13. They are the first two women in their family to earn a college degree.
“I’m so blessed to be able to give Devina her degree. That’s like the coolest memory,” Velarde said.
Velarde/s role as regent was an influence on Gonzales’ choice of Northern.
“I would hear her talking to the president and think, ‘This is really cool,’” Gonzales said.
Gonzales was also drawn to Northern’s Cannabis & Hemp Enterprises courses, which were so important to her that she took 18 credits her first two semesters so she could take those classes immediately, rather than waiting until she had completed her basics.
“A lot of people see it as a drug, and they think of it so negatively. But it’s something that’s medicinal, and it helps in so many different ways,” Gonzales said. “I’ve seen what a difference it can make. It’s such a great medicine that I really want to be part of it.”
Velarde enrolled at Northern in 2001, when it was still a community college. Since she loved math, she decided to pursue an associate degree in accounting. But one semester made her realize, “This is not the math I love. Wrong math,” and switched to business administration.
During her final semester she took an astronomy class with Dr. Ajit Hira (now retired). Dr. Hira changed her life when he drew her aside and asked what her plans were for the future. She told him she planned to continue her education at the University of New Mexico (UNM) but had not decided on a major, having realized she did not really care for business. When asked what she did like, she replied, “Math, but not accounting.” He asked if she had ever considered engineering.
“Being a first-generation college student from Santa Fe, and growing up with my grandparents, I didn’t know what an engineer was,” Velarde said. “So I looked at him with the most genuine face and said, ‘I really don’t think I want to drive a train.’”
Dr. Hira explained that there were many types of engineers and suggested she research a few then come back and discuss it with him. She followed his advice and realized she might like mechanical engineering.
“Since I was a kid, I liked to take all my things apart, and if something mechanical broke I’d fix it,” Velarde said.
Velarde graduated with an Associate of Business Administration in May 2003. She stayed at Northern another year to complete her engineering prerequisites, then applied and was accepted to UNM’s School of Engineering in 2005. She graduated with a Bachelor of Science in Mechanical Engineering in December 2007 and passed the exam for her Professional Engineer license. Now she jokes about being a Comprehensive Solutions Account Executive for Trane.
“I didn’t want to drive a train and now I’m driving a Trane,” Velarde said. “You can’t make that up. It comes full circle sometimes.”
Velarde’s oldest daughter, Arianna Gonzales, was six months old when she started at Northern, and was the driving force for her decision to go to college. Devina was born three months before she graduated and attended Velarde’s Commencement ceremony as an infant. Her daughters were able to see her as a student, including working on projects with her study group on the weekends.
Velarde has used her experience as a first-generation graduate to help Devina through her college challenges, sometimes serving as a personal tutor, or directing Devina to the right people to help her with technical issues and sometimes just providing perspective.
“She reminded me that she was frustrated in a class and wanted to drop it, but I was able to help her realize it wasn’t that bad and she could persevere,” Velarde said.
Gonzales is now passing it forward to her younger cousins.
“Everyone’s super proud of me, so it’s a really big accomplishment,” Gonzales said. “I have a lot of younger cousins who are graduating high school now, and they don’t know if they want to go to college. All my aunties say, you’re the second woman in our family to graduate. Just go talk to them. So I try to encourage them to go to college. I tell them, ‘It’s worth it. It’s fun.’” One cousin she encouraged has started online courses through Santa Fe Community College.
Like her mother, Devina is continuing her education at UNM, but she will be pursuing a degree in either botany or horticulture, a choice that amuses her mother.
“I’d make the girls work with me in the garden. They’d help me plant it. We’d pull weeds,” Velarde said. “And she used to hate to help me in my garden. But now she wants to go into botany. So it’s really funny. You plant seeds and you never know when they’ll grow.”
Devina’s goal is to work in a cannabis grow house and perhaps own one herself someday.
Both women treasure their experiences at Northern. Gonzales talks about the support she found, especially from her advisor Lori Franklin, Chair of the Language & Letters Department. Velarde credits Northern with helping her end an abusive relationship.
“I was able to leave that relationship because I could see a future for myself, because I was creating it by going to school,” Velarde said. “Northern is the most amazing gem. You want to talk about a diamond in the rough, that is Northern. It saved my life. It guided my life. It made me who I am today. If it hadn’t been for Northern, I don’t know where I’d be. I don’t know if I’d have been a single mom on welfare because I didn’t have that guidance. But Northern and their professors and their instructors, they love and care so deeply. It’s more than a school to me. It truly is beautiful that we can touch people’s lives and change them and make people feel like they don’t just belong, but they can thrive and they can make a difference.
Arianna will also be following in her mother’s footsteps. She is the mother of a 2-year-old boy and 1-year-old girl and has just registered to start at NNMC in the fall. She plans to major in teacher education. Her goal is to become a high school teacher.
Northern New Mexico College has served the rural communities of Northern New Mexico for over a century. Since opening in 1909 as the Spanish American Normal School in El Rito, NM, the College has provided affordable access to quality academic programs that meet the changing educational, economic and cultural needs of the region.
Northern is an open-admissions institution offering the most affordable bachelor’s programs in the Southwest. Now one of the state’s four regional comprehensive institutions, with its main campus in Española, Northern offers more than 50 bachelor’s, associate, and certificate programs in arts & human sciences, film & digital media, STEM programs, business, education, liberal arts, and nursing. The College has reintroduced technical trades in partnership with two local unions and five public school districts through its new co-located Branch Community College, the first of its kind in the state’s history. Northern is accredited by the Higher Learning Commission (HLC) and has earned prestigious program specific accreditations for its engineering, nursing, education, and business programs. Learn more at https://nnmc.edu/.