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Jodi Peterson | Oct 02, 2012 01:00 AM

Last Thursday evening, three members of the HCN crew stopped off in El Rito, N.M., an hour and a half north of Santa Fe, where we were headed for a Board of Directors meeting. There, in a hamlet of about 1,000, we strolled through a century-old campus and learned about a grand vision for education.

The town, one of the oldest Spanish settlements in the state, hosts the El Rito campus of Northern New Mexico College, a semicircle of handsome adobe buildings fronted by a park. 

El Rito campus


Originally a teacher training academy, it later served as a boarding school for students from neighboring villages. Since 2005, it's been part of the college, whose main campus is in Espanola. The El Rito campus offers classes in traditional crafts like tinsmithing, Navajo rug weaving, adobe construction and Spanish Colonial woodworking. It also has 45 guest rooms for retreats and conferences.

El Rito campus

Now, two ambitious academics, Melissa Velásquez and James Biggs, are dreaming some very big dreams for El Rito. Over lasagna in the beautifully-refurbished dining hall, James explained that the campus was ideally located (near the sites of several major wildfires) for a field research station for fire ecology and agroecology studies.

That seemed like a great idea, I thought -- and something that would take a fair amount of work and money to create. But it turned out that the research station would be just one small part of something much larger.

After dinner we strolled over to Cutting Hall, a huge, church-like auditorium with glowing hardwood floors, a lofty viga ceiling, and gorgeous Spanish Colonial woodwork crafted by students.

El Rito campus, Cutting Hall


There, NNMC's president, Nancy "Rusty" Barceló, told us how the campus will become the college's Innovation Center, with programs emphasizing "culturally relevant" practices that honor the traditions of this mostly Hispanic valley where many families have lived for 500 years.

Velásquez and Biggs shared more specifics about their vision for how the campus could become a center for innovation in science, technology and culture.

Besides just the field station, they want to build:

  • A Wildland Fire Training Center for federal and local firefighters
  • A Land Policy and Acequia Center to study land and water use and help acequia users and land-grant holders make management decisions
  • A Cultural Heritage, Sustainable Tourism, and Ecological Education Center, which would provide tourism education and training in ecotourism
  • A Hospitality and Culinary Education Center that would train students by having them operate those 45 guest rooms and the dining hall, which would then make money to help run the entire campus

And if all that weren't enough, they plan to eventually grow on-campus all of the food used in the dining hall. And all of the wool used in the weaving classes. Oh, and convert the entire place to run off the grid.

"It was meant to be a five year plan," said Biggs. "But we've gotten so much interest and energy behind it that it's becoming more like a one-year plan."

Besides making money from conferences, the Innovation Center would be funded through the state and through donors and grants.

It's a bold and beautiful dream. We'll be watching to see how it all unfolds over the next few years.

Who else do you know in the West who's got big ambitions and grand plans? Have you heard of other people planning to open schools, create new businesses, carry out big, innovative projects? Comment here, or drop a line to editor AT, and let us know.

Jodi Peterson is HCN's managing editor.

Photos by Jodi Peterson and Mike Maxwell.

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