The El Rito Campus of Northern New Mexico College (NNMC) sits in the heart of El Norte – a place where the people and the land have been inseparable for centuries. And since 1909 when the Northern New Mexico Normal School started training Spanish-speaking teachers in the village of El Rio, this institution has tied its identity to the land.

What more perfect place could there be to meld landscape, culture and learning into the next generation of Northern New Mexico College students?

Already, students and researchers have responded to idea of studying right where theory can be put into practice by pushing enrollment to record levels at the 103-year-old campus. Some 500 visitors come for summer classes, workshops and conferences. The number of students in the El Rito-based Wildfire Sciences Academy rose from 12 attendees in fall 2011 to 80-90 in spring 2012. During the same period, the environmental sciences program, which includes labs and intensives at El Rito, jumped from 30 to 80 enrollees.

That’s why NNMC leadership at the main campus in Española has initiated development of the El Rito Innovation Center at Northern New Mexico College – a major step in creating an undergraduate research and experiential learning center.

“El Rito is a perfect place to establish an academic/vocational venue,” says campus director Melissa Velasquez. “It’ll be a place for research, training and dialogue, a place to extend cultural knowledge. And it’s the time to do this at El Rito.”

Already on the drawing board for the El Rito Innovation Center is the Agro-Ecology and Biological Research Station, with plans under way for a Cultural Heritage, Sustainable Tourism and Eco-Education Center, and a Land Policy and Acequia Center. Velasquez envisions the land policy center as a “demonstration facility where science principles and water policies can be discussed and debated.

“There’s a critical need for assisting people who have legal, acequia or water rights issues,” she says. “This could be a place where the parties in a lawsuit could sit down and discuss their issues.”

Renovations of the original campus buildings are ongoing, such as ADA-accessible improvements and upgrades, and interior remodeling. The former electric trade shop, located behind the administration building, is getting an overhaul so as to become the hub for the Innovation Center, and the high-powered telescope in the campus observatory is getting re-calibrated.

For many years, the campus has had a number of vocational programs tied to the Northern New Mexico culture, including Spanish Colonial Furniture, Fiber Arts Weaving and Dying Process, Adobe Construction, Tinsmithing, and Bulto and Retablo Making. So the idea of adapting education to the surrounding culture and landscape is well established at El Rito Campus.

Boosted by the deadly wildfires of the last decade in Northern New Mexico, the Wildfire Sciences Academy fits right into this format. Attendees come for classes that range from a half day to week in length, and many stay in the campus’ 45 dorm rooms. Courses can be taken back to back to make the stay in El Rito more efficient. The Academy offers 18 different courses – all the way to helicopter firefighting training. The El Rito Ranger District of Carson National Forest provides a natural classroom for firefighters and crew bosses to train, whether for a bachelor’s degree, associate’s degree or certification, or for keeping a certification current.

The Wildfire Sciences Academy is under the umbrella of Northern’s Environmental Sciences program, another fast-growing department. About a half-decade old, the program is adapting to meet the demands of the region’s students.

“The program is at a critical threshold,” says Assistant Professor James Biggs, who heads the Environmental Science program. “We’ve got a lot of students returning to change careers, so we are retooling for different career paths.”

That means a renewed focus on sustainable agriculture, resource science and management, and radiation science and technology – the latter linked to the presence of Los Alamos National Laboratories near Espanola – in four-year, two-year and certificate programs that reflect the changing job market in the region. Much of the on-the-ground lab work and on-site data gathering for environmental science students will take place at the El Rito Campus, again benefiting from the thousands of acres of rural agricultural and public lands that surround the campus.

Aside from the formal education offerings at the El Rito Campus, the facility also serves as a conference and events center. The campus is fully wireless, and has dormitories, commercial kitchen, banquet facilities and a lecture hall/auditorium to accommodate large gatherings.

For more information, go to nnmc.edu.

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