The girl’s still here.
After 25 years leading Valencia County’s institution of higher learning, Dr. Alice Letteney makes that statement with a hearty laugh.
Originally from Massachusetts, Letteney moved to Valencia County with her husband, Bob, in 1995 to become the chief executive officer for the The University of New Mexico-Valencia Campus.
“I’ve always thought of myself as a pretty independent person, and I really wanted to run my own show and be in charge of a campus,” Letteney said.
She now runs the show at UNM-Valencia as the school’s chancellor, a title changed made earlier this year.
The father of her husband, Bob, who died in 2013, was a mining engineer who lived all across the country with his family. One of those places was Santa Fe.
“My husband lived there as a child. He loved the mountains and loved the idea of coming to New Mexico,” she said.
When they relocated to the Land of Enchantment, Letteney said she didn’t join the state retirement system.
“I thought I’d be here five years, max,” she said with a chuckle. “I stayed partly because of my husband. Plus, I’ve had such a good (advisory) board; they’ve been so supportive. And the community clearly loves the college. So, 25 years later, the girl’s still here!”
When Letteney took the reins at UNM-Valencia, the branch campus had already transformed from an awkward collection of classrooms in a shopping center into a high-tech campus nestled at the edge of the llano in Tomé. That didn’t mean there weren’t things to add, programs to implement and improvements to be made under Letteney’s leadership.
Early on, the student community center was built, allowing graduation ceremonies to move inside and providing a multi-use space for community events, such as the annual Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Celebration.
“We also expanded our wellness center so we could have aerobics and dance classes,” she said. “We created space for our nursing program, which has been very important to the county.
“When I started here, people were very helpful. The community loved the idea of a development board, who we started that.”
The mission of the development board, which started in 1999, is to raise scholarship money and other funding to help support campus endeavors and promote excellence in higher education.
“The board started getting federal grants that would match money from the community,” she said. “We had local banks and bankers working with us in the early days and now, even with market ups and downs, we have about a $2 million endowment. That’s a lot for us. For a small community college, that’s a big thing to have; to have that continuing support for students from the private sector.”
An undergraduate research program, supported by grants, has been established at UNM-Valencia, a unique program for a two-year college.
“It gets students ready for lab protocols and in presenting their research in person,” Letteney said. “It’s extremely important for students who are moving on and want to be in science fields.”
The arts are also a focus for Letteney on campus, with time dedicated to bringing in cultural activities.
“We have a very active arts area that puts on a lot of shows,” she said. “When I first started, we had a little theater group that did performances at the end of the semester. We have to revive that a bit.
“I think part of what the college is is a cultural and intellectual center for the community and I’m very proud of that.”
Letteney has been an advocate of two-year, community colleges like UNM-Valencia for most of her career.
“Community colleges are important because not everyone has the money or the background and familiarity with higher education to go to Harvard,” she said.
The chancellor said community colleges offers an option for people to go to college close to home at very affordable rates, combined with availability of financial aid and small classes.
The hustle and bustle of a college campus with thousands students may sound exciting, but as a freshman, especially a first-generation college student, that might be overwhelming.
“I was first generation,” Letteney said. “As a freshman, I was there at a time when it must have had close to 20,000 students. Away from home, in a dorm, I had to learn everything.
“I remember I had a chemistry teacher who locked the door at 8 a.m., so if you weren’t there. Our staff and faculty here treat our students really well.”
She said she also felt community colleges are gateways not only to good jobs but higher and higher education.
“There’s just been a new study that said students who have some community college courses graduate with bachelors at higher rates,” Letteney said.
Letteney earned her bachelor’s degree from Reed College in Portland, Mass., and her master’s and Ph.D. from the University of Connecticut, and served as the president of the New Mexico Association of Community Colleges in 2000-01 and 2005-06.
Now able to lay claim to the honor of being the longest serving college president in the state among two-and four-year colleges, Letteney is looking to the future.
Personally, she plans to travel and see more of the world as she did with her husband, once the COVID-19 pandemic has passed and travel restrictions have been lifted.
Letteney said she would like to see the UNM-Valencia westside workforce center campus completed.
“The design details are being completed now. We do have some more approvals through main campus and the state higher education department so we’re hoping to have some kind of ribbon cutting toward the end of this year, beginning of next, so that’s exciting,” she said. “When that’s done,” Letteney paused then laughed. “… how old is old?”
Julia M. Dendinger began working at the VCNB in 2006. She covers Valencia County government, Belen Consolidated Schools and the village of Bosque Farms. She is a member of the Society of Professional Journalists Rio Grande chapter’s board of directors.