“A great loss in…education”

Copyright © 2022 Albuquerque Journal

Cody Rivera, a freshman at Highland University of New Mexico, didn’t take the Hermits Peak and Calf Canyon fires seriously at first.

On April 11, he and his cousin hiked the entirety of his family’s 100-acre ranch a few miles from the village of Pendaries, spotting the Hermits Peak Fire. Rivera said they couldn’t see it and concluded it wouldn’t reach their property. He returned home to Las Vegas, where he is studying business administration at Highlands.

But, about a week and a half later, the fires reached the property, engulfing most of it and leaving behind charred earth and skeletons of trees that he said stuck out of the ground “like toothpicks.” “.

“There is nothing up there anymore,” he told the Journal, except for about 15 trees that could survive. “Everything else was black and ashen and dead…looks like the moon.”

Not much remained of his family’s old ranch except for a crumpled corrugated iron roof, a brick chimney, and thick smoke-blackened adobe walls. Everything Rivera left there was lost, he said, including baby photos, as well as his high school cap and gown.

The image of the fire raging on his family’s ranch, as well as his evacuation from his Las Vegas home on May 2, distracted him as he finished his freshman year of college.

“It’s sad to say, but it was the last priority on my mind. I wasn’t worried about homework. I know the finals will be this week – I wasn’t even worried about that,” he said. “I was more concerned about the safety of my family and our property…. That was more the main focus for me.

mental impact

The NMHU, located in central Las Vegas, has urged its instructors to support their students in any way they need, said Denise Montoya, incident commander for the Highlands Emergency Operations Command team.

“There’s definitely an impact on the mental psyche of people going through this directly, and that worries us,” she said. “That’s why we try to do everything we can to help support our students and let them know that they are part of the Highlands family, and we are here to take care of them.”

Rivera said he took advantage of the grace his teachers gave him, choosing to accept some of their offers to submit his grades as they are instead of having to “worry about anything d ‘other”.

But a major concern lingering for some future NMHU graduates, student body president Karla Espinoza said, is that the on-campus commencement ceremony has been postponed. Montoya said the main reason for the postponement was the fires, and their unpredictability means the university has yet to set a new date for the start of the main campus.

(Luna Community College, also in Las Vegas, postponed its opening until July 30.)

For students who don’t want to wait, the NMHU has planned several alternatives, such as one held in Rio Rancho on Thursday and another in Farmington on Saturday.

But Espinoza said many graduates are still torn about not being able to “walk where all (their) tears were shed.”

“There’s this understanding of not being able to have it here, but there’s also, I think, a bit of anger and frustration,” she said.

NMHU senior Carmelita Sanchez said she was one of the students waiting for the university to announce a new start date. It’s because she has people she wants there who couldn’t make it to the other ceremonies.

“I couldn’t even really seriously consider the Rio Rancho one, just because … my whole family is sort of scattered right now,” Sanchez said. “It’s been pretty tough figuring out what steps I need to take in terms of life goals, goals for students.”

Sanchez, a psychology major and fine arts minor, said her family has lived in Mora County for generations. She was also pursued by fires from multiple locations, first fleeing her childhood home in Rainsville on April 22 and then her aunt’s property in Las Vegas a week later.

The second time she had to evacuate, she said she could see the flames pouring down on her aunt’s house, which is just outside of town. She rushed to pack up the things she’d grabbed the first time, including rented school books, art supplies, and the cap and gown she’d need to graduate, then picked up her little dachshund from her car and knocked once more.

At the same time, her family also packed into a frenzy, while her uncle and cousin doused her aunt’s house with water in an effort to thwart the inferno.

“It was crazy, because at first you only saw smoke, and it’s scary,” she said. “But when you see the flames, it’s different. You see flames and it looks like they’re coming right at you, and you’re just going to freak out.

Juggling evacuations, work and finals was a challenge she said she had never faced before. Sometimes Sanchez said she looked at the exam papers she had been studying all semester and couldn’t understand a word.

“It was definitely very difficult with schoolwork, I had to lock myself in a room and force myself to focus on what I’m doing,” she said. “A good three quarters of my attention is on fire. And the rest is for all I have to do.

Sending students home

As the fires grew, they approached parts of Las Vegas in late April and early May. On Saturday, April 30, Luna Community College management issued a warning to students and staff to stay off its main campus. They also canceled classes on Monday due to the fire danger.

“A very large portion of our population has been impacted by the fire,” LCC President Edward Martinez said, adding that approximately 75% of students and 87% of full-time employees live in Mora and Mora counties. of San Miguel. Martinez himself was evacuated twice because of the fires, he said.

Schools and districts have had difficulty estimating the exact number of students or staff who have been evacuated. In some cases, it’s because people don’t have access to the Internet to report their situation.

Students and staff have not been allowed to return to campus, LCC vice president of teaching and student services Dani Day said. She said people could not work normally because of the heavy smoke lingering in the area.

At the end of the semester, professors were asked to offer students one-on-one support, including help finding seats and providing technology to take exams, Martinez said.

Still, some students weren’t thrilled to return to remote learning, but humanities instructor Rick Baca said they were able to make the switch quickly.

“If we’ve learned anything from COVID, students have learned to adapt,” Baca said. “They’re sort of emergency mode veterans, it seems.”

Remote learning has also been difficult for many NMHU students, Espinoza said. Although they’ve faced it before during the COVID-19 pandemic, she said an online format feels like “just going with the flow” compared to in-person learning.

“We kind of got used to it,” she said. “But I think there’s a big loss in that education, I think you don’t get the same kind of hands-on learning.”

As an alternative to remote learning, Mora Independent School District Superintendent Marvin MacAuley said students can also enroll in school districts to which they evacuated.

But that option was not popular in his district, he said, because the students didn’t know the people or the areas they were in. Most people he spoke to preferred distance learning.

Day said LCC instructors could extend the end of classes until May 30, if necessary. The college will also allow instructors to give students “incomplete” grades so that if they need more time, they can come back later to complete classroom activities without penalty.

The NMHU, Martinez said, has coordinated with the LCC a space where college staff can work. The day before the LCC sent the campus alert, United World College-USA announced that its students had evacuated to Las Vegas. The NMHU said it housed and fed “more than 200 evacuees” before helping them transition to the Glorieta Conference Center the next day.

Traumatic experience

April 22 would have been a normal day at school, MacAuley said. But, when he looked up, he said he saw an ominous plume of smoke behind the district campus and saw ash falling from the sky.

At that point, he knew it was time to send the students home.

“It was pretty surreal, I’ve never experienced this in my career, where you see this imminent danger coming,” he said. “It was like, ‘I have to get the kids out of here.’ ”

Almost all MacAuley personnel evacuated. He said he didn’t know how many of the more than 400 students in the district had left. They dispersed with the winds, staying in different evacuation centers or with relatives, he said.

The district has a tough job ahead as soon as students can return to school, MacAuley said, as it focuses on social-emotional learning to help students cope with the trauma the fires leave behind.

In the meantime, counselors have online classrooms for students in the Mora Independent School District to voice concerns or anything else that comes to mind.

The NMHU has also mobilized counselors and social workers on campus to offer day-to-day support to help students deal with the crisis, which Espinoza called “very emotional.”

A silver lining for MISD high schoolers, MacAuley said, is that they will be able to celebrate their prom at the Governor’s Mansion this year. He had wondered about the fate of this year’s dance, given the circumstances, and posed the question to Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham. He said she smiled and needed to think about it. His office then gave him the green light.

But, even after the fires are extinguished, MacAuley said, it will take a long time to recover. University leaders across the region have stressed that it is their duty to lead their communities forward and help in any way possible.

“We need to be at the tip of the spear to ensure normality, to provide mental trauma first aid for our students, (and) … to align resources for our students who need it,” MacAuley said. “When people come back, it won’t be the same. And they’re going to need a lot of support – both students and families.

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