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Spirit of Place: Crafting a Campus Ecology in Northern New Mexico Rhythm.

by Florence Guido-DiBrito and Alicia Fedelina Chávez    [launch slideshow]

Before I even knew the name of this place
I could have proven to you that it had always existed in my heart…
There is continuity in the blood that transcends
geography, language, skin color, time…
So I embrace ravens, magpies, killdeer,
my neighbors, their sheep and the mountains.
When I got here, finally, my body caught up to the rest of me
and my life became a victory.

— John Nichols, If Mountains Die: A New Mexico Memoir

What does it mean to craft a college campus in the spirit of the place it serves? The University of New Mexico - Taos, an emerging college less than 12 years old, is deeply rooted in the high desert mountains and tri-cultural communities of northern New Mexico. As a tiny collegiate organization crafted through consistent, reflective application of an integrated campus ecology, UNM-Taos embraces holistic values, healthy relationships and inspiring, sustainable built and natural spaces. This article and slideshow, from the perspectives of campus leader and photoethnographic researcher, provide a snapshot of a college developing in congruence with the unique rhythms of its physical and spiritual environment.

With heightened awareness since 9/11, U.S. citizens long for places that make them feel nurtured, empowered, inspired and welcomed. We believe that the future of higher education likewise lies in evolving campuses congruent with the spirit of the places they serve and that are much kinder to the earth that sustains us.

Campus moonscape.
UNM-Taos is located on 80 acres donated by a local family in the high desert of northern New Mexico. It serves 1,300 students, mostly from Hispanic and Native American communities in the region.

Journey of Creation

by Alicia Fedelina Chávez

Querencia is a Spanish word that speaks of a longing for your spirit home and the familiar rhythms of your heart. In fall of 2001, I began my role as a leader in the creation of a new college in my home town of Taos, New Mexico. After 25 years of leading and teaching in other colleges around the nation, I am where I want to be—serving New Mexico in ways I never thought possible. As a person of Spanish and Native American heritage, raised in northern New Mexico, I thought it would grow easier to be away. In truth, it became increasingly difficult each day because I was lost without the rhythms of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, the smell of desert sage, the headiness of high altitude vistas, the power of alpine storms, skies so blue they hurt your eyes, the passionate blend of ancient and new traditions, the balance of a contemplative life, and the intrusive challenge and warmth of Spanish and Native American relations. I interpreted my leadership responsibility for this emerging campus as facilitating the creation of a campus ecosystem in congruence with the rhythms of Northern New Mexico. These rhythms include strong emphasis on a balanced, contemplative, communal, and spiritual life leading to the building of a collaborative learning community and a sustainable campus ecosystem.

The Taos Region

by Florence Guido-DiBrito

What does it mean to live in a place that is your spirit home, regardless of whether you were born there or not? In fall 2003, I began a sabbatical at UNM-Taos to fulfill my goal of involvement, as a researcher, in creating a college and building a learning community in northern New Mexico. As a photoethnographer, I found myself observing the land, people, and diverse cultures that paint a picture of UNM-Taos and the enchanted circle region.

Taos, N.M.
Taos is characterized by its abundance of adobe architecture, artistic expression, diverse peoples, deep contrasts, and brilliant blue skies.

The Taos community, where UNM-Taos is situated, deeply reflects its 900-year-old heritage. Adobe homes and narrow streets with signs like La Placita and Romero lined with latilla fences adorn this community. Taos Pueblo, nestled into and protected by the highest peak in New Mexico’s mighty Sangre de Cristo Mountains, is a compelling presence in the valley and home to its richly-spirited descendants of early peoples. Ancient acecias wind through the valley, bringing precious moisture from snowy peaks to sustain life-giving pastures. Earth ships, geodesic domes, beer can, glass, and straw bale homes, alternative energy design structures, and buses running on vegetable oil are outward community symbols of creativity, traditional and pioneering ingenuity, sustainability, and independence. Artists abound in such number that there are over 86 art galleries in a valley that is home to only 35,000 people. Cowboys on horseback, pastures of sheep, antique low-rider pickup trucks, bicycle commuters, and motorcycles are also at the heart of the community’s spirit.

“Foreigners”—those not born in the community—are often seen as outsiders and, depending on the point of view, may also include those whose families have lived here since the time of the Conquistadores. Spanish and Native American traditional rituals are sacred and lived. The Catholic Church—profoundly altered by Native spirituality and Spanish mysticism—is a formidable presence in the region, yet a wide range of spiritual, religious, and New Wave beliefs proliferate. Those who visit the Taos area cannot help but feel the all-encompassing presence of the Taos Mountain. She is spoken of by locals and visitors alike as a primary personality, energy source and spirit in the life. Local folklore insists that she fully embraces you, or sends you quickly on your way if your spirit is not of this place.

Taos is filled with stark contrasts. It is a place where realities—such as the harsh desert, Rio Grande Gorge, and high surrounding mountains; daily responsibility to tribe and/or extended family; and extreme poverty—create conditions in which going away to college remains an impossibility for most. It is a place where creativity and community abound and yet violence is four times higher than the national average. It is a place where magical light attracts thousands of artists, yet there is tension between those from varying cultures. It is a place where education is highly valued and yet life challenges create a high school dropout rate approaching 50 percent. This is the rocky ground on which UNM-Taos is emerging.

UNM-Taos graduation.
UNM-Taos campus celebrations reflect a mix of ancient and new traditions and images. A recent UNM-Taos graduate proudly wears traditional tribal clothing combined with academic robes.

UNM-Taos History and Context

by Florence Guido-DiBrito

A collegiate presence has been in the Taos area since at least 1927, when University of New Mexico education and art courses were offered at the local Harwood Museum. Early efforts to invite a larger college presence were cultivated with two other institutions in northern New Mexico: a four-year liberal arts institution and a two-year community college. In line with the fierce independence of the people of this area, both of these institutions were eventually asked to leave—one for poor follow-through and the other for refusing to collaborate to provide for the needs of the area.

In 1989, the leader of the Taos School Board and the town mayor approached the president of the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque to request postsecondary programs and services for this large, rural county. UNM responded by supporting the development of an educational center in Taos, which grew from an initial enrollment of 297 to a steady enrollment of about 1,200 students less than six years later. Seemingly superhuman efforts by local public leaders have been necessary to gain approval for a new college in this sparsely populated state. State laws were changed and an unprecedented local gross receipts tax was approved by voters to support the physical construction of the campus. In 2001, UNM-Taos was officially approved by the New Mexico Commission on Higher Education and the State Legislature and became a full branch community college of the University of New Mexico on July 1, 2003.

The student body at UNM-Taos is comprised of 71 percent women, 78 percent Hispanic and/or Native American populations, and an average age of 34. Most are first-generation college students living below the poverty level and most support children as well as elders and other extended family members. Because of the rural and tourist-based economy of this area, most students work not one but several part-time, often seasonal jobs to eke out a difficult living.

The presence of a college in this remote area is profoundly changing the lives of those in the mountain communities it serves. Curricular programs have been developed through largely entrepreneurial efforts by adjunct faculty to include fine and applied arts, trades and vocations, business and technology, health and human services, medicine and sciences, and liberal arts, all combined with a limited though strong base of student services. UNM-Taos currently serves two Native American tribes, seven school systems, and twelve townships in the Sangre de Cristo region of northern New Mexico.

Campus conversation.
UNM-Taos is continually shaped through lively discussions, often at local inspirational venues. This discussion was part of a faculty, staff, student, and community retreat to develop the current organizational vision and values.

Building a Collegiate Learning Community

by Alicia Fedelina Chávez

As a new leader for the campus, I noticed quickly that—though the cultures of this area are collaborative in nature—hierarchy, territoriality, fear, and inappropriate actions were common at UNM-Taos. It seemed important to focus first on developing a learning community based on collaboration rather than on hierarchy. Some close direction had to be utilized to get things going. Those desiring to retain a hierarchical model were quick to point out the inconsistency of “requiring collaboration.” Fortunately, many more learning community members brought positive energy and creative innovation to this journey and I often took a deep breathe, calmed myself, and took the chance of handing over decision making to large and small teams.

I found it hopeful that many were not afraid, even in the beginning, to provide lively critique. Conversations, collaborative development of a set of organizational values, community gatherings for professional development, shared problem-solving, cross departmental initiatives, and a consistent application of accountability were critical in this shift.

It has taken almost four years for a collaborative culture to take hold in a substantial way and recent signs confirm that collaborative processes are widespread and beneficial. As individual players live the benefits of collaboration and shared decision-making, empowerment of organizational members is reality—enhancing creativity and lifting morale.

Nurturing Sustainability and Our Chosen Learning Community Values

by Alicia Fedelina Chávez

The values chosen by the faculty, staff, and students of this neophyte institution are shifting from those traditional values held at its inception. For nearly the first decade of existence, values held by the institution and its leaders focused on maintaining and building a hierarchical administrative structure with individualism, autonomy, fear, and competitive territoriality as key operating factors. My first goal as a campus leader was to spend extensive time listening to the hopes, concerns, visions, and priorities of staff, faculty, and students. I knew I had come home when I began to notice unmistakable patterns in-line with the rhythms of northern New Mexico. Faculty, staff, and students consistently spoke of the need for UNM-Taos to:

  • Build a sustainable campus
  • Form strong community balanced with fierce independence
  • Show compassion toward each other and the earth we inhabit
  • Be spiritual and contemplative in our actions
  • Shape a vibrantly creative learning community that embodies integrity, compassion, and respect
Majestic vista.
The views from the UNM-Taos campus are stunning. Campus master planning has emphasized maximizing views from buildings, courtyards, and walkways. A core principal of UNM-Taos is that learning, creativity, and community are enhanced by beautiful natural environments.

These beginning conversations led to shared development of the values shown in the photos and diagram included above. Our daily challenge and privilege is to turn these conversations into campus operations, campus physical design, learning environments, organizational structures, and financial as well as policy decisions. These values, co-created by learning community members through retreats and discussion sessions, are slowly permeating operations and the physical campus construction, as they are taken into formal consideration by task forces, decision-making committees, and individual professionals in their daily work.

Recent examples of these shared values manifest themselves through the campus’s green building initiative, including:

  • Sustainable design architects for current and future construction
  • Xeriscaping
  • Use of daylighting
  • Solar water heating and energy production built by students and faculty
  • Switching the campus entirely to locally offered wind power.

We also are working to meet the challenge of a budget cut with principles to protect those staff and faculty at the lowest salary levels; limit faculty teaching loads to enhance wellness, providing work time for staff to attend classes, exercise, and/or spend time in personal contemplation; build campus spaces that inspire through beauty and directly facilitate connections between various types of professionals and students; and build the academic calendar around important community days in the year, spiritual traditions, and tribal and family responsibilities.


Colleges and universities have a unique opportunity—as organizations with life spans of hundreds of years—to develop physical and community environments in congruence with natural rhythms. Learning is enhanced by inspirational environments both built and natural, and we as stewards of students young and old have the unique chance to role model responsibility. There are some colleges who make this a focus, yet more who do not. It is time that we, as college educators, reach deep into the heart and spirit of place and consider the effect of our decisions and actions on the next seven generations. Our goal is nothing less at UNM-Taos.

We must live life as full, authentic, human beings…, living honorably
and sharing responsibility for seven generations into the future.

— Wilma Mankiller, Chief of the Cherokee Nation

View slideshow of 23 photographs for crafting a campus ecology in northern New Mexico rhythm  >>   
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Florence Guido-DiBrito has been teaching graduate students in higher education and student affairs leadership for the past 19 years, emphasizing ethical leadership, student and organizational development, and social justice issues. Recently, she combined her personal and professional passion for photography with her qualitative research skills to conduct a year-long photoethnographic study titled Journey of Creation: A Photoethnographic Study of Community, Culture and Leadership in a Northern New Mexico College.

Alicia Fedelina Chávez served as the CEO at University of New Mexico – Taos for the last four years and recently returned to faculty life. She is currently developing international visual ethnographic research of a variety of colleges and universities and lives in Taos.

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University of New Mexico - Taos

American Association for Sustainability in Higher Education

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Campus Ecologist


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