Northern New Mexico College Interim President Bárbara Medina (SFGI83): “Nothing I Can’t Think About”
March 31, 2022 | By Eve Tolpa
In Bárbara Medina’s (SFGI83) forty-plus-year career, she has worked in both K-12 and higher education, as well as the Colorado Department of Education, where she held the title of Assistant Commissioner, among others. Medina earned a BA from University of Colorado at Colorado Springs and a PhD from University of Colorado at Boulder. She currently serves as interim president of Northern New Mexico College, which has campuses in El Rito and Española.
How did you decide to attend the St. John’s Graduate Institute?
I was a middle school teacher in southeast Colorado—I was only the second Latino working for the district as a teacher—and I got an NEH grant. I wanted to go to DC because I wanted to do more research in the National Archives. I was teaching social studies, and I used original documents, teaching American history kind of in a St. John’s-y way. I was not following the program sequence. I was having my students read things like the Bill of Rights, read the actual document rather than reading about it.
What prompted you to take that approach to teaching?
Well, it came from really a very desperate place. I didn’t have enough civics books. It was a poor district in rural southern Colorado, and I improvised out of necessity.
How did your students respond to it?
One of them thought I was going to get in trouble for not using the book. When the principal came to evaluate me, they all got books out and sat in their desks and said, “Ask us questions from the book, we’ll answer them.”
It was a shocking example of what students thought school was supposed to be. They liked me, and I liked them, and they thought it was going to be really hard for me to stay if I didn’t use the book. I also realized a lot of them had struggles with reading, so using the socratic method and doing inquiry-based learning was really natural for them.
When you started at the Graduate Institute, were you at the Annapolis campus first?
It was the year before St. John’s opened the Masters Program here in Santa Fe. So there I was in Annapolis, a young woman with humble beginnings in southern Colorado, and the head tutor was telling us about opening up a campus in Santa Fe.
One of our tutors was going to come from Annapolis to teach—Eva Brann. They asked if there were any of us who wanted to exchange that first year and be the pioneer group, and I threw my hat in. I missed home in the Southwest.
In Annapolis, most of us were educators. When I came to Santa Fe, it was different people from different walks of life.
Were there any Program texts that surprised you in your response to them?
I had a class in Euclidean geometry that just set me on fire. I was so excited about it, but then I was so upset about it. A family tragedy had led me to make New Mexico my home as a high school senior, and in my little high school up here in the Jemez Mountains, where I graduated in 1975, we had one science teacher and she left during the middle of the year.
Before that we had biology for a semester. There was never any chemistry, never anything advanced. I never had any access to that curriculum. I went to summer school to catch up before I went to University of Colorado. I had to backtrack. I don’t say this as an indictment; it just wasn’t an opportunity.
So when you meet an Eva Brann, or a tutor like Miller or Stringer—some of the tutors at St. John’s, they’re brilliant, they’re kind—it’s like intellectual Disneyland. It was mind-blowing for me. It was great.
Did you pursue a PhD directly after completing the Graduate Institute?
After St. John’s, I returned to Colorado Springs to live with and join the Benedictine Sisters of Benet Hill Monastery—I had been an affiliate member. As a novice during my canonical year, I studied and worked in Colorado Springs teaching middle school, still using original documents.
I discerned before my final vows that, while I lived the charism of the Benedictine way of life, I was headed in another direction. I left before my final vows and moved to Denver. I got into the doctoral program at CU Boulder.
How did your St. John’s education influence the direction of your doctoral studies?
It gave me that liberty to think holistically: “I don’t have to stay in my silo of the social studies teacher.”
When I first went to CU Boulder, I thought I was going to get my PhD in social studies education. I had been very active in the Center for Law and Society and mock trials. I was always trying to have my students do experiential kinds of learning. I realized that some of them could not access the material because of their reading skills.
When I went on to get my doctorate, I ran into some wonderful faculty doing work with culturally and linguistically diverse learners, so I diverted and eventually went to look at how children use language and learn their second language and how they make meaning from that.
My dissertation field work was in the Navajo Nation. I did an ethnographic study of third-grade bilingualism, and I was interested in the policy part of that. The last ten, fifteen years of my professional career I did a lot of things for English language learners and refugee and immigrant groups.
Are there any skills you cultivated at St. John’s that you apply now as interim president of Northern New Mexico College?
St. John’s opened the world to me, and I never looked back. It’s very challenging intellectually to me to learn more, and I think that’s a St. John’s trait—that you never stop learning and that there are always things that you can learn from.
I always tell folks that the greatest lesson that I got from my St. John’s experience is there’s nothing I can’t think about. If someone comes and talks to me about the New Mexico state budget, and they are using terms I don’t recognize, I’ll say, “Slow down. Use universal language, and I’ll be with you in a minute.”
We’re doing a shared reading in my president’s cabinet. We’re reading a fable called Our Iceberg is Melting, by John Kotter—he’s out of Harvard and he does a lot of change management. I recognized and realized that I had to build relationships internally. Instead of talking about our problems, we had to really look at something objectively, which was a reading that none of us wrote but we could talk about. So I’m using that inquiry-based approach.
The communities I serve, they inspire me. Anyone would stop wheat they are doing and help these young people—and not-so-young people—to have a pathway to education. What better way to wrap up a career?
Have you been back to St. John’s recently?
About three years ago, it was a nice snowy day, and I had something to do in Santa Fe. I drove up to campus, and I walked around. My parents are both deceased, but they were with me at my St. John’s graduation. I looked around and walked around the grounds, and I thought, “This was magic for me.”
It was 35 to 40 years ago, but my parents’ hope for me, their enthusiasm in supporting me in that journey ... My dad had a fourth- or fifth-grade education and came from Mexico at the age of five. My mother’s family is from New Mexico, and she was born in Pueblo, Colorado.
I thought of all the ancestors behind me that led me to this place and led me to that magic, and I just felt that overwhelming sense of gratitude. St. John’s has blessed me in so many ways, and I don’t even know what all those ways are.
Has your perspective on the college changed at all over the years?
I had an invitation to apply to St. John’s as an undergrad, and I went to visit and I was so intimidated. I graduated from a high school class of 21 kids. I had that serious imposter syndrome, like, “I can’t hang here.” Coming back as a graduate student after having a degree and some teaching behind me—I think I was in my third or fourth year of teaching—I had more self-confidence.
I think there’s a bias in our world about, “If you go to St. John’s, how do you afford it? It’s a privilege, it’s elitism.” And, you know, I never experienced those things. I always felt valued and I always felt welcome and I always felt like it was my home.
I talk to kids that are first-gen like myself (my mother went to college, but she went to a two-year business school), and there’s that sense of imposter syndrome that they talk about. I’ve talked to other Latina scholars and women of color—we talk about our educational experiences, and some have been through really hard-fought battles. My doctorate was tough, but St. John’s prepared me in ways that I could not even imagine.
Nothing in my career has ever thrown me for a loop again. I thoroughly believe: “Give it to me, I’ll read it, and I’ll tell you what I think about it. I may not understand it at first read, but I’ll look at it again. I’ll figure it out.”
I have that empowerment from my education.