By Margaret McKinney
Two New Mexico Highlands University graduates are headed to New York City to pursue advanced degrees at Columbia University and Parsons School of Design.
Ben Villarreal was accepted into the doctoral program in English education at Columbia, an Ivy League school founded in 1754.
Veronica Black will pursue her MFA at Parsons, one of the premier design schools in the world.
The two are married.
“It will be a bold adventure for us and a dream come true,” said Black, who is from Huron, S.D.
Villarreal, 28, earned his master’s in English with an emphasis in creative writing from Highlands in 2008. He is the assistant coordinator of Academic Enrichment Programs at Highlands and has taught in the English Department since 2008. His research focuses on popular culture and its use in the classroom.
Black, 30, pursued her degree in the Media Arts Department, graduating in 2011 with a BFA in digital filmmaking and a minor in art studio. She made the dean’s list at Highlands and was awarded a Seabury Fellowship in cultural technology.
“What drew me to Parsons is that they have a program in the Technology Design Department that emphasizes multimedia for museums,” Black said. “I’ve worked in a lot of museums and cultural institutions thanks to internships and Americorps positions media arts faculty helped me obtain. This has inspired me to take my skill set to museums when I complete my MFA.”
She honed her digital filmmaking skills through projects for organizations like the Marian Koshland Science Museum in Washington, D.C., the New Mexico Department of Cultural Affairs, and SITE Santa Fe, a nonprofit contemporary arts organization and museum.
“Veronica has the ability to create outstanding professional-quality videos, and her work at SITE was instrumental in promoting some of our most important programs,” said Joanne Lefrak, education and outreach director.
“Veronica has a natural talent for creating a cohesive narrative to tell the story within the video. She collaborates well with colleagues while bringing her own creative input to the table.”
Andrew Wollner, a media arts professor at Highlands, said Black is a great critical thinker and is passionate about research.
“Veronica begins her studies at Parsons at a very high level and will soar,” Wollner said. “She has the rare ability to synthesize and interpret information to create multimedia deliverables in a very unique, fresh way. She’s extraordinary.”
Villarreal, a San Antonio native, said he’s always wanted to teach.
“I was blown away by being accepted into Columbia’s English Education doctoral program because it’s so prestigious and selective,” Villarreal said. “I love learning, and I am excited to see what kind of teacher I can become by using new and different approaches to learning.”
Barbara Risch is an English professor at Highlands and coordinates the academic enrichment programs.
“When Ben talks, Ph.D.s listen because he’s already that good. He’s highly respected at professional conferences when he presents,” Risch said. “Ben is creative in the classroom and brings in media that engages the students. He has high expectations for his students and is very good at recognizing their potential and helping them succeed. He’s exceptional.”
Risch said through his work in the enrichment programs, Villarreal has gained a wealth of experience in program and curriculum design as well as teaching writing for various academic disciplines.
“I expect Ben to excel in the doctoral program at Columbia, just as he has in all his endeavors at Highlands,” Risch said.
Villarreal is applying to the New Mexico Minority Doctoral Assistance Loan for Service Program. If he’s accepted, he plans to return to Highlands as an English professor after he completes his doctorate.
The challenge for Villarreal and Black was to find advanced programs in each of their fields in the same city. They were accepted at other programs but call Columbia and Parsons a perfect fit.
The schools are located in Manhattan at opposite ends of Central Park.
“We feel so blessed,” Black said.