Stephanie Gurule-Leyba
2018 Distinguished Alumna

Stephanie Gurule-Leyba has taught medical sciences for 22 years at Capital High School in Santa Fe and received the New Mexico Educator of the Year Award in 2017 from the New Mexico Public Education Department.

Gurule-Leyba also received the 2012 Noah C. Rodriguez Award for Excellence in Teaching from Santa Fe Partners in Education.

Channel Wilson-Segura, now the assistant superintendent for school and instructional support in Santa Fe Public Schools, nominated Gurule-Leyba for Teacher of the Year.

“Stephanie teaches from the heart and has a very strong relational capacity with her students, which contributes to her excellence in the classroom,” said Wilson-Segura, Gurule-Leyba’s principal at Capital High for five years and her former biology student. “Stephanie has a passion for teaching and an aura of positivity that permeates her classroom. She’s an inspirational and dedicated leader, always going above and beyond.”

Gurule-Leyba said it’s vital for teachers to capture the minds and hearts of their students.

“I do this by having a positive attitude and instilling in them that they can do anything they set their mind to if they work hard and never give up,” Gurule-Leyba said. “I create a classroom environment that is based on mutual respect, which is essential.”

Gurule-Leyba said her mission is to prepare students for the 21st century skills of communication, collaboration, critical thinking and creativity.

“If you look at these four skills, they are all encompassed in STEM, science, technology, engineering and math, my focus as an educator,” Gurule-Leyba said.

She said what motivates her most about teaching is getting students excited about learning.

“I look forward to working with kids every single day and love what they bring to the table,” Gurule-Leyba said.

This school year, Gurule-Leyba is taking on a new challenge.

“I’m establishing a new lab for science, technology, engineering, art and math for kindergarten through 5th grade students at Cesar Chavez Elementary in Santa Fe. The overall goal is to have more science engagement at the elementary level on a daily basis,” Gurule-Leyba said.

Gurule-Leyba earned her bachelor’s in biology with a minor in chemistry from Highlands in 1994. She completed her K-12 teacher certification for science and special education in 1995 and went on to complete her master’s in rehabilitation counseling in the School of Education in 1999.

She didn’t always want to be a teacher.

“I was completing my bachelor’s when it dawned on me I didn’t want to be a doctor. I loved working with and tutoring kids and decided this was where I would have the most impact,”Gurule-Leyba said.

She said education professor Dr. James Alarid influenced her the most.

“He mentored me every step of the way and saw the potential in me to be a teacher before I saw it in myself. He offered opportunities like tutoring that planted the seed,” Gurule-Leyba said.

Gurule-Leyba is still pursuing her own education.

“I’m working on my doctorate in education at Walden University with an emphasis in learning instruction and innovation because I identify with the creativity of teaching and have a growth mindset as an educator,” Gurule-Leyba said.


Joannes Paulus Yimbesalu
Distinguished Young Alumnus

In 2011, Joannes Paulus Yimbesalu founded Hope For Children Cameroon, a nonprofit that has improved the lives of more than 3,000 Cameroonian children, youth, women and men. The nonprofit’s work includes tuition assistance programs, donating school supplies, constructing pit latrines, promoting the rights of people with disabilities, and advancing gender equality.

In 2015, Yimbesalu received Queen Elizabeth’s Young Leaders Award for providing access to education for orphans and other vulnerable children in his homeland of Cameroon. He is one of the founding advisers for the Queen’s Commonwealth Trust created in 2018.

“Our goal at Hope For Children Cameroon is to educate every child one school, one village, at a time,” said Yimbesalu, 30. “We identify vulnerable children in need, especially orphans and children with disabilities, and send them to school. This helps build a stronger generation of young people and also helps end the crushing cycle of poverty.”

While primary education is mandated in Cameroon, Yimbesalu said parents bear the burden of paying the fee for their children to attend school, which many can’t afford. He knows firsthand how hard parents struggle to pay the fees.

“My mother was never well educated because she was a girl, but she was very determined that all four of her sons would go to school. She worked tirelessly day and night to see us through school,” Yimbesalu said.

Yimbesalu established Hope For Children Cameroon with his own money, along with donations from family and friends. Ongoing fundraisers support the nonprofit. Tax free donations may be made to

Yimbesalu lives in Toronto and travels to Cameroon to oversee his nonprofit. Hope for Children Cameroon includes a team of eight young professionals based in the U.S. and Canada.

“More than 263 children and youth globally aren’t in school and learning. Education cannot wait,” Yimbesalu said.

He received other awards, such as the 2014 Youth Courage Award from the United Nations Envoy on Global Education. He is a board member for global organizations like Women’s Economic Imperative.

Yimbesalu said his education at Highlands gave him a strong foundation for success. He earned his M.S. in biology in 2011, the same year he was named Student of the Year and served as the first international student president for the Graduate Student Senate.

Former Highlands biology professor Carol Linder was Yimbesalu’s adviser and nominated him for the homecoming award. He also worked as a graduate research assistant in Linder’s Reproductive Biology Laboratory.

“Working with Dr. Linder provided me a platform for both academic excellence and leadership. Dr. Linder also encouraged me to pursue my passion for community service,” Yimbesalu said.

Linder said: “Joannes Paulus cares deeply about global issues for women and children and has the rare gift for effecting change. He’s a very gutsy and fearless leader in overcoming barriers for causes he’s passionate about. He also distinguished himself presenting his research at conferences.”

Yimbesalu  begins doctoral studies in health economics and policy from Lancaster University in England fall semester 2018. He completes his master’s in leadership and community engagement from York University in Toronto fall semester.


Steven Salinas
Forever Cowboy Student Award

Steven Salinas completed his biology master’s degree in summer 2018 and earned a B.S. in biology from Highlands in 2015. The Villanueva, New Mexico, native and West Las Vegas High School graduate distinguished himself at Highlands in the classroom, in research, and as a teaching assistant.

Jesús Rivas, a biology professor, nominated Salinas for the Forever Cowboy Student Award.

“Steven sought out learning experiences far and wide, including Highlands-sponsored research trips to Venezuela and Ecuador as well as attending scientific conferences across the country,” Rivas said. “After graduating with his bachelor’s degree, Steven started his master’s degree and has been an absolutely outstanding student, teaching assistant and researcher.”

Rivas said Salinas is the person of choice when biology faculty has a need for a student to help with a project.

“We all know Steven is willing to go beyond the call of duty to get things done in the right way. In biology we were very happy he completed his master’s degree, but we will all miss him since he is such a valuable asset for the department,” Rivas said.

Rivas said Salinas was an excellent ambassador for Highlands, reaching out to schools in Las Vegas, Mora and Taos giving science lectures encouraging students to attend the university.

Salinas traces his own interest in biology to his childhood growing up on a farm.

“I first learned that you could pursue a career in biology related to animals when I was in high school and experienced an intensive summer science program with Dr. Rivas and Dr. Sarah Corey-Rivas. I was completely hooked,” Salinas said.

He said what stood out most for him in his Highlands experience was assisting with multiple field research projects.

“I took advantage of all the opportunities to do research ranging from fire ecology, urban bear populations, bison research, and several herpetology studies on reptiles and amphibians, “ Salinas said.

He said the biggest highlight was assisting Jesús Rivas with his anaconda snake research in Venezuela.

“This was a life-changing experience that meant the world to me. It was awesome to be doing fieldwork with a scientist like Dr. Rivas who is a globally renowned expert on anacondas. Catching the snakes was the biggest adrenaline high of my life and made me want to pursue my master’s degree. I’m incredibly grateful to Dr. Rivas and all the biology professors,” Salinas said.

His thesis research studied the effect of invasive bull frogs on local aquatic ecosystems.

Salinas was active in the university’s ARMAS Center, Achieving in Research, Math and Science, as a supplemental instruction leader and tutor for Biology 211, which emphasizes ecology.

The Mora Independent School District hired Salinas to teach high school science in fall 2018.

“Being a supplemental instruction leader for ARMAS shifted me toward educating people about the importance of animals and conservation. In Mora, I’m very excited about a new grant the school has that pushes for more hands-on experiential science learning. My goal is to teach in the school year and work for zoos in the summer,” Salinas said.


Andrea Southworth and Amber Wiese
Spirit Award 
Highlands Sweethearts

Andrea Southworth and Amber Wiese established the Highlands Sweethearts in 2017, a Highlands cheer spirit squad of girls aged 5 – 12 who are a popular feature of Cowboy home basketball games.

The Highlands Sweethearts are also in the spotlight in a float during the Highlands homecoming parade.

The idea for the cheer spirit squad formed when Southworth and Wiese befriended the Snows, Highlands head basketball coach, Craig, and his wife, biology professor Jessica. Between them, the families have four girls: Southworth’s Riley is 7, Wiese has Harley, 8, and Emersyn, 6, and the Snow’s Adelynn is 9.

“Our initial thought was that we’d start with 12 girls to cheer on the Cowboys,” Southworth said. “There was such strong interest from the community that the numbers exploded and we had to cap the team at 30 members. We have a waitlist for new girls.”

Wiese said: “We were at the Highlands men’s basketball games supporting Craig, Jessica and the team. We watched our girls having fun at the games and thought it would be neat for them to support the team in a constructive way.”

While Wiese was on a cheer team in high school, Southworth was not. The two spent a lot of time watching YouTube videos and online training about cheering to educate themselves about the techniques.

The Highlands Sweethearts practice once a week at the university’s Sala de Madrid Building. They cheer at home Cowboy basketball games on Fridays and Saturdays.

“The girls are very enthusiastic and motivated when they practice and cheer at games,” Wiese said. “They’ve developed good friendships and love to be together.”

Southworth said the most fun aspect of the cheer spirit squad is seeing the girls’ excitement when they interact with the Cowboy basketball players at the games.

“It’s very rewarding,” Southworth said.

Wiese said what she enjoys most about the cheer spirit squad is watching the girls grow in their confidence and knowledge of basketball.

“It’s gratifying to see the steady progress they make as a cheer squad,” Wiese said.

The Highlands Sweethearts leaders also get the girls involved in community service like helping at the Gallinas Riverwalk cleanup in fall 2017 and cheering on a float for the City of Las Vegas Holiday Parade of Lights.

The Sweethearts also did a breast cancer fundraiser at the Highlands Pink Out basketball game in 2018.

Looking ahead, Wiese and Southworth are planning to do a similar fundraiser for childhood cancer at a Highlands Gold Out basketball game this spring semester 2019.

“The community seems to love our little cheer squad, especially when they were bell ringers for the Salvation Army during the holidays at Walmart,” Southworth said.

The pair are often asked if their cheer squad is competitive, but they aren’t.

“We’re just out there to cheer for the Cowboys,” Wiese said.

The pair said the parents of the cheer squad girls are extremely supportive.

“The parents are just amazing,” Wiese said. “We couldn’t do it without them.”