Commencement 2024 Information

Commencement 2024 Information

Highlands banquet honors outstanding alumni

Highlands banquet honors outstanding alumni

 Every year, New Mexico Highlands University recognizes some of its notable alumni and during the annual Alumni Awards Banquet. This year’s recipients reflect the diversity of fields where Highlands’ graduates have made a difference. In addition, the university recognizes a distinguished professor emeritus and Spirit Award members.

Robert Atencio – Distinguished Alumnus
Robert Atencio is a nationally known market research expert, rising to executive positions at U.S. companies like Coca-Cola and Procter & Gamble. Today, he is the global vice president of Global Consumer Insights for Pfizer Consumer Healthcare.
The Albuquerque native came to Highlands to study marketing, earned a bachelor’s in business in 1987, and went on to earn his MBA at the University of Texas, Austin.
Some of Atencio’s previous positions include vice president of insights and customer strategy for Wal-Mart, director of consumer strategy and insights for the Frito-Lay Division of PepsiCo, senior research manager for the marketing division of Coca-Cola, and market research supervisor for Procter & Gamble.
At Pfizer Consumer Healthcare, Atencio directs a 20-member team of global consumer researchers. This division of Pfizer sells over-the-counter products like Advil, Centrum vitamins, and Robitussin cough syrup in more than 90 countries.
“Our number one job is understanding consumers, and determining how to build our business by informing the development of world-class advertising, new product development, and in-store marketing,” Atencio said.
Atencio said an emerging and fascinating area of market research focuses on the human brain and consumer behavior.
“We have partnerships with neuroscientists at several universities to help us understand the latest advances in research on the human brain. This research helps us understand the unarticulated needs of consumers,” Atencio said.
Atencio is a leader in professional organizations, serving on the board of directors for the Advertising Research Foundation and the University of Texas at Arlington Masters of Market Research Advisory Board. He is also a member of the National Society of Hispanic MBAs.
He has received numerous Advertising Research Foundation gold and silver Ogilvy awards, the most prestigious advertising research awards in the United States.
Atencio’s business and marketing know-how began at Highlands, where he earned a 3.97 GPA, made the academic honor roll, and was awarded an academic scholarship. Atencio also received national recognition, and was named to the National Dean’s List, Who’s Who in American Universities and Colleges, and Outstanding Young Men of America.
“At Highlands, you felt like your professors wanted to help you succeed,” Atencio said. “The classrooms were small and I felt connected to my professors who mentored me. For example, economics professor John Ribal helped direct me to the MBA program at U.T. Austin, a perfect choice for my career goals.
“Accounting professor Ursul Albers stands out for me as having incredible energy and passion for her area of study. I worked really hard to learn all I could at Highlands and my business degree prepared me for MBA School,” Atencio said.
Outside the classroom, Atencio was a leader in the Highlands’ student senate, worked as a dorm R.A., sold advertising for the student newspaper, and organized intramural teams for flag football, basketball and volleyball.

“Being a leader in college gives you great experience that can translate into the work you do later on,” Atencio said.

Judy Lockhart DiGregorio – Distinguished Alumna
Judy Lockhart DiGregorio is an award-winning humor columnist and book author whom critics call the next Erma Bombeck. She graduated from Highlands in 1964 with a B.A. in English.
DiGregorio’s humor writing is based on her life experiences. Her first collection of humor essays, Life Among the Lilliputians, was published in 2009 to critical acclaim, and recognition at the Southern Festival of Books. Her second humor collection, Memories of a Loose Woman, was published in 2010, also to critical acclaim.
DiGregorio is the author of an award-winning 10-minute play, “Let There be Light,” and released a CD of humorous stories called Jest Judy.
When she was 50, DiGregorio attended a writer’s workshop and said to herself, “I can write like these people.
“People tell me they like my humor writing because they easily identify with my experiences,” DiGregorio said.
Writing is a second career for DiGregorio. For 27 years she worked for the Department of Energy in Oak Ridge, Tenn. as a training specialist. She developed new courses to assure that DOE employees met the mandated training requirements, and also taught communication and career planning courses.
After retiring from the DOE in 2004, DiGregorio began writing in earnest. She publishes her humor essays in regional and national publications like The Writer Magazine, The Army Times, and the Chicken Soup books.
DiGregorio is a sought-after speaker and workshop leader for writing workshops in the southeast. Her website is
An accomplished vocalist who first sang in music productions at Highlands, DiGregorio performs with a woman’s vocal group called Varying Degrees. She has also performed with musical groups like the Knoxville Civic Opera and the University of Tennessee Marimba Choir.
A lifelong actress, DiGregorio frequently appears on stage in Oak Ridge Playhouse productions.
DiGregorio credits her English professors at Highlands with giving her an excellent foundation to be a writer, saying Dr. Roy Johnson was especially influential in her education.
“I had a wonderful experience at Highlands with professors who were very effective, and also kind,” said DiGregorio, who worked hard and earned good grades.
Her journey to Highlands came after the self-described army brat ended up in New Mexico when her father retired from the military. Determined to go to college, DiGregorio applied to Highlands and was thrilled to win a tuition scholarship.
DiGregorio got a job at Donnelly Library and immersed herself in campus life. She sang mezzo soprano in the university’s touring Modern Choir, and sang and danced in university musicals like “Brigadoon” and “South Pacific.”
“I always loved performing onstage at Ilfeld Auditorium,” DiGregorio said.
The athletic DiGregorio also found time for sports, suiting up as a Cowgirl for basketball, volleyball, swimming and softball. She was named Outstanding Female Athlete in 1963.

DiGregorio met her husband of 48 years, Dan DiGregorio, in Dr. Lora Shields’ biology class. Dan earned his microbiology degree from Highlands University.

Dr. Louis J. Guillette, Jr. – Distinguished Alumnus
Dr. Louis J. Guillette, Jr. is internationally known for his research in reproductive and developmental biology. His research examines the role of environmental contaminants that induce birth defects in certain wildlife species, and children.
Guillette completed his B.S. in biology with a minor in chemistry from Highlands in 1976. He earned his Ph.D. in comparative reproductive biology from the University of Colorado — Boulder, where he also completed his master’s in biology.
During his distinguished 30-year career as a research biologist and professor, Guillette has published more than 300 research papers and edited five graduate-level textbooks.
He has served as a science adviser to numerous U.S. and foreign agencies, as well as the National Academy of Sciences.
Guillette’s work has been featured on TV networks like ABC, CBS, PBS, and the BBC.
For 25 years, Guillette was a biology professor at the University of Florida, Gainsville, where he was named Distinguished Professor of Biology and Teacher Scholar of the Year.
In 2010, Guillette joined the faculty of the Medical University of South Carolina, Charleston in the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology. He is also the endowed chair in marine genomics for the university’s Hollings Marine Laboratory.
Marine genomics is the study of the regulation of genes that if incorrectly controlled, can lead to abnormalities and birth defects.
“Wildlife are sentinels of environmental and human health,” Guillette said. “My work over the last 25 years has focused on the ability of environmental contaminants to mimic chemical messengers like hormones, and alter the development and functioning of reproductive and endocrine systems in wildlife, and humans — resulting in abnormalities and birth defects.”
He gives the example of the link between environmental pollutants and abnormal ovarian development in utero in both alligators and human babies.
Guillette describes himself as a Jacque Cousteau kid who grew up thinking science was interesting, and important. His parents always encouraged his interest.
After starting college at the State University of New York Maritime Academy, he wanted something different and looked for a small university where the biology faculty did research. He chose Highlands.
Guillette said his biology and chemistry professors at Highlands were superb mentors who changed his life.
“Biology professor Dr. John Spencer was extraordinary,” Guillette said. “He let me discover that I could be a scientist, and explore ideas. He gave me an opportunity to work in his lab and be a true functioning part of real scientific discovery. He didn’t treat me like a lab technician.”
Guillette, who has mentored more than 300 biology students over the years, said his experience at Highlands shaped his teaching.

“When I talk to school kids I tell them that science describes being a detective, adventurer, artist and story teller. A scientist takes facts and concepts and creates a new understanding of the world,” Guillette said.

Ane Romero – Distinguished Young Alumna
Distinguished young alumna Ane Romero has received national recognition for her leadership in mental health issues and is a key legislative aide for U.S. Congresswoman Grace Napolitano.
Romero earned her B.A. in political science with a minor in professional writing in 2004, and completed her M.A. in public affairs at Highlands.
Romero, 30, chose suicide prevention as her platform when she was Miss New Mexico in 2005, giving her a high-profile opportunity to raise awareness about the issue. At Highlands, she helped establish a Yellow Ribbon Suicide Prevention chapter.
This year, the National Resource Center for Hispanic Mental Health tapped Romero for an Excellence in Federal Government Leadership Award for her work on suicide prevention and other mental health issues.
“No one on Capitol Hill is as organized, thorough and passionate about improving mental health delivery as Ane Romero,” said Henry Acosta, the center’s director. “She’s well respected by her colleagues who appreciate her knowledge, hard work, and dedication to mental health issues.”
Romero is Napolitano’s lead staff member for a bill the California congresswoman introduced in February called the Mental Health in Schools Act. The bill would authorize and fund more therapists and mental health services in public schools nationwide.
“An estimated one out of five children and adolescents suffer from some form of mental illness, and suicide is the second-leading cause of death for college students,” Romero said. “Suicide is also the fastest growing cause of death for children who are 10 to 14. Early intervention is key.”
Romero is responsible for outreach to other members of congress to build support and awareness for the bill.
She said the bill will help educate young people about mental health, and encourage them to ask for help and access services without shame.
“We look for this bill to save lives,” Romero said.
Romero, who has worked for Napolitano since 2007, also staffs health and veteran affairs issues.
This year, Romero wrote part of the language for a policy change allowing the U.S. president to send condolence letters to families of active service members who die by suicide. The Obama administration adopted the resolution.
Romero is grateful for the education she received at Highlands, saying she wouldn’t be where she is today without what she learned at the university.
“The faculty and staff at Highlands take the time to recognize individual strengths of students,” Romero said. “In my case, they encouraged and nurtured my interest in public service, which I love. It started with my political science professor Dr. Abbas Manafy who said, “‘Ane, this is something you’re really good at.’”
In August, Romero launched her website and blog for mental health issues at

Romero calls Las Vegas home and her parents, Nick and Yolanda Jaramillo, are both educators.

Dr. Gabino Rendon- Distinguished Professor Emeritus
Dr. Gabino Rendon joined the Highlands University faculty in 1966, the beginning of a distinguished 25-year career with the university. His leadership guided the creation of the university’s School of Social Work in 1974, the first in New Mexico.
During his tenure at Highlands, Rendon chaired the Department of Behavioral Sciences several times, and also chaired the Sociology/Anthropology Program. He was instrumental in forming a criminology program at Highlands.
Rendon is an expert in community structures, including power systems and institutions.
He calls Las Vegas home, and Rendon’s Hispanic roots run deep in Northern New Mexico. In 1835, Miguel Rendon, his great-grandfather, was issued a Mexican land grant in Las Vegas.
After graduating from Taos High School in 1947, Rendon enrolled at Highlands to study chemistry. Running short on money after a year, he moved to Denver to work at Denver General Hospital.
In 1951, during the Korean War, Rendon was drafted into the U.S. Army Medical Corps, where he served as a dispensary officer before his honorable discharge.
He accessed the V.A.’s advisory program for testing that revealed Rendon’s strong interest in science and social services. The army tester recommended the field of sociology.
Rendon returned to Colorado and enrolled at the University of Colorado on the G.I. Bill®. He earned his B.A., M.A., and Ph.D. in sociology from CU–Boulder.
“Sociology is the study of people using the scientific method, and I found it fascinating,” Rendon said. “Studying sociology was a total immersion for me, so exciting and interesting. I would drive the back roads from Boulder to my home in Denver reflecting on the lectures.”
As a first-semester graduate student in 1958, a life-changing opportunity arose.
“I was offered a position as a field educator for the Migrant Citizenship Education Project, an initiative of the National Council of Churches,” Rendon said.
Rendon’s training for the job was intense and memorable. He trained first in Chicago, then was sent to California to train with Cesar Chavez, Fred Ross and Saul Alinsky, leaders of the Community Service Organization. Chavez is the legendary cofounder of the United Farm Workers.
Rendon was assigned to the Lower Rio Grande Valley in the South Texas community of Weslaco where he established an advocacy organization for farmworker services and rights.
Two years later, Rendon returned to graduate school. Migrant issues were the topic for both his master’s thesis and doctoral dissertation.
As a professor at Highlands, Rendon said he strove to help students understand sociology by making connections between their own lives and societal institutions like family, school, and church.

“What was most rewarding in my tenure at Highlands was watching my sociology students develop their own careers in related fields,” Rendon said. “Many moved to leadership positions in state and local government agencies, higher education, became district judges, and the like.”

Frank Marchi – Spirit Award
Highlands University Board of Regents member and distinguished alumnus Frank Marchi was tapped for a spirit award for his long history of serving the university, and his generosity as a donor.
New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez appointed Marchi to the Board of Regents earlier this year and he was sworn into his term of service March 30.
He was a founding member of the Highlands University Alumni Association and served on the Highlands University Foundation Board of Directors for more than 20 years. He is currently an emeritus non-voting Foundation board member.
Marchi has had a distinguished career as an insurance executive for Manuel Lujan Insurance, Inc. in Albuquerque, where he is currently a business consultant. Previously, he was chief operating officer, president of the board of directors, and senior vice president.
Marchi started working at the Manuel Lujan Insurance, Inc. after graduating from Highlands in 1967 with a business degree. His grandfather, Manuel Lujan, Sr., established the business in 1926 and it is now the largest independently owned insurance agency in the state.
A lifelong business leader, Marchi was a founding member of the Valencia County Chamber of Commerce, the Santa Fe Hispano Chamber of Commerce, and the Taos County Hispano Chamber of Commerce.
Fred Bleil – Spirit Award
Fred Bleil was at the helm as Highlands University’s head football coach when he led the Cowboys to a Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference championship in 1981. He is receiving a Spirit Award for working tirelessly since then to organize numerous reunions at Highlands for this championship team.
Bleil had a highly successful gridiron career that spanned nearly 40 years, including earning RMAC Coach of the Year in 1981. He coached at Highlands from 1979 — 1982.
A master of football defensive strategy, Bleil began his legendary coaching career in 1973 as a defensive coordinator for Eastern New Mexico State University. He retired at the top of his game in 2010 after leading the Texas State University bobcats’ defense to a top ranking in the Southland Conference for red zone defense and forced turnovers. The team earned a 17th place national ranking.
Other colleges that benefited from Bleil’s defensive prowess include the University of New Mexico, San Diego State University, Drake University, Tulane University, and North Texas State University, among others.
The 1981 Cowboys Football Team – Spirit Award
The 1981 Cowboys football team was one the best to take the field in the history of Highlands, taking home a Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference Championship title.
The championship team is being honored with a spirit award for exemplifying spirit as they continue to meet regularly for reunions at Highlands.
Most of the team hailes from New Mexico and neighboring states, with others traveling from California and farther for the popular reunions organized by their coach, Fred Bleil.
This year the ’81 team decided to help the Highlands University Foundation with special projects and fund raising.
“The team members wanted to give back to Highlands for what they received in their educations and football success,” said Jim Mandarino, alumni affairs director.
Distinguished Family — Josie and Carlos Crespin
Josie and Carlos Crespin were both born in Las Vegas in 1913 and graduated from Immaculate Conception School before continuing their education at Highlands, marking the beginning of a remarkable family legacy at the university. The two married in 1934 and raised nine children.
Josie and Carlos were strong advocates for education, instilling their love of learning in their family.
All nine of their children and 10 of their grandchildren and great-grandchildren earned degrees from Highlands, with many completing advanced degrees. Others graduated from various universities and colleges.
The Crespin’s descendants went on to successful careers in education, law, psychology, banking, social work, law enforcement, information technology, nursing, and other fields.
“Josie and Carlos taught their family that education is the key to success in life,” said granddaughter Joselle DiMarco Chandler, a School of Education graduate who teaches Spanish and U.S. history at Robertson High School.
“There were so many educators in the family, and they all wanted us to succeed,” said grandson Ernesto Salazar, executive vice president for Community First Bank Las Vegas.
Josie left an extraordinary mark on the Las Vegas area through her leadership on numerous initiatives.
“She was a woman who inspired the women, men, youth, and elderly of Las Vegas and surrounding areas to work together for positive changes in the community,” Chandler said. “She was a humble woman looking for one more project that could help the people. At a mere 4′ 11″ , she had the vision and heart of a giant.”
Some highlights of Josie’s leadership include helping establish 12 senior citizen centers in the tri-county area, as well as the farmer’s market and the GED program. She was a social worker for the Tri-County Headstart Program and wrote the first local resource for social services. She worked as the first local coordinator for Vista Volunteers.
Josie founded La Plaza Little League in 1962 and was instrumental in obtaining a little league baseball field in West Las Vegas.
She was a tireless, influential activist for itinerant farmworker rights at both the national and local level.
Over the years, Josie received numerous awards, including the national Jefferson Award in 1989 honoring outstanding U.S. citizens. In 1976, the City of Las Vegas honored her for service to youth and the elderly.
Carlos earned his teaching certificate in elementary education from Highlands, and taught in Gallinas and Montezuma, N.M. for several years.
Later, he joined the Las Vegas Optic where he was a translator, Linotype operator, and pressman. He also worked at the Albuquerque Journal, Santa Fe New Mexican, and other New Mexico newspapers. He worked at the print shop at Highlands until his retirement in 1978.
During World War II, Carlos served honorably in the New Mexico Guard.
“Carlos was an avid reader and taught his children local, national and family history,” Chandler said. “He was also an avid fisherman, teaching his children and grandchildren the skills of fishing.”
Carlos and Josie were longtime leaders in Our Lady of Sorrows parish and the West Las Vegas schools. Inseparable in life, Josie died 1995 and Carlos followed in 2003.