Rick Loffredo/Highlands University
Highlands Student Makes Her Mark at New Mexico Legislature
When Nicole Parra-Perez was a student at New Mexico Highlands University, she made her mark whether she was leading the student body as president or rallying the Cowgirls soccer team as captain. Now the May 2009 elementary education/special education graduate is making her mark at the New Mexico Legislature as an intern for the Legislative Education Study Committee.
Parra-Perez, 24, competed for the prestigious paid internship with outstanding students from universities throughout the state. She was one of only two students named to receive the honor, and the $9,000 six-month job that ends Dec. 31. Her selection isn’t surprising when you talk with her and take a quick look at her resume. During her years at Highlands, she devoted her time, intellect and tireless energy well beyond student government and the soccer field.
Here’s a short list: Highlands’ academic honor roll and dean’s list, student of the year in 2009, graduation speaker May 2009, new student orientation leader, student teacher at Legion Park Elementary School, Las Vegas, New Mexico, lobbied senators on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. as part of a Highlands’ student delegation representing the Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities, researched and reviewed bills for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee in Washington, D.C. as part of a national delegation of university student body presidents.
“My time and training at Highlands definitely prepared me for this legislative internship,” Parra-Perez said. “I’m very grateful for the quality education I received. I also put effort into opportunities that were available at Highlands, and the university opened so many doors for me. It’s small enough to communicate and big enough to grow.
“This internship is right up my alley, and I’m always up for a challenge. I wanted to help pass legislation pertaining to education,” Parra-Perez said.
As a legislative intern, one of Parra-Perez’ primary responsibilities is to research, write and present policy reports to the Legislative Education Study Committee. She also served as one of two historians on the floor of the House of Representatives during the special legislative session in October, tracking each bill as it was introduced and documenting its progress.
“In the Legislative Education Study Committee we all work together for the common goal of improving education in New Mexico,” Parra-Perez said. “As an athlete, I really value this team approach, and I’ve learned so much.”
Frances Maestas, director of the Legislative Education Study Committee, has high praise for Parra-Perez.
“Nicole has done an excellent job,” Maestas said. “She is a very talented individual, and her poise and confidence will open many doors for her. I hope she stays in the classroom for many years. Our students need to absorb her enthusiasm.”
Maestas said that Parra-Perez’ outstanding work in research, writing and presentations is especially noteworthy, showing the balance needed for legislative committee work. Her education knowledge, strong leadership skills, and work ethic were also assets during her internship.
Parra-Perez’ leadership ability is well known to the Highlands community.
“Nicole brought an impressive combination of high energy, intelligence, common sense, and people skills to her leadership role as student body president,” said university President Jim Fries. “Working with her on student issues was always productive.”
Parra-Perez was in middle school when she decided to be a teacher.
“I’d finish all my work early and one of my teachers said go help in the special education classroom,” Parra-Perez said. “There was a student I worked with whose speech was hard to understand. One day he said clearly, â€˜Nicole, thank you for helping me. Come back tomorrow.’ I thought to myself, as a teacher I could help kids, and have fun.
“I’m always teaching, from soccer to sign language. It’s part of who I am, and my lifestyle. In the classroom, you can see it in the children’s eyes and body language when they understand a concept. It’s amazing and rewarding. I love it,” Parra-Perez said.
Highlands education professor emeritus Loretta Salazar is just one of the professors Parra-Perez says was influential in her teacher training. Salazar supervised Parra-Perez in her field based training, and also taught her in an ESL class.
“Nicole is very bright, analytical and intensely focused,” Salazar said. “At the same time, she’s always kind, courteous and considerate. She seems to draw out the best in people.
“When she was student teaching, Nicole was able to give special attention to the students who really needed it while not disregarding the rest of the class. That’s tricky. She has a very smooth, beautiful classroom management style. I’m so proud of the fact that Nicole went into education. She is exactly the kind of instructional leader we need at so many levels from classroom teaching to administration. Nicole has the potential to really fly high,” Salazar said.
Parra-Perez has set her sights on a two-year assignment with Teach for America, a division of AmeriCorps that places teachers throughout the country in high-poverty areas with the goal of ending education inequity. She’ll know in January if she’s accepted into this selective program.
“I’m going to teach no matter what, so why not do it where I’m most needed?” Parra-Perez said. “With Teach for America the focus is to help eliminate the achievement gap between students in low-income areas and their wealthier peers. The program uses very data driven teaching techniques and also includes community service. I hope to get accepted so I can help bring students up to grade level, and refine my teaching skills. Then I can come back to New Mexico and bring what I learn to my students here.”
Given her track record, odds are Parra-Perez will have a chance to do just that.