Interim Associate Social Work Dean and Student Earn Top Honors


Cristina Durán

Las Vegas, N.M. – The National Association of Social Workers New Mexico Chapter named a Highlands University associate dean Social Worker of the Year.

Highlands School of Social Work interim Associate Dean Cristina Durán earned the distinction in February along with Highlands social work student Shakir Farid Abdullah, whom the organization named Student Social Worker of the Year.

“Dr. Cristina Durán is one of the most knowledgeable experts on Mexican immigration issues in the Southwest,” said Steve Montoya, former board president for the NASW New Mexico chapter. “She is an accomplished speaker who has shared her knowledge generously at numerous conferences for our organization.”

In addition to serving as the interim associate dean for the Facundo Valdez School of Social Work at Highlands, Durán also directs the university’s social work program at its Albuquerque Center that enrolls more than 300 undergraduate and graduate students.

Montoya, who nominated Durán for Social Worker of the Year, said she is a strong leader with a passion for the social work profession.

“Cristina is an exceptional leader in social work education, administration and guidance to faculty and students. Because of her passion for social work, Cristina is very committed to training social workers, especially in achieving cultural competency,” Montoya said.

Durán earned her Ph.D. in American studies from the University of New Mexico in 2007 and her Master of Social Welfare from UCLA. She began her tenure with the Highlands social work faculty in 1996.

Durán said the primary focus of her scholarly research is building bridges between native New Mexican Hispanics and Mexican immigrants to New Mexico.

“My dissertation and later research highlights the contributions of Mexican immigrants to Albuquerque and the surrounding area, but at the same time honors the history of Hispanics in New Mexico, especially during the struggle for statehood,” Durán said.

She said her dissertation documented how the streetscapes in Albuquerque changed as a result of the increased Mexican immigrant population and entrepreneurship.

“I looked at places of everyday life that people frequent, such as Mexican meat markets, bakeries and barber shops. For the Mexican immigrants, these places are a great source of comfort, safety and familiarity. My research focuses on how the physical environment promotes or hinders health and well-being,” Durán said.

She said the Highlands social work programs in Albuquerque and Rio Rancho help meet an important need.

“We are preparing social workers who can serve families and communities that confront issues related to poverty, underemployment, substance abuse and lack of access to health and mental health services,” Durán said.

During her tenure at Highlands, Durán has taught and mentored hundreds of students. She also directs the university’s graduate Bilingual/Bicultural Social Work Program.

Earlier in her career, Durán was a school social worker for Albuquerque Public Schools. She was a clinical supervisor and mentor for other APS social workers and also established and directed the Mano y Mano Project – a mentoring program for special education elementary students.

Carmen Perez, vice president of the National Association of Social Workers New Mexico Chapter, nominated Shakira Farid Abdullah for Student Social Worker of the Year.

“Shakir has an astute vision of what’s needed for positive social change,” Perez said. “He’s a powerful new voice in the peaceful movement for social justice in all its realms, including speaking out against intolerance and hate. He’s impressive and has a special talent for connecting with youth.”

Abdullah was one of the primary organizers of the Feb. 21 Albuquerque United Front Against Hate rally and march that drew hundreds of supporters to Albuquerque’s Civic Plaza. The Islamic Center of New Mexico and the Albuquerque Center for Peace and Justice endorsed the event, along with more than 30 other nonprofit agencies and Albuquerque businesses.

“Our goal was to show that hatred against Muslims is not sanctioned in Albuquerque,” said Abdullah, who is Muslim. “We also wanted to stand up for the rights of immigrants, the LGBTQ community and others who are targets of hatred and  bigotry. We are building a strong coalition of resources in Albuquerque to speak out against systemic oppression and racially motivated violence,” Abdullah said.

The Islamic Center of New Mexico, the mosque Abdullah attends, was fire bombed in 2014. In 2015, he also helped organize a march and rally in support of his mosque.

Abdullah said he plans to continue his social work studies at Highlands to earn a master’s degree with concentrations in clinical practice and substance abuse.