He was once told that a University of New Mexico student-athlete could have two of the three: an academic life, a social life, or an athletic life.
Fall 2022 graduate Nehemiah Cionelo redefined that statement across his time at UNM, becoming a triple threat.
Cionelo is graduating from UNM with a Bachelor of Science in Computer Science, as well as with two minors– Liberal Arts and Integrated Studies.
“I came in with the mindset of heck no, why not all three?” he said. “If you can just realize that there are phases where things tend to come and go on throughout college, it'll allow you to achieve a lot of different experiences, but you just have to time them right.”
Born and raised in Albuquerque, Cionelo has been running with his family since he was six years old. Although he has engaged in different types of competitions, from cross-country to even speed walking, he believes he never stopped truly moving.
“I started doing club track with my siblings, after watching them. Then my dad was training all of us and I got roped into it just like that,” he said.
Still, there was a moment before coming to UNM where he considered putting away his running shoes. His family, friends and coaches, like Del Jenkins and his wife did not let that happen.
“I went to the gym one day and I told them, ‘all right, I'm done running because I'm done with high school’ and they were indignant,” Cionelo said. “They sat me down in front of the computer setting up eligibility papers for the NCAA saying there's no way you’re not going to try.”
His other coach, Coach Shane Cleveland and his wife, Julie, he said were responsible for keeping him going through the highs and lows.
“They're like a second set of parents to me,” he said. “It's because of them pushing me and training me prior to getting here that I was able to get on UNM’s track team. They pushed me and kept me motivated and just hanging in there.”
He’s become a speedy Lobo athlete in both track and field and cross-country thanks to this support. Now, he is confident in his ability to overcome any physical obstacle in racing.
“My freshman year on the track, I cut down my 5K time by like 90 seconds. A year ago I thought that would never be possible, but after that I was like, wow, I really enjoyed that, and if I can do that, I could probably do pretty much anything else,” Cionelo said.
His time growing up with his siblings was instrumental in how he saw the world, especially when the COVID-19 pandemic hit.
“I was raised in a poor background with a low income family,” he said. I was like, man, if I was struggling back when I was there, I can't imagine how low income families would be struggling in New Mexico right now.”
When the pandemic struck, that mindset inspired Cionelo to create Footsteps for Families. This initiative took on a donate-per-mile approach. Both virtually in 2020 and hybrid-style in 2021, participants received money for the distances they ran for a good cause.
Cionelo said Footsteps for Families raised over $3,000 each year. That money went directly to families, as well as towards creating hundreds of family supply packages. Filled with food, toiletries, and school supplies, Cionelo handed each package out at an Expo New Mexico drive-thru distribution.
“I was just trying to make a difference. I was looking out for some other kid who would have been like me, but just in the pandemic or something,” he said.
His experiences outside of UNM helped him double down on his passion to help kids. Cionelo worked and learned through Footprints Running Camp, and Overland Summers that he had the care and influence to make a difference in the children’s lives.
“One thing I realized with this idea of generational trauma,when everybody is like, just break the cycle, I was like, you know what? You can take that a whole step further and stop your whole cycle, but also maybe prevent someone else's,” Cinoelo said. “My positive influence might make the difference. I really took that to heart.”
While he’s not sure exactly what his future career looks like, Cionelo is confident in what he loves to do. That includes content creation.
“I really enjoy making videos and stuff and manifesting my own creative expression,” he said. “ I like to make videos that make me laugh, so when at the end of the day you make a piece of content, and you look at it and you're like, oh, that was pretty good. I find that fulfilling.”
He has been creating videos almost as long as he’s been running. In the last two years, he’s gained a large following on TikTok through ‘#Cocotalk.’
“Essentially I'm just chopping, cutting open coconuts. I'll tell a story as I open a coconut or I will cut open a coconut with something it shouldn't be cut open with,” Cionelo said.
With those viral videos, Cionelo was able to also push out Footsteps for Families with the platform he had created.
“It's nice to have a platform in terms of where you can leverage it, how you can influence like, you know, others or lives around them,” he said.
When he was not cutting up coconuts, Cionelo worked hard to master the challenges presented within his degree, and is grateful for it.
“I wanted to get good grades. I wanted to do something intellectually stimulating, to challenge myself in terms of what I was doing education wise,” he said. “I'm happy now because I do get to graduate with a useful degree.”
Cionelo cherished not only his education, but the new connections he made. That includes his freshman year roommate, and a lot of time at La Posada Dining Hall.
“We thought La Po was the greatest. We would sit for hours, just eating and talking,” he said. “Those are some of my fondest memories from freshman year. We just had a lot of community.”
Filled with lots of experience, knowledge and friendships, Cionelo thinks the opportunities at UNM are endless, as long as future Lobos seek them out. That was something he had to do himself after being homeschooled.
“Obviously college is going to be socially and academically just a dynamically different situation,” Cionelo said. “But if you go to UNM with an open mind, especially if you're from the state, you're going to be prepared to probably have a good experience. But again, it is the most you make of it.”