Student trip to Costa Rica
Ken Carpenter, back row, far right, on a student trip to Costa Rica.

After spending 16 years at the University of New Mexico helping students travel abroad and founding a school in Nicaragua where he’s led several student groups to volunteer, Ken Carpenter is retiring on June 30.

Carpenter, who holds a Ph.D. in International Education from the University of Oregon (UO) and completed his graduate work in U.S. and Latin American History at the University of Texas at Austin (UT), initially served as an international student advisor when he first started working at UNM in 1997. In 1999, UNM’s Study Abroad advisor retired, and Carpenter snagged the position, running the program alone until 2004 when he hired another advisor to assist him.

After growing up in the conservative suburbs of Denver, Colo., Carpenter said his interest in global education developed during his time as an undergraduate at Colorado State University (CSU), and has become part of his life’s passion.

“There was a lot of political and international stuff going on in the sixties. It was a really interesting time historically and I got turned around by some really good professors,” explained Carpenter. “I got involved with student politics, demonstrations; I also became really interested in Africa. At the time, my plan was to become a community college history teacher after I finished college.”

After receiving his bachelor degree, Carpenter received a teaching assistantship to complete his graduate work at UT; while there, Carpenter met his life partner, Greg Calvert. After completing his studies, he began working for the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC), a Quaker organization devoted to service, development, and peace programs throughout the world. Working out of Austin, Carpenter began running programs along the Mexican border and advocating for farm workers’ rights, which required him to travel frequently to areas of the world experiencing dire situations.

Ken Carpenter

One of those areas was Nicaragua, but Carpenter said he experienced something different happening there than in other Latin American countries.

“The Nicaraguans were really happy and positive; they were revolutionaries who wanted to do something progressive for their country,” reflected Carpenter. “I always had it in the back of my head that I wanted to contribute something. Eventually, I went back to school at the University of Oregon to get my doctorate degree. I was thinking, if I did do something, it was probably going to give me more credibility if I had a Ph.D. behind my name.”

In 1994, after completing his Ph.D. at UO, Carpenter and Calvert sold everything they possessed – including cashing in their savings and retirement accounts – and moved down to Nicaragua, bought a building, and opened a school called Casa Xalteva.

The school’s initial purpose was to offer intensive Spanish instruction for those interested in learning the language quickly and fluently. Students spent one to six months immersing themselves in the culture and language. The school initially targeted international backpackers as its core audience, but after receiving a listing in the Lonely Planet guide for Central America, business began booming thanks to heavy tourist traffic during the 1990s.

In 1994, Ken Carpenter and Greg Calvert sold everything they owned and moved to Nicaragua, bought a building and opened a school called Casa Xalteva. The school’s initial purpose was to offer intensive Spanish instruction for those interested in learning the language quickly and fluently.

In 1997, after spending three years building up the school from scratch, Carpenter’s funds were running low, and so he returned to the U.S. and began working at UNM. Calvert and the school’s staff kept Casa Xalteva running and eventually, an educational program for Nicaraguan children developed at the school as well.

In 2005, Carpenter also made a decision that would have a strong impact on UNM’s Study Abroad program; he began offering the international studies seminar he’d been teaching (normally reserved for seniors) to freshmen. The effect was almost immediate; teaching freshmen gave Carpenter the opportunity to encourage students to study abroad before they graduated. In 2006, he led his first student group to Nicaragua with the help of Christine Rack, a sociology professor at UNM.

In the coming months, Carpenter plans to spend time with his family, including his son, Oscar, a Nicaraguan native whom he officially adopted in the late 1990’s, and his grandson. Of course, he also plans to spend more time developing Casa Xalteva, as well as gardening and traveling. In fact, in 2011 during the Arab Spring, Carpenter visited North Africa, a goal he’d had since his time as an undergraduate at CSU when he first developed an interest in the country. Now the question remains: Will he go again – and what great things would he do there?

For more information, contact Kat Elwell, public information representative, Global Education Office, (505) 277-0906,