All life is precious and that fact is recognized more so when you mourn someone you love. The value of those relationships with the individuals you lose once they are gone is magnified with that realization. Tears flow as friends, relatives and colleagues share memories and stories of their loved ones. You hold close to your heart all those memories and they inspire you to carry on.  

Those emotions are flowing across The University of New Mexico’s campus community after the recent loss of one of its valued staff members, Melissa L. Vargas, who died peacefully on Saturday, May 30 surrounded by her family.

She is survived by her husband of 33 years, Mario; her two children, Alexander and Nicholas; her mother Donna Lerch; her brother, Matthew Anderson and wife Tara; aunts, uncles and cousins and her beloved pets Cassie, Bleu, Satchel, and Bella, and countless colleagues and friends at UNM. 

“I know heaven is a beautiful place, because it has you.” 
– Unknown

A native New Mexican, Vargas was raised in Rio Rancho and Albuquerque. She graduated from Manzano High School, attended New Mexico State University, and then The University of New Mexico where she studied and received her Bachelor’s degree in English with a minor in Speech-Language Pathology. After graduating, she began a distinguished 23-year career at The University of New Mexico.

Melissa V. protrait
Melissa Vargas

Vargas began her career at UNM in 1997 in the University’s Physical Plant Department. She later moved into the position of Chief of Staff & Strategic Planner for the Office of the Provost before advancing to her final position, Director of Operations and Executive Vice President for Academic Affairs.

An individual with high morals and integrity, Vargas loved the University and the people she worked with. She was an individual that others could go to for assistance and she would do whatever possible to provide that assistance. She believed her role was to help people be successful at the University, and to better serve and educate the students at UNM.

“I first met Melissa when I was interviewing for the role of provost at UNM just about a year ago,” said Provost and Executive Vice President for Academic Affairs James Holloway, her direct supervisor. “When I started, she was incredibly helpful and quickly introduced me to the campus that she loved, showing me with great excitement the construction programs that were ongoing, ranging from PAÍS to the Johnson Center. She truly dove into her work with a zeal for making UNM better, never with an eye towards credit for herself but simply for the joy of contributing to this university."

On campus she’s been described by many as a great colleague and mentor; a consummate professional in all that she gave in her work at UNM. She was a great advocate for students and campus programs supporting both fervently, and was proud and honored to serve the University. Her impact and presence will be felt for years to come through the many projects she was involved in.

"Melissa believed her role was to help people be successful at the University to better serve and educate the students at UNM. She was a true colleague, Lobo and friend." 
– Tim Gutierrez, associate vice president, Student Services

For the last 20 years, Vargas had a hand in numerous capital projects across campus including Mitchell Hall (a project she was especially proud of), Dane Smith Hall, the Anderson School’s McKinnon Center for Management, Johnson Center, George Pearl Hall, Center for Teaching and Learning Building, College of Education Tech building and UNM’s most recent treasure, the Physics and Astronomy and Interdisciplinary Science (PAÍS) building. An edifice that stands eloquently near the middle of UNM’s beautiful campus.

She was also involved in many other smaller projects that are just as meaningful to those who will be served through their programs and offerings such as the LoboRespect Advocacy Center, Advance at UNM, the LGBTQ Resource Center, Student Veterans Association Resource Center and the Predock Center for the School of Architecture and Planning.

“Melissa’s work passion was driven by a desire to create long-lasting, strategically planned facilities that supported the university’s mission,” said Mark Orgeron,  who worked with Vargas on many of the projects. “Her work was a key part in driving student learning outcomes and facilitating research projects across UNM.”

The completion of many of those projects didn’t come easily, but through her perseverance, dedication and love to the institution, Vargas helped to figure out a path to accomplish what seemed almost impossible throughout the years.

“Melissa was an individual who would go out of her way to try and accommodate a request, and if she was not able to approve your request, she would have a good reason as to why not,” said colleague Tim Gutierrez, associate vice president for Student Services, who met Vargas nearly 15 years ago when she started working in the Provost’s office. “But she would not give up altogether as she would then begin looking for alternatives that might address the request.

“She was an individual who made you feel comfortable and that you were important. She never changed that first impression I had of her, after all the years we worked together. Melissa believed her role was to help people be successful at the University to better serve and educate the students at UNM. She was a true colleague, Lobo and friend.  She will be missed not only by me but by many across campus,” added Gutierrez.

Alumni Chapel wreath
A wreath outside the UNM Alumni Memorial Chapel in memory of Melissa Vargas.

Vargas made many friends along the way. They were more than just coworkers. They were close friends, people she mentored and shared her life with.

“As someone who had known Melissa for several years as a respected colleague and friend, I am truly and deeply saddened to hear of her passing,” said longtime friend Gina Urias-Sandoval, interim executive director at UNM’s Anderson School of Management. “Melissa was a kind and compassionate person and always willing to help if you needed advice or a resource. Her institutional knowledge of UNM was a great resource for all of us.

“Melissa was the first person I thought of to ask for advice on any all matters having to do with UNM politics, policies, or processes. Melissa never hesitated to take my call, answer my emails and offer assistance. She truly loved UNM and the community and frequently attended our events at our departments and cheered us on.”

On a personal level, anyone who knew Vargas knew that she loved her family with all of her heart. Those who talked to her on a day-to-day basis heard a lot about her two sons, Alexander and Nicholas, and her husband, Mario, whom she met in 1986 and married in 1991. Melissa’s pride was her joy in watching her boys grow and play sports. Many times, they were all she talked about.

“I will miss our conversations and how proud she was of her boys,” said Gutierrez. “Whenever she talked about Alex and Nick and what they had accomplished, her face lit up and there was excitement in her voice.” 

“Her sense of pride and joy in talking about them was beautiful,” added Urias-Sandoval.

Through all of life’s challenges, Vargas always maintained a positive attitude, and was a warm, kind loving mother, wife, friend and coworker. Her Catholic faith was strong, as well as her love for her family and her pets.

“A few years back when Melissa had just lost her father to brain cancer and I had just lost my father to colon cancer, I ran into her here on campus as I often did,” said Urias-Sandoval. “I will never forget her words to me that day. She said, ‘From all darkness comes light, Gina. We, too, will survive the loss.’ I only hope that she is right and that we can all fill the void that she has left behind both at UNM and in each of our hearts.”

Funeral services for Vargas will be held Monday, June 15, at 10 a.m., at Our Lady of the Annunciation Catholic Church located at 2532 Vermont St., NE.

A memorial fund in Vargas’ name is currently being arranged. Additional details will be forthcoming.