It all started with Dan and Katherine Burrell’s idea. The local entrepreneurial couple wanted to help our state’s economy and the general welfare of the community by encouraging New Mexico’s most talented young to graduate, attend a flagship university, then return to their communities to make a difference.

The idea was brought to fruition with the establishment of the New Mexico Leadership Institute, a program at UNM linking student’s talents to their passions.

The New Mexico Leadership Institute (NMLI) is an innovative five-year program targeting New Mexico high school juniors who have demonstrated a particular aptitude for leadership, creativity, resourcefulness and an entrepreneurial spirit. The program also targets students who may not have the means or support to graduate.

The goal of NMLI’s program is to graduate these students from high school, support their transition into one of New Mexico’s flagship universities, The University of New Mexico or New Mexico State University, and have them graduate in four years with the skills and knowledge they need to obtain ready employment in New Mexico.

With one of the highest high school drop-out rates in the country, low college matriculation and graduation rates, and with many of the State’s most talented young leaders leaving for opportunity elsewhere, New Mexico is struggling to reach its economic potential. NMLI’s curriculum, created through a collaboration with UNM and NMSU, as well as the Center for Creative Leadership (CCL), a globally recognized firm in leadership research and training, is designed to address these challenges in a comprehensive way

“The big takeaway that the students get, is the value of being a New Mexican—valuing community within New Mexico and making sure they are the next leaders in the state instead of being a part of the typical brain drain, leaving to a different state then eventually coming back,” says UNM NMLI Program Director Michael Hoodless. “The idea is for students to know many of the same things matter here, too. They see how bad things can potentially be so hopefully they help fix the cause.”

Local students are invited to apply the fall semester of their junior year of high school. If accepted after a rigorous application and interview process, they are invited to join the program the spring semester of their junior year, after which they begin an intensive one-year leadership training program that includes two summer academies and a 12-month “challenge” period.

The next four years of the program is heavily focused on keeping students on a path towards graduation and employment. NMLI Scholars are awarded automatic acceptance into either UNM or NMSU when they enter the program. NMLI Scholars who complete the program receive a $15,000 grant towards the cost of their education.

This year UNM NMLI accepted 20 more students into the program.

“We travel to high schools from across the state, especially areas that we haven’t had any applicants and we let them know about the scholarship opportunity,” said Hoodless. “The whole state is starting to apply. This year we had over 300 applicants.”

Selina Montoya is an incoming freshman at UNM. She is already familiar with the University, as this is her second year in the NMLI program.

Her project this past year focused on helping eight and nine-year-olds at the Raymond G. Sanchez Community Center learn healthy eating and how to have fun with it. She made fruit pizzas with the children.

“It was really cool to see the kids have fun with it,” said Montoya. “Healthy eating isn’t just eating Brussels sprouts or nasty veggies. It can be food people enjoy and have fun with.”

From her experience, Montoya would like to take her project and make it part of a local afterschool program.

“I’ve always been interested in health,” she said. “I want to major in biochemistry and possibly become a doctor someday. I definitely want to stay active in my community with this health initiative and continue to inspire children to make positive choices.”.  

The UNM NMLI program just graduated their first group of college seniors and looks forward to the group’s potential for bettering the lives of New Mexicans.