You’ll find plenty of public servants in Washington D.C., defending various cases for their prospective state. You won't, however, find one as young, passionate and innovative as UNM senior Nic Estrada.
The New Mexico native is graduating this spring with a Bachelor’s of Arts in Political Science and History, and not one, not two, but three minors. Those cover sustainability studies, economics and interdisciplinary honors studies.
“I've been able to do all sorts of cool interdisciplinary work in all different fields and it's just been a lot of fun,” Estrada said. “The faculty are great, the people you meet are great and just everything is so much fun. I really enjoyed UNM.”
Estrada’s interest in defending New Mexico began at a young age. His grandparents built a strong foundation of hard work, defending what was theirs, and gaining back what was taken from them.
“I always kind of knew I wanted to do something with the environment. My grandfather's from a little town called San Jose, which had a really close relationship with water. I grew up hearing stories of how my grandfather used to have to go down to the Pecos River, fill up a basin with water and bring it to the house,” he said, “Even though I didn't know it at the time, I guess water was kind of always at the back of my mind.”
While many teens gravitate to video games and parties, Estrada gravitated a different direction: public service.
“Through high school I started realizing that I wanted to do something within public service. I had an internship that let me go out to D.C., meet with some of our representatives out there, and that just really solidified my interest in a public service career,” Estrada said. “That's led me down the political science track, and that's where I am now. I'm looking to help the people in New Mexico.”
At UNM, Estrada very quickly mastered the New Mexico to D.C. pipeline. It began with another internship, this time under Senator Ben Ray Lujan. The Fred Harris Internship allowed Estrada to solidify his desire to pursue environmental issues, and to find solutions to them.
“I got to work on a whole range of issues, but what really interested me the most was the environmental stuff. We worked on some cool water issues, and just helped out constituents when they have questions about water rights,” Estrada said.
If that wasn’t enough time working at the federal level at such a young age, Estrada made it there once again, after being chosen as an up and coming Hispanic leader as part of a federal Hispanic Heritage Month program.
“We got to go to the White House, meet with some of President Biden's team and just learn about the issues that Hispanics are facing nationwide. UNM is really great in that we have a lot of connections in D.C,” he said.
Despite all of his time in the nation’s capital, Estrada knew he had to keep his boots on the ground in New Mexico.
“Getting back to Albuquerque, I knew I wanted to continue learning about water issues here in New Mexico. I think about its background too when I'm learning about how water is used in our state because we have such a long, interesting history of it,” Estada said.
You could say upon his return from an impactful time in D.C., Estrada flowed towards the Water Resources Program exactly like a river. He approached the topic of water rights, scarcity and conservation with such conviction, he earned a fellowship within the program.
“I got to kind of pursue my own interests, like working on this project that took a really deep dive into water issues here in New Mexico. That was just a really cool experience and such an honor to be a part of that,” he said.
Through this, Estrada was able to put his excitement into action. He not only was able to work on his own sustainability research, but was made partner in a graduate studies project. That focused on a brand new model, used to measure water flow from the Rio Grande, and what that looked like 50 to 100 years from now. The answer?
“Not good. It was a little disheartening to learn how dire the water situation here is in New Mexico, but I am optimistic. I think that we can work together, reevaluate our water use and make strides towards reducing our water deficit, but that is going to take a lot of political action,” Estrada said.
“UNM has given me a lot of ideas about water and how it interacts with political systems here. Many Hispanic communities lost their water rights, lost natural resources. I think working to alleviate some of those losses is definitely something that I'm interested in doing.” – Nic Estrada
Water rights are a complicated, but critical concept that has become even more important in recent years, as the amount of the precious resource dwindles. Estrada hopes to be the face of impartial, just rulings when it comes to water law.
“As climate change continues to worsen water scarcity here in New Mexico, the little water that we have in our rivers and underground, in our aquifers, that's going to be increasingly disputed. I hope to mediate some of those disputes,” Estrada said. “I hope to ensure that tribal users, agriculture users, people in cities are getting the amount of water that they deserve under the law, but I also want to make sure everything is distributed equitably and make sure that nobody's really losing out.”
Estrada is also responsible for cosmetic changes on campus, as part of his fellowship research. That includes a new bike pump outside Johnson Center, thanks to funding he got approved.
As the predecessor to Sen. Lujan’s seat, it seems only fitting Estrada also earned the highly competitive Udall Scholarship. This led to an award of $7,000, a whole new set of connections and the opportunity to discuss issues at the top of the environmental docket.
“That's a huge honor. I'm just part of this community now that is really set on facing environmental issues,” he said.
This was all while managing the struggles presented by the COVID-19 pandemic. It was hard for Estrada to manage his workload while missing out on the outlets of campus life, and seeing his friends.
“The pandemic was definitely tough in making that switch to online classes. I do feel like I lost out on the sense of community that started to kind of develop my freshman year,” he said. “Coming back after online classes during the pandemic, was just such an incredible experience to actually be in class with people again, even though we all had masks on.”
His research and green efforts on campus are far from over. Estrada was just welcomed to UNM’s Law School, where he will work towards his career as a water lawyer, and earn a Natural Resources Certificate.
“I hope to help facilitate some of these adjudications, settle water disputes and just make sure that water is distributed equitably in our state,” he said. “I hope to work as a water lawyer either for the state of New Mexico, for a nonprofit, or for a private law firm, but just really working to serve the people of New Mexico and their water rights.”
When he’s not tied up with defending natural resources, and completing a long list of degrees, you can find this future alumnus hiking, kayaking and biking.
“Whether it’s hiking the Sandias, Mount Taylor, the Zuni Mountains, that's something I really enjoy doing with friends as well. This summer, I have some plans to get out, do some backpacking. That'll be a good time to think,” Estrada said.
As much as it seems Estrada conquered his studies and early career all alone, he says otherwise, with a long list of people to thank.
“My family has always been super supportive. John Fleck has always been super inspiring. Kiyoko Simmons has been great about keeping me on track and helping me with different things that I'm interested in. Mindy Morgan has also always been very supportive,” he said.
I wondered, with all these ties, if Estrada planned to return to Washington D.C. There was no hesitation when he replied.
“I'm pretty set on staying here in New Mexico. This is where I want to build my career. This is where my family is from, where my roots are. I want to give back,” Estrada said.
While many New Mexican high school seniors may look elsewhere for their college experience, Estrada says to not look too far.
“Don't be afraid to take a chance. There are so many cool things going on here at UNM that really aren't happening anywhere else in the country,” he said. “I wish I would have known how quickly this was all going to fly by. Try and do as much as you can, because this is really a once in a lifetime opportunity while you're here as an undergraduate.”