Long-time University of New Mexico employee, Cheryl Wallace, whose most recent role was director for the Student Union Building (SUB), is set to retire on June 30. You could say she’s going from directing a building to building a new direction in her life.

The oft-misattributed Abraham Lincoln quote, “In the end, it’s not the years in your life that count. It’s the life in your years,” is one that Wallace keeps top of mind. After 29 years at UNM, Wallace plans to use the “life in her years” to finish building her dream house in New Mexico’s East Mountains, and spend more time with her husband, children and grandchildren.

During her time at UNM Wallace worked under nine university presidents, saw the course registration system go from paper to digital, and witnessed the modernization and transformation of the SUB—a place she considered her “campus home” for the last 15 years. 

While her time at UNM has made up most of her career, her professional journey began outside of higher education. 

“Prior to my first job at UNM, I worked in banking and had worked my way up to branch operations supervisor,” she said. “I then went to work for Fisher Scientific as a just-in-time contract coordinator where I was in charge of the warehouse responsible for delivering chemicals and safety equipment to Sandia National Labs.”

Although she enjoyed her work, Wallace started to feel that without a college degree, she had hit the employment ceiling in terms of advancement opportunities at Fisher Scientific. “My husband and I were talking about the best way to earn a college degree and a living at the same time and we thought that working at UNM would provide the best of both worlds,” she said. 

“I felt like education was important, and working at UNM would push me toward earning a degree while also hopefully creating career advancement opportunities for me as well,” Wallace said. 

So, in 1995, she applied for and was hired as an administrative assistant in the UNM General Accounting department (now known as Unrestricted Accounting). 

“Working in General Accounting was a great introduction to the University,” Wallace said. “I learned so much about the departments, programs and different areas that make up UNM.”

She worked in General Accounting for the next three years, however, due to the nature of the work and trying to keep a healthy work/life balance, Wallace didn’t feel she had time to pursue a degree just yet. 

That all changed in 1998 when she began working in the Vice President for Student Affairs (VPSA) office as an administrative assistant under former Vice President Eliseo “Cheo” Torres. Torres was widely known as what some may call a “higher education degree enthusiast” in its most literal sense.

“I worked with and supervised Cheryl in the past when she was still relatively new to UNM,” Torres said. While the two worked together, Wallace remembers getting a not-so-subtle nudge from Torres about pursuing a higher education degree. 

“As with many of my Student Affairs colleagues throughout the years, Cheo ‘strongly encouraged’ me to get my degree,” Wallace said.

Subsequently, Wallace earned her bachelor of University Studies with an emphasis in Psychology and Family Studies in 2013 while working in Student Affairs.  She and Torres continued to work together in one capacity or another until his retirement in 2021. 

“I watched her get her degree and saw her career excel in the Division,” Torres said. 

During her time in the VPSA office, Wallace learned all she could about the inner workings of the Division. She was prepared when a career advancement opportunity presented itself. 

In 1999, she applied for a position in Recruitment Services in the Campus Visit Program and began a stint as a supervisor of administrative support. “Working there, I found my passion working with students,” she said. It was there, that Wallace worked with Corine Gonzales who was the associate director for UNM Admissions then and is currently a strategic project director for the Division of Enrollment Management.  

Gonzales said that Wallace always kept student needs at the forefront of every position she held at UNM. “Cheryl’s contributions and leadership within her prior role in Recruitment Services and current role in the Student Union Building has been truly admirable,” she said. 

In 2009, Wallace began working in the Student Union Building and put her passion for working with students to work as the SUB’s operations manager.  She would serve in that role for the next ten years until 2019 when long-time Associate Vice President for Student Life Dr. Walter Miller retired. That year, Wallace was named as the SUB’s new director. 

In 2003, prior to Wallace’s employment with the SUB, and under Miller’s lead, the building went through a complete transformation. The complete renovation changed the dated cafeteria atmosphere with limited food choices, a bowling alley, bookstore, and inadequate space for students, and laid a solid foundation for Wallace to continue and build on.  

“During my time at the SUB, I was able to complete a multi-stage roof replacement, added technology options to all meeting room spaces, and upgraded all areas with ADA accessibility,” she said. 

“Cheryl made many improvements in the Student Affairs and Enrollment Management divisions at UNM as well as impactful changes for the better in the Student Union Building,” Miller said. 

One of Wallace’s major goals was to completely rebrand the building for “Lobo Pride” by adding cherry, silver, and turquoise to the walls and creating a warm, welcoming space for UNM students. 

Part of that rebranding began in May of last year, when Wallace was approached by one of her staff, Dennis-Ray Armijo, about adding UNM’s Land Acknowledgement Statement to the Student Union wall. She liked the idea and spearheaded a collaboration between the SUB, VPSA office, and American Indian Student Services to design, create, and implement a mural honoring the Indigenous Peoples’ Land and Territory Acknowledgement.

In August of 2023, Wallace coordinated a 20th anniversary celebration in honor of the 2003 SUB remodel—building on a statement of “when pigs fly” made by Miller about the likelihood of the renovation actually happening. During the ceremony, Wallace presented Miller and Torres with a plaque recognizing their leadership and dedication to the remodel project. “That was a fun event because it celebrated the past and the future of the building,” she said. 

Wallace shared that while she has worked in a variety of areas throughout her career at UNM, none has been more rewarding than Student Affairs. “I am deeply grateful for the opportunity to lead the Student Union and create a welcoming space for our students,” she said. 

“Not only has Cheryl been able to lead efforts to make the SUB a better place and home away from home for many students, but she has been a phenomenal mentor for employees (both staff and student), and student leaders,” Gonzales said. 

“The progress Cheryl made creating bridges across the UNM community also hasn’t gone unnoticed,” Miller echoed. 

As she closes the door on her UNM career, Wallace has been working for current Vice President for Student Affairs, Eric Scott. 

“Cheryl has been an incredible contributor to Student Affairs—both operationally and philosophically,” Scott said. “Her positive and solution-oriented mindset, combined with her cultural and institutional knowledge, made her incredibly effective and a pleasure to work with.”

Today, Wallace thoughtfully reflects on the opportunities she’s had, the people she’s worked with, the impacts she hopes she’s made, and the things she’ll miss. “I will definitely miss the students,” she said. “We touch so many students’ lives on a daily basis—I don’t think we even realize how much influence we’ve had until they return to tell us what they learned here.”

She will also miss working with the SUB staff, including student employees, who have added so much to her time at UNM. 

“Interacting with our student staff has enriched my life and I really hope I’ve enriched theirs as well,” Wallace said.  

While she’ll miss the daily interaction with students and staff, she hopes that through her work as SUB director she has set the students up with a better resource that will meet their academic needs for years to come. 

In the meantime, the division collectively quotes an unknown author when we say, “The world finally gets a chance to miss your expertise, Cheryl.”  

Wallace has left the building.