Beyond a realm of traditional college courses, the University of New Mexico has options which could require dancing shoes, a paintbrush, or some boxing gloves. 

UNM’s Continuing Education has offered unique classes for students, staff and faculty for over 90 years. It’s a more recent partnership, however, which is teaching something especially critical: self defense. 

This connection was established between Continuing Education and Jackson Wink MMA Academy. Gym co-owners Mike and Heather Winkeljohn, had just filled a vital need for female self-defense with Smart Girl Self Defense 

“We were getting so many requests for women's self-defense or any kind of training for women,” Heather Winkeljohn said. “Not every woman wants to go into the Jackson Wink Academy. They’re still a little bit nervous, and not sure what to expect. So having a place just for women and girls to train seems to be more comforting, at least until they can get that confidence level up.”   

Maralie Waterman

UNM Continuing Education Personal Enrichment Program Manager Maralie Waterman says she saw the need for an opportunity like this at UNM. After waves of surveys, which Continuing Education relies on for feedback and new class ideas. From there, it was a perfect matchup, Continuing Education Personal Enrichment Program Manager Maralie Waterman says. 

 “A topic will come up and so I'll be looking for somebody to teach on a particular subject, and that's actually what happened with the self-defense class,” Waterman said. “We wanted something that was really focused on, of course, the educational component, because everything within Continuing Education really has that kind of educational focus for a broad and diverse population.” 

With her MMA experience and advocacy for female welfare, Winkeljohn built a regiment focused on what every woman could stand to brush up on. 

“It's just something that's the elephant in the room. We have to address it. We have to work with our community partners,” she said. “We have to be proactive and I think that's what UNM was envisioning. Every girl, every woman, has a need or want to feel safe. It's just something that we deal with as women.” 

 Now, for over a year, students, staff and faculty have been able to take advantage of two options, taught by Winkeljohn. 

“Years ago, when I was approaching certain crisis organizations within Albuquerque, there was the belief we don't want to put the responsibility on the woman to defend herself if something should go wrong,” she said. “That's not what this is about. This is just about giving them tools, and skills we don't typically grow up learning.” 

The first self defense course, which takes place monthly on Saturdays, hones in on skills all women have. Whether it’s quick thinking, dexterity, or their voice, students learn how to be resilient in the face of a dangerous situation. This is of course, in addition to things like wrist and hair grabs, bear hugs, palm, and elbow and knee strikes.  

“Our biggest thing is escape and avoid. We don't want you to deal with a person's physical strength. You don't we don't know what we're dealing with. It's all good stuff and it all crosses over and it's only going to help your skill level.” Winkeljohn said.   

Heather Winkeljohn

Winkeljohn’s monthly, four-hour lessons include guest speakers, who focus on crime, domestic violence and human trafficking. There’s also a great importance placed on the mental side of being attacked, and the psychology behind fight or flight responses.   

“What we try to focus on a little bit in this class is the freeze, because that's what most of us will do–we’ll freeze.,” she said. “There's so many things that you can do preemptively by reading situations and listening to your gut. So there's the physical component, but there's a mental component as well.” 

 Something Waterman and Winkeljohn both emphasize is that sure, women will learn how to escape an attacker and possibly fight back; but they will also be taught in a way that is accessible and doable for all, no matter one’s skill level. 

“You want to make sure that any kind of self-defense class or any kind of program that you're offering works with things that all of us have, like this natural strength, or our ability to communicate,” Waterman said.  “I believe this class focuses on and builds on that natural resilience we all have.” 

Waterman says dozens of women have hit the mat, and feel safer when just going about their days off and on campus.  

“We're more conscious of what's around us and we hold our heads a little higher,” she said. “The next time women go, they bring a friend, they bring a sister, they bring their daughter. They feel like it's a quality program and other people need to know about it.” 

 Studies show just learning basic self defense helps reduce anxiety and improve confidence in women when they are alone. While it is never the victim’s fault when they are attacked, additional studies report women who learn these skills are 50 to 60 percent less likely to be raped. Per the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, that’s a big dent for the one out of four women who report being attacked, or the one out of five who report being raped in their life.  

Programming is accessible to all ages. Continuing Education sponsors the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI). 

OLLI at UNM offers affordable, academically oriented courses for those 50 and older. There are no tests or assignments, just a requirement for an aptitude for learning. 

 “You have people who are certainly all ages and all ability levels,” Waterman said, “We were looking for something that focused on people coming from a standpoint of strength rather than a standpoint of weakness. ” 

That means no matter your age, it’s never too late to gain insight on how to protect yourself.  

“I'm not a super male athlete, clearly, but I have a foot in each world,” Winkeljohn said. “I feel like I still have that ability to relate to women, you know, soccer moms, retirees, students, professionals, because I've been almost all of those things.” 

For those ready to take it to the next level, Smart Girl Self Defense gym also offers a weekly Fit 2 Hit class. Students are able to combine their self-defense skills with some power behind the punch. They practice self-defense strikes and drills, kickbox, and improve cardiovascular health.  

“We work on striking and improving the strength and the speed of those kinds of skills,” Winkeljohn said. “Fit 2 Hit is practicing these things and practicing them in an environment where you're not under stress, so you're more likely to use some of these skills if you need to.” 

Not all students have to go to the extreme, Waterman says. Anyone can return to the original self defense class through Continuing Education, if they want a refresher, or to show someone else the ropes, the doors are open.  

“If you're not ready to try a class, try a private lesson,” Winkeljohn said. “A lot of our students start out just one-on-one until they feel confident and empowered. Then they transition into a class.”  

It also helps, she says, that the community of women coming together in each class, is also something special. 

“When the women first come into a self-defense class, they don't know each other. They're a little bit hesitant to grab each other or try some of the techniques,” Winkeljohn said. “But by the end of the night, they're high fiving. They're yelling and cheering for each other. It's pretty cool to see that transition take place in just a matter of hours.”  

There’s a whole world of different course offerings now at UNM Continuing Education. Waterman says there is no time like the present.  

“Continuing Education specializes in that noncredit component,” she said. “It’s what you need to take you to the next level. Whether it's that piece you're missing educationally or a skill set that you feel like will be valuable to you, it's worth it. A lot of really wonderful possibilities exist here, not only for career and professional development, but for personal enrichment and for taking whatever objectives, whatever goals you have to the next level.” 

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