Q&A with new chief executive officer

Dr. Sylvia Y. Acosta

Dr. Sylvia Y. Acosta
Q1. Tell us about your childhood and your upbringing.

A1. I am very proud to be from this region. My father came to America as a bracero – he was a migrant worker, and we traveled throughout the country with my dad. We finally settled in El Paso when he got a job there. My mother worked as a seamstress for a garment factory; she used to sew zippers onto pants. My mom had a sixth-grade education, and my dad had a third-grade education – they did not go to college. But they knew that education was the most important thing for their children, so they made it a priority in our family to ensure that each one of their kids got an education.

One day when I was a little girl, my father asked me to feel his hands, and they were full of blisters because he worked so hard in the fields. I must have been about seven years old, and he said to me, “Honey, I don't ever want you to have to work with your back; I want you to work with your mind.” He didn’t live long enough to see me graduate from NMSU with my Ph.D., but I know he would have been enormously proud of me.

"I am coming home. It took me 13 years to get back here, but when you return to a place that is so important in your life, it just feels like home."

Q2. How did your time at NMSU shape your future?

A2. The reason I have a doctorate now is that NMSU believed in me. The first time I worked for NMSU was in 2003 when I was the Assistant Dean for Development and Public Relations in the College of Business. I was a single mom, and from the very first day I started working at NMSU, the university never said “no” to me. It was unusual to give a single mother with a nine-month-old such an important level of responsibility, but having this university believe in me and take a chance on me completely transformed my life.

When my daughter turned three, I had a conversation with Dean Carruthers (he was dean of the College of Business at the time) about wanting to get a Ph.D., but I told him I didn’t know how I could do this while balancing work and family. And he said, “Just go for it. Don't worry about everything else – we'll figure it out.” And I did, and it changed everything in my life.

Once I finished my doctorate, I went on to lead billion-dollar campaigns, I became CEO of one of the largest non-profits in the country – and it was all because NMSU invested in me. It is an honor and privilege to lead the NMSU Foundation now; I have so much to give this university because it gave so much to me.

Q3. Describe some of your proudest professional accomplishments.

A3. One accomplishment was at New Mexico State when I started working in the College of Business. There were no chairs in the College of Business, and I remember talking to the Dean and the faculty about it, and they said, “If we're going to be a competitive college, we have to have some chairs.” To be able to facilitate that opportunity to get some chairs at New Mexico State in the College of Business was something that I think helped us think about ourselves in a different way and helped to move the college further along in its quest to become the leading business school in this region.

Another example is when I was just starting in fundraising, I worked for the University Breast Care Center at Texas Tech. One of the things I raised money for was for a mobile mammography unit. That was such an incredible opportunity. It made me feel good about the work I was doing because I knew we were saving lives. There were so many women who were not able to go to a hospital or did not have that opportunity to take care of themselves. To be able to do those mammograms in the community and save a mother who had maybe a 3-year-old child or a newborn baby – to provide the opportunity for them to see their children grow up and live a full life was something that really transformed me.

That is what we do in development, and that is why it matters so much, because we really change and transform lives. The work we do is not sales. It is about matching a person's vision with her or his dreams, and then making the world a better place through that passion. Every single person that gives and every single person that participates in our efforts is invested in the future of New Mexico State University, and it changes the world.

Q4. What do you want the Aggie and Las Cruces communities to know about you?

A4. I am coming home. It took me 13 years to get back here, but when you return to a place that is so important in your life, it just feels like home.

I am honored and privileged and excited about what this means for the future. We are going to literally shape the future. New Mexico State feeds the world. Our engineers drive innovations that influence our society. Our business graduates run our organizations. Who doesn’t need doctors and nurses and teachers and social workers and artists? We have the whole package. And we can share it not just with this community, or New Mexico, or the United States, but with the entire world.

I was recently at a Business Advisory Council meeting, and I immediately felt like I was back home. One of my former students, who was a Business Advisory Council Ambassador when I was here 13 years ago, is now sitting on the Business Advisory Council – and it all came full circle for me at that very moment.

That’s what this is all about. There is a new generation of New Mexico State University students and alumni who have an opportunity to not only engage with each other, but to contribute to and be part of what is their home. Their home is New Mexico State, just like it is my home. And that, to me, is a privilege—to be able to facilitate that virtuous circle through philanthropy.

Q5. What excites you most about leading the NMSU Foundation?

A5. What excites me the most about this job is the potential, the opportunity, and the commitment we have. I come from a family of New Mexico State graduates. Every single Aggie in my family talks about the impact NMSU made on their lives and how it transformed them. To articulate that – to move the university forward through focused philanthropy – is powerful. Every single gift matters. And every single Aggie is invested in the potential of NMSU.

That is the story of New Mexico State University. And to be able to articulate that is going to be critically important, because all those stories will change lives. My role, which I think is the best role in the world, is to help harness that passion, to bring it to life at New Mexico State through engagement, philanthropy, and opportunity.

Q6. You mentioned in your interview with the Foundation staff that you want to “facilitate dreams.” What does that mean to you?

A6. I am here to facilitate dreams. One of the things I believe that we can do best at the New Mexico State University Foundation is to help facilitate dreams.

Every person that comes to New Mexico State comes with a dream, whether they know it or not. I didn't even know I had a dream; I didn’t know it was possible to dream about becoming a Ph.D. But then New Mexico State showed me what my potential was and what I could be.

I believe that that's the role we play at the NMSU Foundation and at the university. We facilitate the opportunity for people to dream things they didn't even know were possible, and then help them to move those dreams into reality.

That’s the beauty of New Mexico State – to make dreams come true for our students, our faculty and our alumni. And now my job is to facilitate those dreams so they can lead the world to become a better place.

Q7. What are you looking forward to the most?

A7. From a university standpoint, I’m really looking forward to homecoming! I love tailgate parties; I love seeing the students in the stands. I love watching the students get so excited about going to a basketball game – I love basketball! Reconnecting with some of those activities is going to be fun.

One of the other things that I really, really enjoy is the annual memorial for veterans. I appreciate what it meant to this university—honoring our veterans and honoring those who gave their lives in the service of our country.

I never made it up Tortuga Mountain to paint the “A” on “A” mountain, but I am excited about that too. And one of the best memories I have at New Mexico State is listening to the Pride of New Mexico Marching Band practice – that is so wonderful. It is such an important part of New Mexico State, just hearing them on the horseshoe and experiencing all the buzz that happens during football season.

And of course, it’s always fun seeing the students on campus, sleeping on the couches in the colleges and libraries while they’re studying, or having those deep, philosophical discussions as they're walking up to Corbett Center. I look forward to all those things. There are just so many remarkable things about New Mexico State, and they're in every single corner and every single crevice of this campus. I want to experience it all!

Q8. What do you enjoy most about the city of Las Cruces?

A8. I’m in love with the Organ Mountains. They are absolutely stunning. I remember having a conversation with somebody when I was working here before, saying “Aren't these the most beautiful mountains you've ever seen?” And he said, “Well, I come from a very mountainous area, so I'm not sure these are the MOST beautiful mountains I've ever seen,” and I thought to myself, “They really are—you just haven't seen them the way I see them.” So, I'm really excited about seeing the beautiful Organ Mountains every day.

I'm excited about the food, of course. And I love Mesilla. That's always a beautiful place to hang out. Now of course, the big question that everybody asks is “Do you prefer red or green?” And I am red. So red chile is my thing.

Let’s face it: Las Cruces has some of the kindest people in the world. And I can’t wait to be back home.