There are few places in Colorado where a region and university have a more intimate and symbiotic relationship than the San Luis Valley and Adams State University. Almost to a person, the men and women living across this vast nearly 9,000 square mile, five-county swath of southern Colorado have either a direct or tangential connection to the school. Over the last hundred years, the relationship has become an unbreakable bond.
The school was both the dream and gift to the Valley from rancher, businessman, legislator and Governor, Billy Adams. Drastically outnumbered in a Republican dominated legislature, Adams somehow worked a deal that allowed for the creation of Adams State Normal School, its baptismal name.
From a modest sixty-acre plot of land and $27,000 raised by families and businesses in the Valley, the school has grown into the crown jewel of the Valley, graduating teachers, researchers, musicians, scientists and business leaders, many of whom make up the Valley’s movers and shakers. Its presence also generates nearly $90 million annually into the region’s economy.
“Adams State is such an important University,” said ASU President Cheryl D. Lovell. Prior to her appointment, Lovell, a Georgia native, spent her career in higher education as both faculty member and administrator. But it was her own life’s experience that attracted her to the leadership role she holds today at Adams State. “I attended a school very much like Adams (State),” she said in a recent telephone interview. It was at West Georgia College, now University of West Georgia, where Lovell began her journey in academia.
Though Lovell’s alma mater and Adams State are geographically night and day, one, deep south, the other, high desert surrounded by breath-taking mountain vistas, their missions are similar. “We’re anchor institutions, the center of economic, cultural entertainment and higher education,” said Lovell, with a prideful recital of the school’s academic assets. Adams State, she said, impacts and enhances life in the Valley.
Like everywhere else, Covid-19 has veered life off its normal track in a prolonged and surreal way. It has also left its mark on the University and in a year that was supposed to be special, full of celebration and commemoration, the school’s centennial.
Scores of events---athletic, cultural and social---were cancelled, rescheduled or put on the backburner. “It’s been an emotional letdown since last Spring,” said Lovell. “It was so tough not to have students here.” By necessity, teaching went virtual. But gradually, when the school had the medical clearance and confidence to bring students back it did. Normalcy has not quite yet returned to campus and, like schools and institutions everywhere, it may still be a while. But everything is pointing in that direction.
Alamosa’s geographic challenges---its isolation and bone-chilling winter temperatures---are offset in so many other positive ways, not the least of which is an intimate student to faculty ratio of 16-1. Its student body is also comprised of more than half students of color. The school also pridefully points out that one out of two students is the first in family to attend college. It is a school where generations of families have attended earning degrees in everything from the arts to agriculture, from computers to calculus.
Adams State is also Colorado’s premier Hispanic Serving Institution. A school receives HIS designation if its enrollment is more than 25 percent Hispanic. Adams State’s Hispanic student enrollment is nearly 40 percent. In addition, Valley student have grown up with Adams State a part of their family life and choose to attend for that reason, said Lovell. “A lot of our students come from this region,” she said. “It keeps them close to their family.”
Adams State also offers participation in NCAA athletic programs for men and women. The school competes in nine different athletic arenas and has distinguished itself with a number of national championships, none more consistently than men’s and women’s track and field. It also boasts, perhaps, the greatest running coach ever in Alamosa native, Joe Vigil. Though Vigil’s résumé might read more like fiction than fact, it is inarguably accurate. His ASU Grizzly teams boast 19 national championships, 87 individual national champions, 425 All Americans and 22 Olympians.
There have been countless Adams State graduates who have distinguished themselves in school as well as in the years post-graduation. San Luis native and 1967 graduate and 2020 Outstanding Alumnus, William Manzanares, served in the CIA for 27 years before retiring. Vera Jo Bustos, a 2019 graduate, went on to play professional basketball in Greece. Her story is told in her autobiography, “A Mindful Journey.” ASU John Flores won an NAIA national championship in wrestling in 1977. Karen Villalon Shea, a gerontologist, practices medicine for the Veterans Administration. Val Vigil, who passed away in February, graduated from ASU and served in the Colorado State Legislature and as an Adams State University Board of Trustees; are just a few ASU alumni.
In a community that falls just short of ten thousand, the University is the pond by which local talent is replenished. “Much of our workforce is trained at Adams State,” said Heather Brooks, Alamosa City Manager. “It brings both students and professionals to our community,” she said. The University’s reach also extends well beyond Alamosa proper.
The Valley’s eighteen communities each benefit from the University. Students and faculty regularly take arts, theater and other programs off campus. Also, like so many other colleges and universities, ASU provides college credits to area high school students. The school knows how important engaging with the community is, Brooks said.
While the most recent part of her life has been spent in Colorado’s population center, Lovell is steadfast in her claim that her time in Alamosa has been everything she envisioned. “I went because it’s a mission,” she said. “There is a special focus on student care and concern.” The school, she said, “is serious about helping and encouraging students from diverse backgrounds.” Lovell said her time in the Valley, as both interim and full-time President, has been rich and rewarding.
As a gauge, she turns to her own life’s experience. “I feel like I’m the poster child for Adams State,” she said. Her time at West Georgia College, said Lovell, gave her a new way to look at the world. In exactly the same way, it’s what she wants for the young minds on this high desert southern Colorado campus. “We want to change lives,” said Lovell. “We want to make a difference.” Indeed, it’s the two things the university has been doing for a hundred years.