Aggies take the lead in navigating challenges of a COVID-19 world

By Carlos Andres López ’10

Whether it’s overseeing a university system with more than 25,000 students, or administering one of the most consequential elections in United States history, or helming the kitchen of a new restaurant, Aggies are at the forefront of navigating the challenges of a COVID-19 world.

“Frankly, I think it is a test of leadership because there is no playbook,” says NMSU Chancellor Dan Arvizu ’73. “I’ve got 40 years of career experience, and I’ve never seen anything like it in my entire history of leading change and leading institutions and being part of something bigger than myself.”

At NMSU, Arvizu and President John Floros assembled the university’s COVID-19 Rapid Response Team, headed by Vice Chancellor Ruth A. Johnston. They tasked the team with collecting and evaluating the influx of evolving information surrounding the coronavirus and ultimately developing the framework for the #NMSUReady Plan, which outlines NMSU’s return to on-campus operations.

“We’ve been deliberate. We have been fact and data-driven, and to a large degree, inspirational because so many people have stepped up into the breach,” Arvizu says.

“Our first priority is the health, well-being and safety of our staff, our faculty, our students and our community,” he adds. “At the same time, we have a mission to continue academic progress and educate our citizens through instruction, research and outreach.”

Arvizu says one key to getting NMSU off to a strong start in fall 2020 is the partnerships the university has sought out with the state, the city of Las Cruces and community business leaders.

Doña Ana County Clerk Amanda López Askin ’99, ’02, ’16 watched as voters in places like Wisconsin and Georgia waited in long lines to cast ballots in primary elections.

Those images were “disheartening,” López Askin says, and put into greater focus how the pandemic could potentially affect elections in Doña Ana County during a presidential year.

“For the average person election day is one day of the year, but for those of us who work in elections and administering elections, it never stops,” says López Askin, who was appointed to the clerk’s position in 2018. “Since March, we have been working on election official recruitment, making sure that our office is fully staffed, that we have all the supplies we need, and that we have all the equipment we need.”

Since her appointment, López Askin has administered a mid-term election in 2018 and directed local elections in 2019 for all municipalities in Doña Ana County, including Las Cruces’ first election using ranked-choice voting. Her third election was the June 2020 primary, which saw a record number of absentee ballots.

Despite the pandemic’s devastating toll on the restaurant industry, award-winning chef Andres Padilla ’03 played a leading role in opening Ambar Restaurante in the newly-renovated Plaza Hotel Pioneer Park in El Paso during summer 2020. Padilla, a New Mexico native who spent 12 years working in restaurants in Chicago, including with celebrity chef Rick Bayless, relocated to Las Cruces in 2019 to oversee Ambar’s kitchen and develop its menu of modern Mexican cuisine.

“It’s changed the direction of this entire industry,” Padilla says of the pandemic. “All of us around the country, in restaurants and hotels, were thinking about what it means to open during a pandemic, especially a pandemic as serious as this one, and how you do it safely.”

After the June 2020 opening of Ambar, Padilla saw promising signs that people wanted to immerse themselves in the restaurant experience again. He encourages students who are entering the industry to look on the bright side.

“The industry is not completely dead,” he says. “I think that there’s a huge opportunity coming, and we’re hoping that we get restaurants to get back on track.”

Top: NMSU Chancellor Dan Arvizu spent the first day of the fall 2020 semester greeting students and employees including Laura Hernandez of NMSU Dining Services.
Middle: Doña Ana County Clerk Amanda López Askin and her staff worked hard to prepare for the 2020 primary and general elections.
Bottom: Chef Andres Padilla puts the finishing touches on dessert plates during the June 2020 opening of Ambar Restaurante in the newly-renovated Plaza Hotel Pioneer Park in El Paso.