Torres Retires after 25 years at UNM

July 19, 2021 - Dorene DiNaro

Cheo RetirementAs the fall 2021 semester comes into view and the Lobos will be back to in-person instruction after a COVID-19-driven hiatus, one UNM staple will be noticeably absent.  Scholes Hall Room 229 will feel different, Welcome Back Days will feel different, campus in general will feel different because Dr. Eliseo “Cheo” Torres is retiring as the Vice President for Student Affairs on August 1—a position he held for the last 25 years.

Torres has always had a passion for working with students. Prior to coming to UNM he was the Vice President for External Affairs at Texas A&M University-Kingsville, where he also taught in the Bilingual Doctoral Program.  He subsequently served as that University’s interim president and vice president for Student Affairs.

Torres took that passion to UNM and throughout his career here, he committed to one main goal—helping to improve the lives of the students via student services and student life.  And to his credit, he did it with a unique style all his own.    

Ask any current or former member of the UNM community to name the most recognizable, kindest, genuinely student-focused, vice president on campus chances are the answer would be one word, Cheo.

James Holloway, UNM Provost and Executive Vice President for Academic Affairs says. credits Torres with the helping to bring the Student Affairs division together under common purpose, conceiving of new programs for our students, and growing the resources needed to make those conceptions real. “He’s had to make some tough decisions during his quarter century at UNM, but he’s always done so with empathy and good will in his heart,” he says.

Torres says the most notable change he’s seen in the past 25 years, is the ways students are becoming more creative in their involvement on campus.  “Students have always been involved, but throughout the years there’s been more and more involvement at The University of New Mexico,” he says.  “We have Spring Storm, Fall Frenzy—services projects where students can give back to the community which is stronger than ever.”

He says students are also taking charge and making decisions of where their student fees go to by serving on the Student Fee Review Board. “The students now have empowered themselves to make decisions and get involved and give back service to the community,” he says.

Among his UNM accomplishments—of which there are many—four will always be synonymous with the legacy he leaves behind:  the Curanderismo class; Student Affairs Fellowship Program; Mezquite Golf Tournament, and the Weekly Chit Chat. 

Traditional Medicine without Borders:  Curanderismo in the Southwest and Mexico Summer Class

“I grew up in South Texas, and was always fascinated by the folk traditions and folk ways of Mexico and my Mexican American roots,” Torres says.

Growing up he learned a love and respect for the history of the ancient art of Curanderismo from his parents.

Twenty-one years ago, Torres introduced this topic to The University of New Mexico through a hands-on approach during a two-week summer class on campus.  The class is still being taught, and is the only one like it in the United States. To date more than 2,000 students have taken it—possibly a third of them taking it more than once.

“People want to know about the medicine of their culture, of their grandmothers or grandfathers,” he says in regard to the popularity of the class.  “We offer something unique in that we work with some of the top healers around the country and around the world in this class.” 

“The energy this course brings to our campus this summer is so unique - but at the heart of that energy is Cheo,” says Dr. Anthony Fleg, one of the class instructors. “It is his vision, his creativity, and his dedication to being a healer that makes the course what it is.”

Tonita Gonzales, a local traditional healer who teaches many parts of the class each summer says that Torres has been a mentor and inspiration to her and so many others around the globe.  “For over 25 years, Cheo has advocated for us to remember out historical and ancestral gifts of the Curanderismo culture and language,” she says. 

Gonzales had suffered many health ailments over the years, and says Cheo gave her the gift of hope.  “Like many community members who attend the class and health fairs, my life changed and I became hopeful,” she says.   

“I learned and became proud of the medicine and indigenous science of my elders and ancestors,” she says.

Subsequently, Gonzales has used that gift to heal and change her community.  “I have had the privilege to witness Cheo’s humility, integrity, and love for community,” she says.  “I have seen our communities advocate and demand changes to reduce health disparities.” 

The popularity of the course led to Torres offering an additional set of online courses for UNM students (which are still being taught today) and publishing five books on Curanderismo.  He has consistently seen upwards of 150 students enroll in the online class each time it’s offered.  The good news for us is that Torres will be returning to UNM on a part-time basis to continue teaching his class.

Student Affairs Fellowship Program

In 1999 Torres began a 15-month fellowship program aimed at providing opportunities for UNM staff to gain leadership and professional development skills while assisting him on specific projects. The program lasted over 20 years (it was only derailed by the COVID-19 pandemic) and “graduated” 132 participants.

I’m proud of the fellowship program and how long it lasted,” Torres says.  “Many of the fellows stayed at UNM, got their terminal degrees, and are only serving in high-ranking positions in the Division, but also teaching classes and continually giving back to UNM.”

The program opened many doors for participants and a unique way to see the way Student Affairs operates and its role to the entire University.  At least eleven fellows went on to become associate vice presidents, chief operations officers, or directors at UNM, while others have obtained prestigious positions at other universities.    

Dr. Jenna Crabb, director of UNM Career Services, served as a fellow in 2003 and considers the experience an extremely beneficial part of her career path.  “Dr. Torres was instrumental in not only sharing how the university works but was very encouraging of me to continue my educational pursuits and career goals,” she says.  “Learning about the ins and outs of student affairs and how UNM works helped solidify my desire and passion to continue my career in higher education.” 

As a fellow Crabb remembers being invited to attend the Diversity Leadership Council where Torres served as a board member.  “Dr. Torres nominated me to be the secretary of the group at that meeting,” she says.  “It was a great beginning of leadership with this group for many years.

Crabb credits the fellowship program as helping to underscore her career in higher education. “The program improved people’s lives,” Torres says.  “I think when you see people’s live change for the better, we’ve made a difference.”

Mezquite Golf Tournament

For the past 12 years, under Torres’ leadership the Division of Student Affairs has teamed up with Sergio Bermudez, owner of the El Mezquite Markets in Albuquerque, to host an annual golf tournament to raise money for scholarships for UNM students.

The partnership has raised over $2M to date and awarded scholarships to over 200 students. “Sergio and his family are very generous and well-known throughout the community,” he says. Bermudez is well-connected in the community and invites some of our community’s most generous donors to the event. 

“Golfers come from not only New Mexico but surrounding states to participate in the tournament because they know they are giving money to help our students,” Torres says. “I take pride in the fact that every penny raised goes directly to the students.”

The tournament didn’t happen in 2020 or 2021 due to the pandemic.  However, the team remains hopeful that as we ease out of COVID-19, the tournament will return and continue on for years to come. 

Weekly Chit Chat

For the past eleven years, every Wednesday, Torres send out a weekly communication, the Chit Chat to inform the UNM community about the happenings in the Vice President’s office and throughout the Division of Student Affairs.

I personally had the pleasure of working on this with Torres. What started out as a written document sent via email evolved into a video series over the years.  Cheo is well-known throughout the campus, and using his personality and on-camera presence was a great way for people to get a small glimpse of the great work our departments and programs are doing. 

Throughout the years, the Chit Chat became more popular and I would receive requests from people not only in the Division but throughout the University who wanted to share their events, services, or programs, on what we called our “reality show.” Cheo always obliged and all tolled we sent out more than one hundred episodes. 

Torres recorded one final Chit Chat which will be sent out via email and makes it premiere on our Student Affairs YouTube channel on Wednesday, July 21.

Above it all, he is grateful for his time at the University of New Mexico—the students he’s impacted, the staff he’s lead, and the friendships he’s made.  Every program he’s started, every initiative he’s thought up, every decision he’s made while in the vice president role at UNM were made with one specific purpose: improving the lives of our students.

As Torres gets ready to retire, he looks back fondly on the impression he and the University have had on many lives.  “It’s always nice to see students start as freshmen, and continue on to graduate,” Torres says.  “It’s a great feeling to know that not only their lives will be better, but their kids’ lives will be better, and it will keep going through generations.”

“This University has changed not only my life, but the lives of my wife, my son, and my daughter who have all graduated as Lobos,” he says.  

Torres will of course be remembered for all the programs and services he started, or enhanced during this time, but undoubtedly, he will be remembered for the way he treated everyone he met with kindness and respect.  “I hope that people are thankful that I was a part of their lives and that I had a positive influence on them,” Torres says.

In retirement, Torres he plans and looks forward to spending more time with his family. “I have two grandkids that I will get to enjoy more,” he says.  “My wife Nieves and I are hoping to travel both in and out of the United States—we already have one trip planned for Peru.”

To see the video version of my interview with Torres in its entirety, please visit the UNM Student Affairs YouTube channel.