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NMSU College of Health and Social Services celebrates 40 years of making a difference

  • By Carlos Andres López
  • 575-646-1955
  • Sep 27, 2019
A group of people pose for photo
A group of people pose for photo

In 1979, New Mexico State University formally established the College of Health and Social Services, the university’s centralized home for the only accredited programs in southern New Mexico for nursing, social work and public health students.

Since its founding, the college, also known as CHSS, has dedicated itself to fulfilling its mission to serve the needs of New Mexico’s diverse population through education, research and service in the areas of health and social well-being.

This year marks the 40th anniversary of CHSS. To commemorate the milestone, the college will celebrate its legacy of making a difference in New Mexico during NMSU’s Homecoming festivities Oct. 3-5. It also will launch an anniversary scholarship to benefit students in the college’s three academic departments.

“We are excited to recognize all the great work going on in the School of Nursing, School of Social Work and the Department of Public Health Sciences,” Interim CHSS Dean Sonya Cooper said. “We’ll take this opportunity to salute the college’s exceptional scholarship recipients, acknowledge and appreciate our faculty and staff, and recognize our amazing alumni and supporters.”

Today, CHSS serves more than 1,300 students across New Mexico; boasts more than 8,000 alumni; and offers four baccalaureate programs, three master’s degree programs and one Ph.D. program.

The first programs now part of CHSS were developed in the 1970s.

NMSU created its first-ever degree program in social welfare in 1970 through the Continuing Education Office, and then launched a two-year nursing program in 1972 after a yearlong study found broad support for having a nursing curriculum at NMSU.

In 1975, the nursing program expanded to four years, allowing students to receive certification as licensed practical nurses, train as registered nurses, and earn a bachelor’s degree in nursing.

Four years later, NMSU established the College of Health and Community Services with three departments for nursing, social work and health sciences. Lowery Davis served as the college’s first dean.

“I think it was very, very smart to put these three schools into one college,” said Satyapriya
Rao, department head for the Department of Public Health Sciences.

“Public health focuses on prevention, nursing focuses on patient care and intervention, and social work focuses on conditions and environmental issues. Together, I think, these are very complementary professions,” Rao added.

Loui Reyes, the interim director for the School of Social Work, was among the first students from NMSU to graduate with a bachelor’s degree in social work in 1978 – the year the program earned accreditation.

“The program was a perfect fit for me,” Reyes said. “I started in the College of Business, but when I was a sophomore, I took an elective called ‘Social Work Introduction.’ The professor was just so great, and I said this is what I’m called to be. I want to work with people and for the people.”

In 1995, the college changed its name to the College of Health and Social Services under the leadership of its second dean, Virginia C. Higbie. Another major turning point followed in 2004 under the leadership of the college’s third dean, Jeffrey Brandon.

That year, after more than a decade of planning and developing, the college moved into a home of its own – a 69,000-square-foot building – at the center of campus. The opening of the Health and Social Sciences Building coincided with the college’s 25th anniversary.

“This milestone of having our first new home, and our obtaining approval to focus solely upon our three academic programs, led to our identity as a full-fledged college,” Brandon said

“It also led to valuable faculty collaboration across programs, as demonstrated by its first college-wide Southwest Center for Health Disparities Research and a similar center funded by the U.S. Health Resources and Services Administration-funded in the School of Nursing, led by Dr. Mary Hoke,” Brandon added.

Sue Forster-Cox, professor and online coordinator in the Department of Public Health Sciences, said, “It wasn’t until we got into that building, under one roof, that we felt like a college.”

Before the building opened, CHSS had its three departments scattered throughout campus.

Rao recalled having an office in Breland Hall and conducting class in the activity center when she joined CHSS in 1996. When Forster-Cox started working for the college in 2002, she said her office was based in the Academic Research Building complex, where public health students shared one classroom. And for years, the nursing lab, now housed in the state-of-the-art Skills and Simulation Center, was in the basement of Breland Hall.

“We had a small lab made of donated equipment, and we would put together laboratory experiences for students,” said former nursing professor Karen Hand, who retired from NMSU in 2017 after a 28-year career in the School of Nursing. “Now, there’s a new lab, which is amazing. The scenarios will adapt as students make decisions in the lab.”

In the decades since its founding, CHSS has experienced steady growth in student enrollment, thanks to distance and online education, as well as the addition of innovative programs, including graduate programs in social work and public health and a Ph.D. program in nursing.

“We have been one of the most resilient colleges at NMSU,” Rao said. “We’ve gone through ups and downs, but we’ve always believed in ourselves and tried to make a difference in our communities and with our students.”

To celebrate its success, CHSS will host a 40th-anniversary dinner from 5:30-8 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 3, at the Las Cruces Convention Center, 680 E. University Ave.

It will then host a breakfast for faculty, alumni and friends from 9:30-11 a.m. Friday, Oct. 4, at Traders Plaza between the HSS Building and Business Complex. Afterward, students will give tours of the HSS Building from 11 a.m.-noon.

Later that afternoon, Debra Hagler, a two-time CHSS graduate and the college’s 2019 Distinguished Alumni Award recipient, will speak from 4-5 p.m. in the HSS Auditorium, Room 101A.

For more information about the events, visit