Skip to content

NMSU alumni recognized for distinguished careers, philanthropy and service

Release Date: 17 Aug 2021
NMSU alumni recognized for distinguished careers, philanthropy and service

Continuing a time-honored tradition, the New Mexico State University Alumni Association has selected recipients for the 2021 Distinguished Alumni Awards, the James F. Cole Memorial Award for Service and the Young Alumni Service Award.

The Alumni Association has presented these prestigious awards since 1956, adding the James F. Cole Memorial Award in 1966 and the Young Alumni Service Award in 2019. Honorees are selected based on personal accomplishment, professional achievement and charitable service.

Honorees from each academic college are selected to receive the Distinguished Alumni Award, demonstrating the strength and service from graduates across the university. This year’s seven Distinguished Alumni live throughout the country and have very different career paths, but common among all is their leadership, community involvement and generosity toward NMSU.

The Distinguished Alumni recipient for the College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences is James Butler, Ph.D. ’76. Starting in 2010, Butler served overseas as the senior agriculture coordinator in the U.S. Embassy in Kabul, Afghanistan. He led the strategic and operational planning in Afghanistan for USG agencies dealing with agriculture, counterinsurgency and counter-narcotics. During his academic career, Butler served as the deputy vice chancellor for Agriculture and Life Sciences at Texas A&M University.

The College of Arts and Sciences celebrates two award recipients as the historically largest college on campus: one from Fine Arts and Humanities and one from the fields of Sciences and Social Sciences. 

The Fine Arts and Humanities Distinguished Alumni recipient is Kit Elliott, ’62. Elliott is currently working with Philanthropic Educational Organization (PEO) chapters and American Legion Auxiliary for scholarships for women attending NMSU, including pre-med students assisting with COVID testing and asylum shelter activities. She teaches medical assistant courses, CPR and first aid to people of all ages, while volunteering with medical organizations throughout the world. Elliott has also served as a nurse manager, a disaster preparedness leader, and on the New Mexico Homeland Security task force.

The Distinguished Alumni recipient from Sciences and Social Sciences is Sonya Chavez, ’88. Chavez is currently serving as New Mexico’s first Hispanic female U.S. marshal. Appointed in April 2018 by the White House and confirmed by the United States Senate, Chavez honorably serves and protects the citizens of New Mexico. Chavez has also provided oversight of all criminal programs for the FBI in New Mexico, which encompassed violent crimes, Indian County, border-related crimes, public corruption, protection of civil rights and health care fraud. 

The College of Business awardee is Sammy Chioda, ‘76. Chioda is president of Millennium Media, Inc. Now in his 50th year of broadcasting in Gallup, New Mexico, he has devoted his life to community through his radio work. Chioda has extensive leadership service with the Gallup Chamber of Commerce and served as the vice president of community affairs. He also served as a member of the Gallup Inter-Tribal Indian Ceremonial, promoting and preserving Native American culture. Chioda co-founded the Tony Dorsett Touch Down Football League, now in its 23rd year, as well as the Four Corners Invitational Youth Football program and championships, now in its 10th year.

From the College of Engineering, the Distinguished Alumni awardee is James C. Owen, ’95. Owen is the associate laboratory director for weapons engineering and the chief engineer for weapons at Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL). His vast interface responsibilities include the National Nuclear Security Administration Nuclear Weapons Enterprise, the Department of Defense, the U.S. Navy and the U.S. Air Force. Owen is also the recipient of numerous DOE weapons performance awards.

The recipient from the College of Education is Shelly Smith-Acuña, ’80, ’84. Smith-Acuña is the dean of the Graduate School of Professional Psychology (GSPP) at the University of Denver and holds leadership positions on the University’s Women’s Leadership Council, the Chancellor’s Diversity Advisory Council, the Community and Values Initiative, and the Health Initiative. Smith-Acuña’s leadership focuses on addressing pressing psychological issues by expanding the accessibility and relevance of GSPP’s education and training programs, as well as through affordable community-based services. 

From the College of Health and Social Services, the Distinguished Alumni recipient is Travis Leyva, ’04. Leyva serves as the director of the Office of Border Health for the New Mexico Department of Health (NMDOH). He functions as the primary liaison and point of contact between the NMDOH and the public health authorities in the states of Chihuahua and Sonora, Mexico. Leyva is active in public health initiatives, including binational epidemiological surveillance, public health prevention services and public health promotion.

On July 1, the College of Education, College of Health and Services, and Department of Sociology merged into the College of Health, Education and Social Transformation. Next year, the Alumni Association will integrate the new college into the Distinguished Alumni Awards.

The James F. Cole Memorial Award for Service is presented to NMSU alumni who have demonstrated outstanding university involvement and civic, humanitarian and professional service.

The 2021 James F. Cole Memorial Award for Service recipient is Richard Leza, ’73. Leza is the founder of AI Research Corporation and served as its chairman and chief executive officer. Leza became a director of Exar, an American semiconductor manufacturer, in 2005 and was elected chairman of the board in 2006. After 10 years as chairman, he retired in June 2016 and was appointed interim chief executive officer and president of the company three times during his service. Now retired, Leza spent more than 40 years in public, private and nonprofit organizations as an entrepreneur and venture capitalist.

The Young Alumni Service Award was introduced in 2020 to recognize a graduate age 40 or younger who has made great strides both professionally and philanthropically, shaping their community’s future through service. 

The recipient of the 2021 Young Alumni Service Award is Megin Nichols, ’04. Nichols uses her veterinary and master’s in public health degrees to serve both animal and human health. She currently leads a team investigating nationwide outbreaks of salmonella and E. coli resulting from exposure to animals and pet food products. In this role, Nichols with veterinarians and animal industry partners on preventing antibiotic-resistant infections in people and animals. She also mentors veterinary, public health and medical students to provide experience in public health practice.

This year’s award recipients will be recognized during the NMSU Homecoming Week at the Distinguished Alumni Dinner, set for Friday, Sept. 24. To learn more about each awardee, full biographies will be available at

adding all to cart
File added to media cart.