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Trujillo leaves legacy of dedication to research, education in New Mexico

Release Date: 26 Feb 2021
Trujillo leaves legacy of dedication to research, education in New Mexico

Karen Trujillo was known as a brilliant researcher and passionate advocate for New Mexico students and educators.

A proud Aggie, she earned all three degrees – bachelor’s, graduate and Ph.D. – from New Mexico State University in secondary education, mathematics, and curriculum and instruction. She was also a huge Aggie sports fan, cheering proudly at men’s and women’s basketball games, among other sporting events.

But outside of her family, what was closest to her heart was education. Trujillo became superintendent of Las Cruces Public Schools in 2019, but maintained her deep connection to NMSU.

Trujillo was struck and killed by a vehicle Thursday evening in Las Cruces while walking her dogs, prompting an outpouring of grief from the community that was echoed by her former colleagues at NMSU.

“This is an enormous loss to her family, LCPS, the learning community of New Mexico and beyond,” said Henrietta Pichon, interim dean of the NMSU College of Education. “Although she was no longer walking the halls of O’Donnell Hall, we remained connected to her through educational and socially just initiatives.”

Trujillo was instrumental in establishing Educators Rising New Mexico in the NMSU College of Education in 2015. Educators Rising, formerly known as Future Teachers of America, focuses on increasing the number of education majors across the state and supporting retention in the field. In 2017, NMSU hosted an Educators Rising New Mexico conference that attracted 140 students and teachers from high schools across the state. Trujillo was proud of that accomplishment.

In 2016, Trujillo established the STEM Outreach Alliance Research, or SOAR, Lab, which has since grown into the Southwest Outreach Academic Research Evaluation & Policy Center. One of the biggest research projects the lab has undertaken is the annual teacher shortage report, which Trujillo began compiling with the help of her lab students.

Rachel Boren, director of effectiveness and evaluation in NMSU’s College Education, now oversees the SOAR Evaluation & Policy Center.

“Dr. Trujillo’s passion for education was clear in everything that she did,” Boren said. “Her enthusiasm for K-12 and higher education in the state was so genuine, and she was always excited to collaborate on new and innovative ideas that would benefit students, schools, and communities across the state.”

Trujillo was part of the team that started Math Snacks, created by NMSU game designers and faculty in the Learning Games Lab. Math Snacks was designed to supplement classroom instruction to help make math more accessible to students.

“Our Math Snacks project is a microcosm of how many ways Karen influenced education,” said Barbara Chamberlin, interim department head of Innovative Media Research and Extension in the NMSU College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences and director of the Learning Games Lab. “For our project, which she first joined as a project manager, she worked with teachers in professional development of how to teach math, she created written curricular tools for use in classes, and she advised on games and how they should work.

“She also contributed to and led many aspects of the research, identifying when and in what circumstances they work,” Chamberlin continued. “And she did administrative work, writing reports and new grant proposals. Along the way, she influenced people in significant ways, guiding life choices and career paths. It is the perfect example of how very competent she was in so many areas.”

Trujillo went on to become interim associate dean of research in the College of Education before being selected to lead the New Mexico Public Education Department in 2019.

“Dr. Trujillo served our university for many years as a teacher, administrator and researcher before going on to serve as LCPS superintendent,” said NMSU Chancellor Dan Arvizu. “She did what we hope each of our graduates is able to do: to take the knowledge and experience they gain from their time at NMSU and use those tools to make our community and our world a better place. 

“Her death is an enormous loss for everyone who knew her,” he added, “and especially for the countless number of students whose lives are better today because of her efforts.”

Following the news of Trujillo’s passing, Chamberlin said she spoke to Milos Savic, who worked with her on Math Snacks when he was a grad student at NMSU.

“He recalled how they drove throughout the state together doing professional development on Math Snacks,” Chamberlin said, “and he said he could pinpoint exact conversations where she changed the trajectory of his life – what he was interested in, what he chose, what he wanted to learn more about.

“I love that she was that to him, and even more, that she was that to so many of us.”

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