At its Spring Commencement Ceremony on Friday, May 5, Western New Mexico University awarded an honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters to Janice Baca Argabright, a former Regent of the university and long-time educator, educational administrator and restaurateur.
Baca Argabright received her Bachelor of Arts in Elementary Education from New Mexico State University and her master’s degree in educational administration from the University of New Mexico. In addition to being an elementary school teacher for many years, she also held a number of leadership roles, including serving as Director of Bilingual/Special Education and Support Services, as Special Programs Coordinator, as Teaching Principal, and as Associate Superintendent of Socorro Consolidated Schools. Most recently, she served as a member of the Western New Mexico Board of Regents from 2011 to 2023.
Currently she is the fourth-generation owner of the Owl Bar and Café in San Antonio, NM. Started by her great-grandfather as a small grocery for locals that eventually (and unexpectedly) served the scientists working on the first atomic bomb, the Owl Bar and Café today continues to serve the Owl Burger, a green chile cheeseburger that is legendary and has been featured in national magazines. “I just try to keep the legacy going,” Baca Argabright said.
As a WNMU Regent, Baca Argabright’s tenure saw numerous changes to the university’s campus. In particular, the university renovated Light Hall, built new dorms, and generally beautified the campus.
Her start on the Board of Regents coincided with the beginning of WNMU President Joseph Shepard’s career at the university. “Dr. Shepard had a very good vision for the campus and especially for academics,” said Baca Argabright, noting the successes of the Schools of Social Work and Nursing in particular. During her time at WNMU, she said, “Academically, we have striven in a lot of areas . . . I am just so proud to have been a part of that.”
“Janice has been a life-long servant to New Mexico,” said Shepard, “first as an elementary school teacher, then as a teaching principal and associate superintendent, and finally, after proving successful in the field of education, a member of our university’s Board of Regents. Earlier this year she completed twelve years of service, steering WNMU in the positive direction you see today. In her two terms she has been a remarkable steward of your taxpayer dollars [and] of your desire to see that our graduates are properly educated.”
Baca Argabright said that the honorary degree has particular resonance for her as a former educator. “I have always set goals for myself,” she said of her professional career. Her 20-year goal was to get a bachelor’s degree, her 30-year goal was to go to graduate school and become a principal; at 40 years it was to become a superintendent, and at 50 years it was to become a university regent.
She achieved all of these things, but while she considered working on a Ph.D., she never got around to it as she was “raising kids and grandkids, working, and [now] running a restaurant,” she said. Earning the honorary doctorate from WNMU, Baca Argabright said, makes her feel that she has achieved her 60-year goal. “It is such an honor for me,” she said.