Creative Highlight: Victoria Mora

August 30th, 2022
Photo courtesy of United World College

Known for her wit, warm smile, and strategic and creative problem solving skills, educational leader Victoria J. Mora continues to transform people’s lives, locally and globally. Born and raised in Albuquerque, Victoria currently serves as the President of United World College (UWC)–USA, located in Montezuma, New Mexico. Her leadership includes a track record of inspiring communication that bridges divides and makes educational access possible. Over the last six years, Victoria has committed herself to leading UWC-USA — a 2-year international high school with students from over 90 countries — through the pandemic, fires and floods. “We’re waiting for the locusts to descend” she quips when asked how the school, with 85% of its students on some form of scholarship, is doing after these challenging few years. Prior to her post at UWC-USA, she contributed her talent at St. John’s College, diversifying the student body and founding the Summer Academy when she served as the college’s first Latina dean and raising in excess of $30M in 18 months in her first year as vice president of the college overseeing alumni relations and development. “My own journey, and my life’s work, really is about the power of educational access to change lives and communities.”

A bonafide philosopher, Victoria obtained her Masters and PhD in Philosophy from Yale University. “I think my parents were baffled when I told them I was leaving the pre-med program to study philosophy. I had to frame for them why philosophy is the most practical discipline there is — a wonderfully complex navigation tool that prepares you to move in the world with insight and intention.”

Her service to the communities she is committed to is currently focused on boards, locally with Creative Santa Fe and  the Simon Charitable Foundation, and internationally and nationally as vice chair of UWC international and board member of element6 Dynamics, a start-up focused on carbon sequestration at scale. “I guess my sense of community continues to expand. Each board I serve on prioritizes community — by bringing it together, by providing the educational access that makes it stronger, or by looking after the planet so that communities have a future. I guess I just don’t make that strong a distinction any more between local and global communities. Acknowledge it or don’t, we’re in this world together.”

Learn more about Victoria Mora and her work in our recent interview below.

How did you get into your work?

I think I got into it at age 4, thanks to my first teacher, Dudley, and then a series of teachers and mentors who opened a lifetime love affair with teaching and learning. Dudley was an air force veteran who rented a small apartment attached to our home. He was also a binge alcoholic whose door was closed when he was on a binge. My parents watched after him, and when he was well, they allowed me to spend hours sitting outside with him playing school. He taught me to read and do arithmetic by being my student. With President Johnson’s War on Poverty making HeadStart possible, I was primed. And thanks to my mother Crusita’s creativity in dealing with a child who hated taking naps — naps she desperately needed to raise 6 children! — I learned to love lying quietly, soaking in a multitude of worlds through books. After that it was our parish priest, my high school biology teacher, and my high school speech and debate coach who engaged me intellectually and opened the possibility of college to me.

At each step along the way, my life slowly transformed thanks to educational access. Mentors guided me and scholarships paved the way from my undergraduate degree at UNM to my PhD at Yale. No one is “self-made.” I’ve had a lifetime of “firsts” thanks to others, and I never forget it.

Upon reflection, I think my life’s work has become a way of giving back, by providing the access that made such a difference for me to others. Does that make sense?

It does. But tell us more.

Well, for example my first job while finishing my dissertation was teaching at CNM, then Albuquerque Technical Vocational Institute (TVI). I taught philosophy courses to working students. Thanks to my early foray into philosophy with my husband, Tomás Fernández, I never bought that philosophy is for the elite, or a “merely” academic discipline. Philosophy animated our lives and dominated dinner conversation with our 5 children. And the genuine hunger to read and discuss philosophy that my students at TVI brought — in one instance, at seven o’clock in the morning to talk Aristotle and Aquinas — made teaching the subject matter only part of the joy. Sharing access to a world where thought and ideas matter, and creating a space for that to happen, that was as much a part of the joy as reading the books.

At St. John’s College, where I taught in a collaborative setting for 14 years before being asked to serve in various leadership capacities, creating that space was at the heart of my classroom work. But when I became dean, I realized that I could help the college to create that space in a more inclusive way, opening up access to underrepresented students and enriching the experience for everyone. I was so proud two years ago, (on the day of our first evacuation due to fire, no less), when an alum of St. John’s came to visit me in Montezuma to thank me for what he had recently seen for himself as my “legacy” at St. John’s: an internationally, racially and ethnically diverse student body studying great books together at his alma mater.

At UWC-USA, the power of diversity in an educational setting has long been recognized and valued. Globalization requires us to bridge divides that threaten global stability and growth by learning to work together in an interconnected, pluralistic world even as we celebrate the cultures that birth us. Coming to UWC-USA meant joining an international movement focused on the power of education in the world, on the capacity of education as “a force to unite people, nations and cultures for peace and a sustainable future.” My work at our school and on the international board is all about access: access to education no matter where you come from, or who you are, or the means you have or don’t have; access to the world and the complex perspectives that need consideration as we face an uncertain and interconnected future; access to spaces that determine the course of communities and nations, and, ultimately, the planet. I could go on — but you get the picture. Educational access is the key, and I get to be part of making that access possible at a global scale at UWC-USA. What could be more meaningful for a little girl from Albuquerque’s west side whose life was transformed by educational access?

What are some challenges you see in our community that you are trying to help solve?

I straddle multiple communities — our campus community in Montezuma, the Las Vegas community that UWC-USA is a part of, and of course Santa Fe, where our family home is. The challenges each of my communities is facing are different, yet the same. Challenges like polarization, inequality, ecological collapse and its effect on people and communities. These challenges are related. They look different depending on where we stand and on which facets we focus. They are at the center of personal and political upheaval, and they threaten any notion of the common good when they are politicized rather than approached together. My work on these challenges is multidimensional and in partnership, whether with Creative Santa Fe to leverage our creative capital to build a resilient community, or with the City of Las Vegas and the Friends of the Montezuma Hot Springs to become better stewards of our water and land, or with the Simon Foundation to provide educational opportunities to students from marginalized communities, or in the day-to-day work at UWC-USA, where young people from around the world come together right here in Northern New Mexico to live and learn across differences and in the belief that each one of them can be the difference they want to see.

What are your hopes and dreams for our city?

What I hope for Santa Fe is that we can honor our rich history even as we look to the future and leverage our diversity on behalf of the common good. Santa Fe can feel like different cities. Polarization and inequality absolutely reside here. But so do a lot of creative people. People from different cultural, economic, and social perspectives. Creativity can go way beyond the making of artifacts. It can be an engine for approaching “glocal” challenges in new ways, a bridge between silos that can keep us from intersecting or from doing so only at the crossroads of conflicting interests. I dream of a pluralistic Santa Fe focused on what is good for our many communities, and for our lives together in this beautiful place.

Which creative/changemaker in our city do you admire and why?

That’s easy. Sorakamol Prapasiri, Executive Director of Creative Santa Fe. As I said when she joined us after our COVID hiatus, (and full disclosure, she was my student at St. John’s!), I love her sense of purpose in everything she does. And I love that she sees creativity and design as powerful connectors that can be a force for forging stronger communities. As her teacher, I worked to create an inclusive space for access to books that weren’t part of her tradition. Now I work side by side with her to create more opportunities for Santa Fe to find its way to meeting its challenges together. I guess just like Dudley flipped the teacher-student script, starting me on my educational journey, Sorakamol has become my teacher. It doesn’t get any better than that for someone whose life work has been educational access and its power to create opportunities!