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Hoop dreams: Alumnus’ gift provides scholarships to engineering students in need

April 3, 2024 - by Kim Delker

photo: Fred and Dorothy Armijo
Fred and Dorothy Armijo at their residence in Dallas.

Fred Armijo knows what it is like to struggle.

And the unlikely combination of pinto beans and a basketball hoop play prominently into his story and motivation for wanting to give back to his alma mater.

Armijo earned a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering from UNM in 1969, then had a long and successful career in the oil and gas industry. Today, Fred and his wife of four decades, Dorothy, live a comfortable life free of financial worries at their home in Dallas, but possessing the peace of mind that comes with having all your needs met and more was not something that Armijo was familiar with until early adulthood.

In fact, a burned pan of pinto beans when he was a student at UNM (purchased with the only funds he had) amounted to a very bad day for him — memorable to this day, more than a half-century later.

“I bought the beans with the only money I had, so I had to scrape off the burnt beans and eat them anyway,” he said.

But now he is in a position to give back, and the Armijos are doing so in a big way. He and his wife recently established a scholarship to help students like him.

“We wanted to create this scholarship so students wouldn’t have to struggle the way I did in school,” he said. “We want students to succeed.”

The Fred and Dorothy Armijo Scholarship Fund will create scholarships for UNM students, with preference given to chemical and other engineering majors. The primary criteria that was important to the Armijos was to fully meet each recipient’s unmet financial need, which is the amount left to pay of a student’s total college costs after family contribution and need-based aid are considered. They also want to make sure the chemical engineering department and the School of Engineering reflect the diversity that is a deep part of New Mexico.

Armijo had personal experience with unmet needs, growing up in a large family with tight quarters and few resources in Northern California. He was the first in his family to go to college, but he did not first choose UNM.

Armijo graduated from high school in 1962, then enrolled in the University of California, Berkeley. But for various reasons, UC Berkeley wasn’t a good fit, so he enrolled in the chemical engineering program at UNM. And although he was an honor student his first year, his grades started slipping as he went through the engineering program because he was working as many as three jobs at a time to make ends meet.

For Armijo, engineering school was tough. He remembers difficult classes, lots of long nights of studying, and plenty of worrying if he would have enough funds for tuition, food and other necessities.

Even though his time at UNM was positive and beneficial (he fondly remembers Tom Castonguay, a professor and department chair who served as both a mentor and friend to him, helping him get a job right out of college), it was exhausting.

“I was always tired as a student,” Armijo said.

However, he was still able to work in some leisure. Armijo was skilled at running track (the 440-yard dash) as well as playing basketball, and it was a basketball hoop near the engineering buildings that held special meaning for him. And that hoop — now attached to the Nuclear Engineering Building — has been named in his honor as the Fred and Dorothy Armijo Hoop — approved by the UNM Board of Regents earlier this year.

Between classes, Armijo said he would let off steam by shooting a few baskets, and in his life of hard work and little play, the hoop was a life saver.

“The hoop was our R&R,” he said.

The exact history of the basketball hoop is a bit murky. According to some longtime professors, the hoop was attached to the Farris Engineering Center (which was built in the late 1960s), but Armijo remembers it even before Farris was built.

Ken Carpenter, former nuclear engineering faculty, said the hoop was well-used at the time he started at UNM.

“It was there when I started in 1987, but it was attached to Farris then. At one point, there were anywhere from six to 10 of us out there during lunch playing,” he said.

He also knows why it was later attached to the Nuclear Engineering Building around 2000.

“You can still see the bolts on the side of Farris if you know where to look,” Carpenter said. “We moved it to attach to the NE lab when the UPS guy took out the backboard on several occasions one summer. Been there ever since and not once has the UPS guy hit it!”

From time to time, the hoop has been refurbished (there are plans to give it another sprucing up in the coming months), and people have been spotted playing on it all hours of the day. On a trip to campus in summer 2023, Armijo was pleased to see the basketball hoop still in existence. And he and Dorothy are also pleased to be able to help so many engineering students in need for decades to come.

Fred insisted that the Armijo scholarship not require a lofty grade-point average. He knows first hand how grades can slip when students are pulled away from their studies trying to earn money to stay in school. He graduated with a 2.4 GPA.

“I spent a lot of time working and not a lot of time studying,” he said.

As difficult as times were for Armijo at UNM, he said one thought kept him motivated.

“No one from my family ever graduated from college,” he said. “My dad never made a lot of money, so he said to me, ‘You’re going to college.’ ”

Armijo said above all, his degree from UNM taught him how to tackle challenges.

“I learned communication skills and how to analyze and determine solutions,” he said. “I used those skills throughout my career.”

He met Dorothy Ashworth at work (they worked for the same company in Texas), and they married in 1985. Fred says he and Dorothy have a true partnership and say that even though he is the alumnus of UNM, this gift was very deliberate and from both of them.

The Armijos say they have been lucky in their life — making some financial decisions that were risky at the time but paid off more than they expected — and now is the time to help others. Of all the places they can invest their money, Fred and Dorothy agree that providing solid and consistent support to the School of Engineering and the Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering is the most meaningful to them.

“Chem E students are where our hearts are, and we want the department to keep on doing what they’ve been doing and turning out great students,” Fred said.

To learn more about the Fred and Dorothy Armijo Scholarship, contact Elsa Maria Castillo at the Engineering Student Success Center at elsac@unm.edu or scholarships@unm.edu.