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Architecture student discovers passion in U.S.

December 13, 2018 - Andrew Gunn

There is a universality to certain qualities and experiences for every student who pursues the challenge of higher education. Late night study sessions, the pressure of examinations, and steep textbook prices are reliable and ubiquitous features of most university narratives. Other stories are unique, and they serve as a reminder of the value of diversity and the power of persistence.

Pablo Galarza will graduate from The University of New Mexico on Friday with a Master of Architecture degree and can tell one of these unique stories.

Born over 3,000 miles from Albuquerque in the highlands of Quito, the capital city of Ecuador, Galarza’s academic success story began with his first day of kindergarten. María Elena Ordoñez, his mother and an architect based in Quito, told the Daily Lobo that while other children were fearful or crying over the separation from their parents, Galarza smiled at his own and said, “You must go home now. I will be fine.” His parents saw this streak of independence as a harbinger of a life of determination and an openness to new experiences for their young son.

Seeking more opportunity than his native country afforded to him, Galarza moved to the U. S. in 2012. He said he attended the University of Mount Olive in North Carolina on an F1 student visa and a soccer scholarship. Initially studying business, it quickly became apparent that the major wasn't appealing to him, and another important decision had to be made.

Immersed in architecture since childhood due to his mother’s profession, Galarza chose the creative discipline as his new major and brought his soccer ambitions to a close. “It was the toughest decision of my life,” he said. “(I chose architecture) mainly because of my mom. She basically was teaching me architecture without knowing since I was a child.” There was a problem, however— Mount Olive didn’t offer the degree, and a solution needed to be found.

A New Mexican and UNM connection to Ecuador and Galarza’s family, forged 42 years ago, emerged in the form of Dr. Marilee Nason. Curator of collections at the Anderson-Abruzzo International Balloon Museum and a 1991 UNM PhD graduate, Nason studied abroad in Ecuador at UNM’s Andean Center and Research Institute in 1976. During her time in Ecuador, she stayed with a local family and soon integrated well into their lives. Nason was present for marriages, births, deaths, and daily comings and goings with various extended family. Omnipresent during all these social gatherings was a cousin: Galarza’s mother.

Nason kept in touch with the family over the decades, eventually spending over six years in Ecuador and completing her dissertation. When she learned of Galarza’s aspirations to study architecture, she sold him on the merits of UNM’s program. Her argument was compelling, and he relocated to Albuquerque in 2013 to begin his studies afresh.

“He recognized the fact that he needed to have a solid education and career beyond (soccer),” Nason said. 

Just as Galarza’s extended family opened their home to Nason during her studies in the 70’s, the roles were reversed. According to Ordoñez, Nason “opened her heart and the doors of her house” for the first year of his time at UNM.

“It’s been inspirational to see how he’s really flourished here from his initial application,” Nason said. “His English, both written and spoken, has improved incredibly. For a foreign student, it’s hard to come and pay tuition and living expenses.” 

Galarza’s mother back home in Ecuador has watched his growth from a continent away and is extraordinarily proud of her son for his achievements.

“Six years have passed since Pablo left home in search of his dreams, with that decision and strong will that has characterized him since childhood,” Ordoñez said. “They have been years of study, of growth as a human being, of sacrifices, many joys, but also of sadness and disappointments. We cried together when things were not going very well, taking courage and getting ahead with this immeasurable love that unites us.”

Galarza said he will travel back to Quito to see his family during the winter break, then return to the U. S. with plans to acquire an H-1B work visa and begin the next phase of his architectural life. 

Andrew Gunn is a freelance reporter for the Daily Lobo. He can be contacted by email at or on Twitter @agunnwrites.