In honor of 50 years of coeducation at Albuquerque Academy, Alumni Council member Ted Alcorn ’01 is telling the stories of women alumni.
When 15-year-old Loretta Cordova arrived at the Academy in 1974, she was no stranger to the place. Her dad, Vincent Cordova, taught math here and was one of the basketball and track coaches, so on weekends she and her siblings spent time on campus attending sporting events or swimming in the pool. “It was our playground,” she said.
The school, however, didn’t know what to do with her or her female peers, part of the second coed class it had enrolled. “I don’t know that they were really prepared,” she said. At first there was no girls’ locker room, and, as she recalled it, the only girls’ bathroom was for staff and located in the administrative building. Some teachers’ mindsets needed an update, too, Loretta said, recalling remarks about the need to “lower standards” for female students in the classroom and on the athletic field.
Born into a Hispanic family that had been in New Mexico for hundreds of years, the inequities of the world were plain to Loretta at an early age. But she also saw that with grit and effort she could overcome some of them and make it easier for others to follow. A major influence was her sister with Down Syndrome, who navigated a world that often lacks compassion and respect for people who are different. “I watched the incredible adversity that my sister faced but also the incredible work that my parents did to advance the needs of children like my sister.”
Loretta was fortunate to benefit from the tuition discount offered to Academy teachers. In return, like all students who received scholarships at the time, Loretta had to work on campus. “I would be washing the windows in the pool and in the cafeteria washing dishes while other students were out playing,” she recalled. What might have been stigmatizing became a source of strength; she grew close with the kitchen crew and groundskeepers, who, in turn, took special pride in the educational path she was blazing.
The first time she ever flew in an airplane was to visit colleges in California, and she wound up at Stanford, graduating in 1981 with a degree in human biology and Spanish. Then she returned to the University of New Mexico medical school, one of only a few Hispanic women in the class of 75 students. She went on to specialize in pediatrics and became particularly adept at treating Spanish-speaking patients and children with special health needs.
Times have changed. At UNM where she was once a student, she’s now a leader. In 2006 she became the first Hispanic female in the country to chair a Department of Pediatrics, where she teaches students and oversees a staff of over 700. These days, she has more women students than men. Pediatrics is the lowest-paid specialty in medicine but, particularly in a state that ranks near the bottom on child well-being, one of the most important.
Loretta is pleased to see that the Academy also grew more diverse by the time her oldest daughter enrolled in 2002, followed by her three younger children. “I don’t think they saw or experienced as much of what I did,” she said. She credited her dad, who started the Academy’s Multicultural Summer Honors Program to recruit more students from disadvantaged communities in Albuquerque and around the state.
Loretta has always embraced her Hispanic heritage. Birthday parties are occasions for family to gather and enjoy traditional food and music. She returns to the small agrarian communities where her parents grew up for fiestas and other occasions, although she doesn’t make it as often as she would like. “When I first started in medicine, I never expressed my Hispanic pride,” she said, but now she makes a special point of talking about her family’s history. “It means a lot to me.”