Project Talent Blog

Spotlight on Belen High School, New Mexico

Belen Hotel

Sylvia Burns was born and raised in Belen, New Mexico, a town of 7,000 south of Albuquerque. She became part of Project Talent when she was in the 11th grade at Belen Senior High School.

High School Days

Sylvia has fond memories of her childhood in Belen, which was safe and largely free of crime. “You could just walk all over town… It was just a fun time,” she says.

At the time, Belen Senior High School had fewer than a thousand students. It was a close community; everyone attended the same junior high, so by the time Sylvia and her classmates had started high school, the kids had known other for many years. Sylvia played volleyball and participated in Future Homemakers of America. As Vice President of her 9th grade student council, she represented the school to the city council. Sylvia loved history: “My mother would tell you I was born nosy, but I prefer curious… I just liked people and I liked hearing their stories.” She decided that when she went to college, she wanted to teach U.S. History, and cited the wonderful teachers she had as an influence in her interest in education.

Sylvia recalls Project Talent fondly; she loved taking the test because she liked to challenge herself. “I can remember literally sitting in hard desks in the gym and not having anything to do but sit there and answer questions, which I though was just really cool.”

Family and Career

Sylvia married in 1960 and graduated high school a year early. She had a son and daughter and got to be a stay-at-home mom for five years. However, due to her husband’s hazardous job working on the railroad, Sylvia decided to go back to college once her daughter started kindergarten: “I remember telling my husband that we could buy a $100,000 life insurance policy for himself or I could go to college and always be able to support myself and the kids.” Sylvia earned a bachelor’s degree in Social Studies with a minor in Political Science before becoming a teacher. After teaching children of all levels for thirteen years, Sylvia narrowed focus to special education, inspired by her son who had a learning disability. She was on the forefront of special education, which was only just developing as a field.

Life Today

Sylvia, now a widow and an avid traveler, has a little farm four miles outside of Belen. She enjoys spending time with her daughter and grandchildren who live in town. “People say, don’t you get lonely? And I say, no! I like my own company.” Of Belen, Sylvia states that the town has had some “growing pains,” with many small local businesses shutting down as larger stores moved in. For now, Sylvia is thankful that Belen isn’t growing as fast as many other towns. “I’m glad we’re not a great-big-huge town,” she says.

One of Sylvia’s life philosophies is to attempt to make everyone’s lives a little easier, whether it’s a neighbor or a stranger. “Spread kindness,” she says, “wherever possible.” Looking back, Sylvia recalls a conversation she had with a former student. “You told us we could do anything we wanted to do if we wanted to do it bad enough,” he said, which gave him the motivation he needed to become a teacher. “I just cried,” said Sylvia. “You never know what kind of impact you will have.”

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By Halie Kellett
November 21, 2018

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