A ceramics class taught in an outdoor studio attracted sophomore Alexandra Jones to SMU-in-Taos for the August term. The chance to dive more deeply into an opportunity she calls “life-changing” cemented her decision to remain for the fall semester.
Jones, a Provost’s Scholar and BBA Scholar, prizes the small class sizes, the intense focus of the academic courses and the “amazing Wellness opportunities – everything from white-water rafting to horseback riding.” But what makes the Taos experience like no other is the camaraderie that develops among students and with faculty, she says.
“The living-learning environment has allowed me to connect with my professors in new ways,” says Jones, an accounting major with minors in anthropology and Mandarin Chinese. “Students are valued and respected like colleagues because we’re all expected to contribute to the community, and we’re all working toward the common goal of getting the most out of our time here.”
Faculty and their families reside on campus, so students “see them as individuals with outside lives, and faculty interact with students both in and out of the classroom,” says Mike Adler, associate professor of anthropology and executive director of SMU-in-Taos since 2006.
New Field School Excavations
Archaeological excavations in Taos continue to yield new clues to lost chapters of Southwestern history. Over the summer new digs focused on the Fort Burgwin guardhouse on the SMU-in-Taos campus and at a pithouse site on private land nearby.
The guardhouse appears on early maps of the fort, which helped a team from Mercyhurst College in Erie, Pennsylvania, locate the building’s foundation. The recovery of artifacts and documentation of the site will continue next summer.
The excavation is the most recent project of the Taos Collaborative Archaeological Program, an education and research partnership between SMU’s field school and the Mercyhurst Archaeological Institute initiated in 2009.
New research by SMU students aims to shed light on the Pithouse period, which dates from approximately 900 A.D. to 1250 A.D. Lauren O’Brien, a doctoral candidate in Dedman College’s Department of Anthropology, started fieldwork with a team of three graduate students in early summer. In June and July she continued the project with five undergraduate students as the leader of SMU’s field school.
Little is known about the Pithouse period in the northern Taos Valley, she says. The ground dwellings pre-date New Mexico’s iconic pueblo structures. “We are the first group to begin research on and excavation of the site,” which is about 10 miles north of Taos in Arroyo Hondo, she says.
The pithouse measures approximately nine feet deep and 15 feet square. The semi-subterranean design provided natural climate control: The interior temperature hovered around 55 degrees, and with the addition of a fire, warmed to a cozy 76 degrees.
Among the finds so far are pottery, lithics (stone tools) and several worked turquoise pieces, which means the stones’ surfaces had been smoothed by humans using tools, says O’Brien. “We’re not really sure what the turquoise was used for; perhaps it was inlaid in pots.”
The objects, along with soil samples and other materials from the site, are now being studied on the Dallas campus.
“The lab is really where it all starts to come together,” explains O’Brien. “For example, soil sample testing will help us understand the environment: what was growing, what the pithouse inhabitants were eating and so forth.”
“There’s so much to learn about who they were,” she adds. “We’ll be looking for similarities and differences among materials collected from each pithouse and the surrounding activity areas.”
SMU-in-Taos opened for classes in 1974 on the site of Fort Burgwin, a pre-Civil War fort, as a unique center for teaching and research drawing from the cultural and natural resources of Northern New Mexico. The grounds include the site of a 13th-century Indian pueblo that has been the focus of SMU’s archaeology field school. Each year approximately 300 students take courses in the humanities; sciences; business; and performing, visual and communication arts.
Students enrolled in the fall semester take 12 to 18 hours of courses that meet core undergraduate requirements in a variety of disciplines, or they can focus on courses to earn a minor in business. The term is divided into four blocks, each of which lasts about three weeks.
Sophomore Sam Clark, an applied physiology major, believes “the block system makes it worthwhile to take the business minor route in Taos.” He took management, marketing, finance and personal finance, one course per block.
“I feel like I learned more because I got to focus on one subject at a time in a low-stress environment,” he says.
Breaks between sessions allow time for outdoor adventures. In September students visited the Great Sand Dunes National Park in Colorado for sand sledding – sliding down dunes on sand boards or sleds – before beginning Block 2 of their classes.
An integral part of the curriculum is the “Taos Experience,” an anthropology class taught by Adler. “We take students off campus into this very diverse and complicated place we call Taos, which is very different from Dallas,” he explains. “Students get a better understanding of the many historical, ethnic and cultural differences that make up this place.”
Internships with local nonprofit organizations enable students like Jones to give back to their adopted community while developing practical skills. She works with Taos CPA, which provides accounting services for local nonprofits.
SMU also strengthens ties with Taos through cultural programs such as the Ima Leete Hutchison Concert Series, which showcases the musical talents of Meadows students each summer.
The Summer Colloquium Lecture Series brings members of the Taos community to campus on Tuesday evenings to hear SMU faculty and guest speakers discuss a broad range of topics. More than 1,000 people attended the free lectures last summer. And a fall series sponsored by SMU-in-Taos and the University of New Mexico-Taos offers free lectures in September and October.
Inspired by the strong service-learning link forged between SMU and Taos, Jones pledges to become more active when she returns to Dallas in January.
“It’s easy to sink into the shadows and let other people do the work,” she says. “At SMU-in-Taos I’ve developed a sense of responsibility to contribute to the community. Involvement has become a habit that I’ll take back with me.”
– Patricia Ward