When Robert Lafarge was 12 years old, he was told he would be in a wheelchair for a long time, but that didn’t stop him from doing what he wanted.
Lafarge, who has stepped in as the new UNM School of Engineering diversity programs director, said doctors misdiagnosed his condition as muscular dystrophy and then re-diagnosed it as Charcot-Marie Tooth, a neurological disease that attacks the periphery part of the brain.
“I wore braces on my legs for several years,” he said.
Lafarge is a staff member at Sandia National Laboratories and lead coordinator of Manos, a program targeting student interest in science, math and engineering.
Along with a neurological disease, Lafarge also forgot much of his Spanish upon entering elementary school. He said he only knew Spanish and was made to feel dumb for not speaking English.
“The response of the school system was to tell my parents to speak only English to me,” Lafarge said.
He said his parents cooperated, but now he doesn’t speak his native language well and understands it a little better when it’s spoken to him.
Although Lafarge said school systems are getting better with bilingual programs, people still need to acknowledge the benefit of knowing languages other than English.
Neither his disease nor the loss of his native language has slowed Lafarge. In addition to his job at Sandia National Laboratories and involvement in Manos, he is chairperson of the education subcommittee for the Hispanic Statement of Cooperation.
He said the Hispanic Statement of Cooperation is an organization of UNM, Technical Vocational Institute, Public Service Company of New Mexico and Sandia National Laboratories that cooperate with each other to help work on education, culture and employment within the institutions.
Lafarge is now working with TVI and UNM to help get the Kellogg Foundation Engaging Latino Communities for Education grant.
He said that, while working with the Hispanic Statement of Cooperation, he met Ricardo Maestas, former minority engineering programs director and current executive assistant to UNM President Bill Gordon.
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Lafarge said he was asked to help manage different programs for underrepresented groups of students in the School of Engineering on a temporary basis. He said he also will help represent programs at official events, plan long-term goals, fund raise and make decisions on staff and students.
He said he is interested in expanding program participation in elementary and secondary education and increasing graduate student involvement in diversity programs.
“I hope to get students coming in better prepared,” Lafarge said.
He said his appointment is expected to last a year, with an option for a second year under a memorandum of understanding between UNM and Sandia National Laboratories.
Lafarge’s advice to students who have faced similar obstacles in life are to believe in themselves and persevere.
“Engineering has given me a good life, not only financially, but emotionally and spiritually,” he said. “I’m here to share the joys of what engineering can give students and people in general.”