Faces of CNM: Maria DeBlassie

As an English instructor, Maria has used the art of storytelling to empower students in the classroom and beyond
May 20, 2021

When you’re in Maria DeBlassie’s English classes, it's okay if you don’t consider yourself a writer or storyteller. That’s because she believes everyone has important stories to tell, regardless of where they come from or what they’re studying. She also believes the process of writing and examining personal stories is one of the most empowering experiences students can have.

“It doesn’t matter whether you’re in my college writing, creative writing, or digital storytelling class, I always want my students to know that they are free to craft their own narratives and that by doing so they own their agency as learners,” Maria says. “So many students here in New Mexico, like myself, have been made to fear the classroom as a privileged or elite space and I want them to throw off that feeling and be excited and curious. The classroom belongs to all of us.” 

When helping her students examine the art and craft of storytelling, Maria places a particular emphasis on stories from people of color, members of the LGBTQ community, people with disabilities, and other marginalized groups because their stories have long been buried, misrepresented, or exploited. As an example, she often encourages her students to look closely at the typical narratives about these communities—many of which just focus on trauma and oppression—and to think about how that particular lens robs them of the ability to celebrate their own histories and see themselves as part of a larger global community.

“I want my students, especially those who come from these same marginalized communities, to know that we can be more than just histories of oppression,” Maria says. “When we limit ourselves to the way things have been historically taught, I think we lose out on really powerful examples of shared humanity.”

Standing in front of her class is another way Maria aims to help her students. As a woman of color born and raised in Albuquerque, she wants her students to know that faculty members can and should represent the communities they are sharing the classroom with. When Maria went to college, most of her professors were white, which motivated her to become an educator and come back to New Mexico where she could help teach students about the rich and diverse histories of writing and storytelling.

“I’ve always thought about how my role as an educator could help re-frame discussions about higher education, especially higher education as a white space,” she says. “By standing in the front of the classroom I want to prompt my students to think about what an educated person looks like, what a successful person looks like, and I want to always challenge assumptions about what college professors look like.”

Outside of the classroom, Maria is engaged with the CNM community in several different ways. Before COVID, she ran the Creative Writing Group on the Montoya Campus. The group was a place for students, staff, and faculty to get feedback on creative projects and to discuss the power of writing as a tool for agency and social change. As students return to campus, she hopes to re-start the group soon.

She also runs Banned Book Week each September, which encourages everyone at CNM to think about the power of reading without censorship. Books that have been pushed aside because of racist or exploitative narratives are still important, she says, because we can learn a lot by examining where those books came from and why they found a readership at one time.

“It’s important that we don’t erase those histories,” she says. “It makes us more ethical and humane when we face those things, stop romanticizing certain narratives, and learn how to do better.”

As someone who believes in the power of mentorship, she developed the Volunteer Student Mentorship Program in collaboration with CNM’s Assistance Centers for Education (tutoring) so that students who benefited from the ACE program can reach out to new students as a way to make them feel less intimidated about accessing services. She also worked with ACE to develop the Faculty ACE Assistants Program where instructors hold office hours at ACE so that students were encouraged to come in.  

Most recently, Maria has started to work on a larger agenda around equity for students, staff, and faculty at CNM. She’s interested in ensuring classes and curriculums are as streamlined as possible so students are highly engaged but don’t have to deal with work that doesn’t benefit them on their path to graduation.

For staff and faculty, she wants to ensure there’s adequate compensation and that all employees have a healthy work/life balance. She says that faculty of color in particular have historically felt so pressured to perform in higher education that their work/life balance is unhealthy. 

As a result of COVID, however, she says there’s now a strong learning moment where the pandemic has taught everyone that it’s okay to re-think how we balance life and work while ensuring that both are adequately attended to.

“There is a better way of doing things for everyone at CNM, and I’m excited about working towards a true sense of wellness for ourselves and our larger community,” she says.