By Michael Haederle

Legacy of Gratitude

Jeff Apodaca Gives Back by Funding Scholarships for Nursing Students

Jeff Apodaca was a 17-year-old high school senior when a cancer diagnosis – soft-tissue sarcoma – turned his life upside down.

After receiving state-of-the-art treatment at MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, the son of former Gov. Jerry Apodaca underwent two years of follow-up chemotherapy at The University of New Mexico Hospital. Fully recovered, he went on to play football at UNM.

jeff-apodaca.jpgForty years later, Apodaca has made the most of a successful business career by finding ways to give back to UNMH – this year funding $5,000 scholarships for six nursing students through the UNM Foundation to help them meet their educational goals.

Hospitalized patients see more of their nurses than any other members of the health care team, he says, and the state needs hundreds more nurses than are currently available, so it makes sense to help nursing students pay for their education.

“It’s a need for the state, and it’s a need for UNM,” Apodaca says. “It’ s close to my heart, because nurses helped me during my two years going through cancer.”

Laura Sofia DeSantiago, who recently completed the third of her five semesters of full-time coursework toward a bachelor of science in nursing degree in the UNM College of Nursing, says the scholarship is a godsend that will help offset the need for additional student loans.

She has been working two jobs – at UNMH Child Life and at the UNM Graduate Resource Center – to help pay for her education, but she will have to relinquish one of those jobs so she can complete her clinical nursing rotations next semester.

The scholarship “came at a great time,” DeSantiago says, “because I quit one of my jobs next semester, so it’s going to be a huge help.”

Dennis Royman, a paramedic working in the pediatric emergency room at UNMH while completing coursework for his BSN in the College of Nursing, applied for the scholarship at the urging of a coworker. Education-related expenses are an extra burden for Royman, who is married, with three children.

“I’m still kind of in disbelief that I was selected,” Royman says. “It’s still not 100 percent real to me. We’ve taken out several student loans just to pay for school and pay for life expenses that come up. The scholarship amount is pretty much what I would be getting for a semester student loan.”

Royman previously worked as a paramedic for the New Mexico Newborn Transport Program, and hopes to move into pediatric nursing. “I really fell in love working with infants, especially,” he says.

Apodaca spent many years in New York and California working in the entertainment industry before returning to New Mexico 11 years ago. Today, he’s the vice chair and CEO of Santa Fe Farms, a hemp processing business. “Our goal is to be the largest industrial hemp company in the company,” he says.

His philanthropic efforts at UNMH date back several decades. Apodaca remembers being inspired by director Steven Spielberg’s support for pediatric medicine at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in West Hollywood. He approached Steve McKernan, then-CEO of UNMH to see how he could help.

Through the years, Apodaca raised funds for a multimedia center in the hospital’s Child Life unit, which occupies part of the sixth floor of the Barbara and Bill Richardson Pavilion. He also raised money to fund college scholarships for young cancer survivors. He has been supporting the nursing scholarships through the Jeff Apodaca Celebration of Life Fund at the UNM Foundation for several years.

This year, 24 people submitted applications, which were reviewed by a five-person committee, Apodaca says. When the final selections were made, he called each recipient individually to share the news.

“Three of them cried with me,” he says. “With two you could hear in their voice that they didn’t know how they were going to pay the bills this year due to COVID. It’s a  major relief for these nurses, male and female.” 

Apodaca says one of the greatest rewards of the scholarship initiative is forming friendships with the recipients. “I keep in touch with most of them,” he says. “We know that by helping the nurses we’re helping kids and helping the hospital.”

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If you would like to contribute the Jeff Apodaca Celebration of Life Fund at the UNM Foundation, please visit:


Categories: College of Nursing, Community Engagement, Education, Top Stories