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Former football star Danny Villanueva still on New Mexico State's team, raising and matching funds for Hispanic student scholarships

When Susana Estrada told her parents she had been awarded the Danny Villanueva Scholarship at New Mexico State University, "it clicked with them," she said. "This was the man they used to watch on Channel 34 in L.A."

Danny Villanueva, left, with scholarship recipient Susana Estrada, a bilingual education major at New Mexico State University. (NMSU photo by Darren Phillips)

eva, a 1961 graduate of New Mexico State, was just beginning his broadcasting career at that time, after eight years as a place kicker with the Los Angeles Rams and the Dallas Cowboys.

Since then, Estrada's family moved to Las Cruces, N.M., and Villanueva soared through the world of Spanish-language broadcasting, helping to establish the Univision and Telemundo television networks.

Today, Villanueva is chairman of Bastion Capital Fund, a private equity investment firm in Los Angeles, and he returns to his alma mater during Homecoming each fall to help raise money for scholarships for Hispanic students who demonstrate leadership at NMSU. Each time, he writes a check to match the proceeds of an annual breakfast benefit.

"Today we will be adding another $35,000 to match the $35,000 raised by this event," he told about 500 people at this year's breakfast on Oct. 28. "I am proud to say the fund is now approaching a quarter million dollars."

Villanueva has supported the university in other ways as well, including a $250,000 gift toward the Fulton Athletic Center, an annex to NMSU's football stadium. The new center serves academic as well as athletic programs, and it includes a large dining facility known as the Villanueva Victory Club.

NMSU President Michael Martin said the support of Villanueva and other successful graduates is a key to the university's success. "One of the characteristics of a great university is that those it serves return to serve the institution," he said.

A native of Tucumcari, N.M., Villanueva came to New Mexico State University on a football scholarship and was a member of the team that won the Sun Bowl in 1959. He also was editor of the Round Up, the student newspaper.

After his NFL career, he returned to journalism and quickly rose to national prominence. As news director of KMEX-TV, Channel 34 in Los Angeles, he led the station to a Peabody Award, one of broadcast journalism's highest honors. He was senior vice president of Spanish International Communications Corp., which owned KMEX and other stations, from 1971 until the company was acquired by Univision Holdings in 1986.

Villanueva remained as a top executive with Univision until 1990, when he began his current career as a founder of Bastion Capital Corp. Bastion is a partner in the Telemundo Communications Group and other companies in the United States and Mexico.

Susana Estrada, a senior bilingual education major with plans to teach in the U.S.-Mexico border region, is the 2004 recipient of the Danny Villanueva Scholarship, which began in 1991.

"Who would have thought that the man my parents watched on TV back in L.A. would be playing a role in my college education?" she asked the breakfast audience. "I think the best way to express my gratitude is to do my best and become one of the best teachers out there."

Estrada's comments about becoming a good teacher must have pleased Federico Pena, featured speaker for the event. Pena, former U.S. secretary of transportation, U.S. secretary of energy and mayor of Denver, had just spent 30 minutes outlining what he called "truly a national crisis ... so severe that it is challenging our national security."

The United States "is gradually losing its competitive edge in the world, and our economic and military hegemony is eroding every day," Pena said, because the nation is falling behind in education, particularly in science and technology.

In international testing among developed nations, he said, American students come in 16th in mathematics and 17th in science. In the 1990s, two-thirds of the global increase in post-secondary enrollment was attributed to Asia. Indian universities today turn out 122,000 engineers a year compared with 63,000 in the United States.

To turn the trend around, the United States needs to "produce the smartest, most creative work force in the 21st century," Pena said. "I believe as part of that challenge we must focus on the minority communities in our country, and in particular on the Latino community."

The nation's population is expected to be half minority by 2050 and Hispanics are the fastest-growing minority group, he noted, but "we know that the dropout rate among Latino students is in some places over 50 percent."

More support for teachers and more financial aid for students are critical to the nation's global competitiveness, Pena said.

"That's why I wanted to be here to support you in this effort," he said. "There should never be a young American, whether Latino or African-American or whatever, who doesn't get a chance to go to college because of financial support. There is too much wealth in this country."