Leading with Humanity

December 19, 2023

By Rob Humphreys ’16MBA

Bryce Pittenger
Photo by Scott Cook.

An embodiment of one of Rollins’ most treasured tenets—life is for service—Bryce Pittenger ’87 has dedicated her career to improving lives.

Directing mental health programs in one of the nation’s poorest states is hard enough. Throw in politicized border-control crises, international child sex trafficking, rising rates of drug addiction, and multiple traumas exacerbated by a global pandemic, and you’ll begin to understand the Herculean challenges faced by Bryce Pittenger ’87.

As CEO of the New Mexico Behavioral Health Collaborative—a position she held from 2020 to March 2023—Pittenger oversaw a cabinet-level group representing 17 state agencies involved in behavioral health prevention, treatment, and recovery. To earn that appointment, she advanced through multiple leadership positions over many years with New Mexico’s Children, Youth and Families Department.

While in state government, Pittenger’s collaborative, multi-stakeholder approach focused on ensuring the well-being of all groups under her care, which extended to creating humane, community-driven support systems for migrant children separated from their families.

“Any child who steps into New Mexico is a New Mexican child for that moment,” Pittenger once told the media, and she advanced that platform through partnerships spanning federal, state, and local government; nonprofits; health-care providers; and the state’s indigenous population.

For her distinguished service, Pittenger earned the 2023 Fred Rogers Global Citizenship Award, an honor that recognizes alumni who exemplify Rollins’ mission of global citizenship and responsible leadership through their extraordinary achievements and impact on society.

“What an award,” she says. “I mean, ‘Won’t you be my neighbor?’ That’s the message I’ve been saying in the media for a long time. Kindness is mental health. Fred’s vision about being kind and connected is exactly the underpinning of what I’ve been doing to reform behavioral health in New Mexico.”

At Rollins, Pittenger majored in psychology, started the Women at Rollins group, and lobbied for ADA access. She credits sociology professor Lynda Glennon with educating her about poverty and culture from a new perspective—a springboard for the meaningful impact Pittenger has gone on to have in the lives of those facing struggle and uncertainty.

“Rollins really opened my eyes,” she says. “There was sort of a getting saturated in this new way of thinking about things. The inspiration for what I’ve done in my career was seeded at Rollins.”

One of Pittenger’s most significant achievements came during a refugee surge in the late 2010s when she advocated against creating a locked facility for children who crossed the Mexican border. Instead, she worked with members of the Las Cruces community to process children and families. The approach provided the refugees with resources and support while simultaneously reducing the burden on the federal government.

Apart from immigration, service in New Mexico’s government naturally involves a different brand of global citizenship: working to advance the well-being of the state’s 23 sovereign nations.

“I started to meet with them individually and pay respects and listen to what they need,” she says. “That became a real educational pivot point for me. The idea was, ‘Just come in, listen to what we need and honor who we are.’”

As a result, behavioral health organizations were created within native communities that helped their citizens navigate the pandemic, better address substance abuse and mental health issues, and access government resources like food stamps and Medicaid.

These days, Pittenger is transitioning back into private practice, which will allow her more time to pursue passions like hiking and poetry—and perhaps more opportunities to drop in on her beloved alma mater.

“Every time I come back to Winter Park, visiting Rollins is one of the first things I do,” she says. “It’s this anchoring sense of place that connects me with that part of myself and that memory.”

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