Hello, and thank you for reading September’s Beyond High School newsletter.
I am excited to see students back on campus and about a new project that we will soon launch at Chalkbeat Colorado. Over the next year, we plan to examine a riddle at the center of any conversation about education in Colorado: Why are there such large disparities among different groups of students?
It’s a story that I’m excited to report. And it’s personal.
I’m the son of a factory worker and daycare provider, raised just outside Greeley. My dad had joined the Marine Corps right after high school. My mom never graduated. But they pushed me to go to college to take advantage of an opportunity they never had.
When I arrived in Boulder 16 years ago, I brought their support but didn’t find too many other students like me on the University of Colorado campus. As an 18-year-old Hispanic man, I felt pretty much out of place in a sea of white faces. That year, in fact, just 6% of the students at CU were Hispanic.
My freshman year, I can’t recall seeing another Hispanic student on my dorm floor.
This fall, I’m digging into enrollment numbers, especially into how many Hispanic men graduate from Colorado’s public colleges. The answer, as we’ll explore in upcoming stories? Far fewer than you would hope. At Metro State University of Denver, for instance, just 18% of the Hispanic men finish their bachelor’s degree in six years.
But today I’m not thinking about the stats, I’m thinking back to a day in my sophomore year.
That fall, I walked into a communications class final — and panicked. I tried to steady my shaky hand. I forced myself to concentrate. But 30 minutes later, with what felt like dozens of eyes on me for finishing so quickly, I turned in my test and left.
I couldn’t tell you what was on that exam and I can only assume the grade wasn’t great. I know I was mostly prepared. But the panic didn’t stem from school.
The previous year had been filled with worry for a sister whose health issues were an anomaly to doctors (to this day they aren’t quite sure how to treat her) and the tumultuous end of my brother’s relationship that threatened to keep me from seeing my nephew. At the time, I also was trying to help someone close to me grapple with childhood mental and physical abuse.
When I walked out of the side door of the building that day, I breathed in the cold Colorado winter air. As I exhaled, I could see my life going in two directions — I could give up or I could press forward.
I decided I couldn’t quit.
Looking back, I realize a huge reason was Dave Martinez. Today, he’s the College of Media, Communication and Information coordinator of inclusive excellence and outreach.
Back then, I didn’t know his title. I just knew he was a person who cared.
For students like me, it can be difficult to find a community that looks like you and shares your life experiences at CU Boulder. Dave made sure I never felt alone. He motivated me to excel and helped me connect to friends that encouraged me to finish school.
When I finished that exam — even though I felt terrible — I knew I couldn’t let my family, Dave, or those friends down.
I’ve never told Dave this story. But when my world seemed to be falling apart, I felt his presence. He never once gave up on me throughout my college journey, even when he didn’t always know what was going on in my head. He was one of the first people I met on campus and we hugged the day I graduated.
Not every student has a Dave. I might have made a different decision the day of that final if it weren’t for him.
There aren’t many months that go by that I don’t think about Dave. When I accepted the job at Chalkbeat Colorado, he was one of the first people that came to mind.
He’s part of why I want to keep schools accountable to the students who need that extra nudge to get through college. Because I know that someone who cares can change a student’s trajectory, calm their fears, and propel them to become someone they didn’t expect.
Jason Gonzales covers higher education for Chalkbeat Colorado, in partnership with Open Campus.