Ecosystem for Learning

An Ecosystem for Learning

Arian Brazenwood | Senior in Natural Resources Management

Story by Tosha Jupiter | Photography by John EiseleArian Brazenwood portrait in lodgepole pines

Arian Brazenwood hitched a ride to Fort Collins from a friend’s mom in May 2014. Walking through the American elms on Colorado State’s historic Oval, he gripped a sealed envelope prepared by his counselor at Boulder High. It contained transcripts revealing a 4.2 grade point average.

“Can I go here?” he wondered uncertainly, as he tried to remember his counselor’s instructions.

Brazenwood had not planned for this day – survival was his overwhelming concern – and he was too nervous to imagine that he was walking into a campus community he’d soon love and consider home.

“I faced adversity at every turn for many years,” Brazenwood explained to an audience at the CSU President’s Gala nearly three years later. “I have gone from surviving in homelessness and poverty and food insecurity and uncertainty of what tomorrow’s life situation would be to thriving at this amazing institution, where I get the honor and privilege to pursue my dreams further and explore possibilities that I did not even dare dream of in the past.”

Brazenwood is among thousands of students at Colorado State who are in the first generation of their families to earn college degrees. He exemplifies talented first-generation students who have faced sometimes staggering difficulties, yet blossom into leaders when given the opportunity and support to succeed. After years of homelessness, Brazenwood is set to graduate this spring in natural resources management, with a minor in geography, and an academic résumé stacked with research and leadership experience.

His future appears much different now than it did that spring day four years ago, when Brazenwood stepped onto the north edge of campus with little beyond his transcripts, a 40-liter backpack, and the guiding words of his single father, who had died of brain cancer.

“‘If you argue for your limitations, you get to keep them. But if you argue for your possibilities, you get to create them.’ Those are my dad’s words,” Brazenwood said. “He was a writer. These 23 words capture the essence of him, and they are my connection to him.”

Looking back, Brazenwood remembers his dad’s way of turning life into an adventure, as if they were “two nomadic heroes.” But there often wasn’t much romance in their transient lives. Brazenwood lived in 26 states and was enrolled in 36 public schools between kindergarten and his senior year of high school. He and his dad, Kelly, often survived on rice and beans – sometimes nothing. They slept where they could, sometimes outside, sometimes on the couches of friends.

“Thinking about all of the doors that have opened for me, I couldn’t have gone through without a little help. Actually, a lot of help. I am here because of the selflessness of others.”

First Generation

by Coleman Cornelius

One in four. It’s a big number at a University with some 33,000 students.

For decades, about 25 percent of students at Colorado State University have been in the first generation of their families to earn college degrees.

These first-generation students and their achievements are a testament to the power of a land-grant university to improve individual lives, communities – and the world – by providing access to excellent education for every student with the talent and motivation to earn it.

The success of CSU’s first-generation students is no fluke.

In 1984, Colorado State became the first University in the nation to offer scholarships for first-generation students. Over 33 years, the school has provided more than $20 million to 2,372 first-generation and low-income students, said Paul Thayer, special adviser to the provost and a driving force behind the first-generation focus. Students who earn First Generation Awards receive $4,000 per academic year, or $16,000 total.

But financial aid is just part of the first-generation initiative. As CSU has compiled data about these students, their backgrounds, and their challenges, its targeted programming has evolved to help ensure that students successfully graduate.

The University recruits first-generation students in Colorado high schools – then supports students with a network of social programs, mentorship, and academic help.

“Colorado State is a leader in first-generation student success. The quality and breadth of your programs are nearly unmatched,” said Sarah Whitley, a senior director with NASPA – Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education.

His father died when Brazenwood was a high school senior. He lost the poet who gave him consistent hope for the future. Brazenwood began living out of his school locker; he held three jobs to eat, delivering mattresses, chopping firewood, and working as a stable hand.

Schoolwork not only was a diversion, but a way for Brazenwood to be successful; his shining academic abilities became his ticket.

“From the moment I met Arian, I knew he was special,” said Heidi Stuckert, a financial aid officer and the first person on campus to meet Brazenwood. “He really wanted to attend CSU, and financial aid was critical to making that happen. He opened up about his journey. I knew he needed someone to stick with him and make sure he got through the process.”

Stuckert helped create a financial aid package for Brazenwood. He later received support from the Reisher Scholars Program, which is managed by the Denver Foundation and awards scholarships to Colorado students based on academic merit and financial need.

Brazenwood had a rocky start at CSU, but found his footing through campus involvement.

By his sophomore year, he settled into the Warner College of Natural Resources, his commitment to natural resources stewardship deepened through the CSU Mountain Campus, and he earned his first 4.0 in college. He became a resident assistant for the Outdoor Leadership Residential Learning Community, and he started a job in a biogeography lab. He found new mentors and peers in the CSU Fostering Success Program, which supports independent students who don’t have families to rely upon.

“Thinking about all of the doors that have opened for me, I couldn’t have gone through without a little help. Actually, a lot of help,” Brazenwood said. “I am here because of the selflessness of others.”

As his time at CSU has continued, Brazenwood has assumed additional leadership roles and has excelled in the classroom. He has taught and learned at the Mountain Campus at Pingree Park west of Fort Collins. He has hiked 450 miles through Rocky Mountain National Park to survey 21,000 trees in a research project assessing the response of subalpine forests to fire, beetle kill, wind, and erosion. He knows the scientific name of almost
every plant and animal in Colorado.

“He got close to 100 percent in my class,” said Troy Ocheltree, an assistant professor in the Department of Forest and Rangeland Stewardship. “Arian’s real strength is his critical thinking and creativity. Managing natural resources is a complex issue, and we need leaders who have a strong understanding of ecosystem function and can apply their understanding to changing conditions.”

As Brazenwood anticipates commencement in May, he is considering graduate school, and a successful career is within grasp. He has hope.

“Arian’s story is a great example of how vital financial aid is, and how going the extra mile for a student can transform their life,” said Stuckert, his first financial aid officer. “Arian has already made a positive impact on our world, and the events of the day we met will continue to ripple out and touch lives.”

First Generation

Jordan Pinelli student portrait
“Everyone here is rooting for your success.” – Jordan Pinelli

Jordan Pinelli | Senior in Business Administration

Pinelli felt capable of college success while growing up on the outskirts of Denver, and that feeling was reinforced by her college-bound peer group at Cherry Creek High School. Even so, Pinelli says she would have been lost during her first year at Colorado State without the support of the College of Business Mentoring Program. It pairs incoming freshmen facing challenges, including first-generation students, with older business scholars who offer friendship and academic support. After her first year as a mentee, Pinelli advanced to the role of class leader and last year was student coordinator for the entire program, teaching an orientation seminar and leading campus activities for about 60 other students. “I’ve never felt more supported,” says Pinelli, who received a First Generation Award from Colorado State. “This is a community that wants to build each other up.”

Jason Gilmore, student portrait
“I never intended to go to college, but that mindset changed because of the things I experienced while traveling and in combat. I was hoping to keep growing as a person and take on new challenges.” – Jason Gilmore

Jason Gilmore | Junior in Economics and Accounting

Gilmore is a U.S. Marine Corps veteran who deployed three times to Iraq and Afghanistan with the 2nd Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment based in Hawaii. During the mid-aughts, his infantry battalion – the Island Warriors – fought intensely and suffered difficult losses against insurgents. To mentally escape, he read Rich Dad, Poor Dad, the personal finance best-seller, and became fascinated by the economy, markets, and investing. In 2009, Gilmore’s commanding officer in Afghanistan urged him to use his education benefits, and he landed at Colorado State after a visit to the campus that has been praised as one of the best for student-veterans. He attends CSU with a Daniels Fund Boundless Opportunity Scholarship and has found support and a sense of community from CSU Adult Learner and Veteran Services. “I take pride in being a first-generation student,” Gilmore says. “I’m happy I’ve taken up the torch.”

Ashle' Tate, portrait
“ I just love learning. Doing what you love gives you energy.” – Ashle’ Tate

Ashle’ Tate | Senior in English Education

When she arrived at Colorado State, Tate dove into academic and service opportunities that have allowed her to give back to her community and world, even while enriching her own life. She started in a Key Community, living in a residence hall with other students dedicated to community service and social justice. On Alternative Spring Break trips, she visited San Francisco to learn about the criminal justice system and Kansas City to volunteer with children recovering from abuse. Now she’s headed for Houston to understand the effects of hurricane damage on low-income schools. During 2016 winter break, Tate joined CSU’s Learn and Serve in Ghana program then presented a session called “Gifts from Ghana” during last fall’s campus Diversity Symposium. Her work has earned Tate multiple honors, including a bonus for outstanding leadership and academic achievement added to her CSU First Generation Award.

Dominic Martinez, portrait
“ I’m representing something greater than myself, and that’s a cool experience.” – Dominic Martinez

Dominic Martinez | Senior in Biomedical and Mechanical Engineering

Martinez was an only child raised by a single mom. She died when he was a teenager, leaving her son with an enduring work ethic. Even as Martinez moved from one harboring family to another, he focused on school and graduated from Pomona High near Denver. Now, with graduation from a rigorous, five-year college program in sight, Martinez plans to pursue medical school, with a particular interest in brain problems and neurosurgery. He has worked as a teaching assistant for human physiology and human anatomy classes and has volunteered with CSU brain-awareness outreach for schoolkids. Martinez received a CSU First Generation Award, with additional support for outstanding leadership and academic achievement. “Having trauma at a young age is scarring, but one can persevere with mental fortitude,” he says. “It boils down to having the drive.”

Visit First Generation at CSU for information and to donate to scholarships and programs for CSU first-generation students.

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