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An Ecosystem for Learning
Arian Brazenwood | Senior in Natural Resources Management
Story by Tosha Jupiter | Photography by John Eisele
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.”
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.”