By Published: June 22, 2022

Meet three CU Boulder students who are creating supportive, stronger communities by improving understanding, accessibility

The COVID-19 pandemic demanded that University of Colorado Boulder students change the way they interact. They took classes at home and had limited student group contact. On-campus students followed tight schedules to reduce the virus’ spread.

While the pandemic’s restrictions were isolating, students sought stronger, inclusive communities and, in many cases, used creative means to generate understanding and connection with others in need.

What follows are three profiles of CU Boulder students who strive to make their communities stronger: an anthropology PhD student who researches the experiences of people with blindness, a philosophy major who uses a website and social media to connect with fellow cancer survivors, and a graduate student in religious studies who encourages students to expand what they believe they can accomplish.

When people give you grace, in the end it motivates you.”

Blind grad student works to improve CU Boulder’s vision

Kevin Darcy grew up in blue collar, manufacturing communities in Massachusetts and Florida that valued independence and masculinity. In his junior year of high school, he lost his vision.

“For a long time, like 15 years, I had a lot of perceived and actual stigma that I internalized, and I refused to accept the idea that I was blind,” says Darcy, now a PhD student in anthropology at CU Boulder. “The way I think about it now is that, when I lost my vision, I was afraid that the image I have about myself wouldn't align with the image that other people create about me when they see me.”

At age 27, Darcy, a first-generation student, began attending Metropolitan State University in Denver and studied biological anthropology. While on a research trip to Peru his senior year, he faced the fact that his blindness would limit his ability to study historical health and disease. But that moment also opened another career path.

“I realized two things: If I stayed in biological anthropology, someone is always going to have to look over my shoulder and confirm my analysis,” Darcy says. “But I also realized that living people had a lot more to say, and they’re more fun to hang out with.”

He enrolled in a medical anthropology program at CU Denver, where he earned his master’s in anthropology. His research focused on health and the environment, as well as immigration and food systems. In 2015, Darcy enrolled in CU Boulder’s PhD program in anthropology, intending to continue studying immigration, food and the environment.

Early in his studies, he felt frustrated by implicit bias.

Kevin Darcy

Kevin Darcy is a PhD student in anthropology.

“I think I was feeling the discriminatory experiences more because, as a first-generation student, I was already feeling like an outsider,” Darcy says. “Everyone seemed to know what to do as a graduate student except me.”

In 2017, Darcy nearly left the university because he had experienced several acts of overt discrimination. He was shocked to be publicly singled out for his disability. However, when he expressed his intent to leave, a faculty member and his Digital Accessibility Office supervisor offered him an opportunity to make CU Boulder more inclusive.

In his research for the Digital Accessibility Office, Darcy discovered an outsized reliance by faculty and staff on students with disabilities, whom they expected to function as experts in particular technologies.

“The assumption behind this is that people have been blind for a long enough period to learn how to use the technology, and that they have the socio-economic resources to purchase it and get trained on it,” Darcy says. “There is a push for people with disabilities to advocate for themselves, which is great, but oftentimes that advocacy shifts to individual responsibility.”

In anthropology, a faculty member offered to become his dissertation advisor, and Darcy began to focus his thesis on market-oriented incentives in universities, like academic tenure and intellectual property, which solidify a hierarchy in which certain groups are given preference at the expense of people with disabilities, he says.

Darcy is still gathering data, but his early findings suggest a need to improve communication about disability and strengthen training for faculty, students and staff to support students with disabilities so they finish their degrees. While there are clusters of disability experts across campus, these groups have not effectively shared their information or found ways to deliver training, Darcy contends.

“I just don't want the knowledge that I produce to sit up in the ivory tower,” Darcy says. “I want to make a positive impact for the people I do research with. Hopefully, I can make some changes.”

Student leverages website and social media to support fellow cancer survivors

In 2020, Aspen Heidekrueger launched a blog documenting her experience surviving leukemia at age 12 and the challenging aftermath. Now, she seeks to bring people with chronic illness together through social media and her website.

Heidekrueger’s blog, called Complicated Cancer, focuses on continuing health issues related to her chemotherapy, which lasted two-and-a-half years. By blending pop culture, memes, philosophy and her reflections to give insight into the experience of surviving cancer, Heidekrueger offers advice and encouragement to readers.

“When I was struggling with debilitating, chronic health problems, I felt so alone and so misunderstood,” says Heidekrueger, who is pursuing a bachelor’s in philosophy. “It was so difficult to connect to people, and I had no one telling me that what I was feeling was normal. I never want anyone else to feel that way, if I can help it.”

In 2021, Heidekrueger began creating content for TikTok, Pinterest, Facebook and Instagram, which she hoped would reach more people undergoing cancer treatment and clarify the experience for a larger audience. She did not anticipate the commonality of her experience and those of people with other chronic health issues, already gaining more than 210,000 followers on TikTok alone.

“I have been able to connect with so many people struggling with cancer or chronic illness,” Heidekrueger says. “Because all those people are experiencing similar things—lots of days of feeling sick, countless doctors, hospitals and physical limitations—it all manifests the same way emotionally and mentally.”

The growing audience is an exciting opportunity for Heidekrueger to offer support for people who might struggle finding understanding communities. While her mother has helped her overcome barriers, she knows that during hard times people on whom survivors relied in the past might be less dependable.

Aspen Heidekrueger

Aspen Heidekrueger, a philosophy undergraduate student, discusses her experience with cancer in her blog, Complicated Cancer.

“When I got cancer, my dad left because it was too much for him,” Heidekrueger says. “That, unfortunately, happens a lot with chronic illness issues like cancer—one parent will leave if they can't handle it. It’s awful.”

Because of that fragile support system, even one faculty or staff member who expresses concern offers students an advocate who helps them persist in their studies and recognizes their humanity. For Heidekrueger, that person was Dom Bailey, an associate professor of philosophy.

“At office hours, I told him the bare bones minimum about some of the stuff that was happening with my health and cancer at the time,” Heidekrueger says. “He immediately said, ‘That is so much. Do you have a good support system? What can I do for you?’ And that was from just telling him the smallest details.”

From Heidekrueger’s point of view, Bailey’s expression of concern and follow-up helped her feel that someone at CU Boulder was available and understood the challenges of trying to complete a college degree while dealing with chronic illness. That readiness to help and be empathetic reflect what she seeks to accomplish on her website and social media.

“To have someone I knew who was there, who really cared about me, was invested in my well-being, could help me through any hard course material and connect me with other professors—it was a lifesaver,” Heidekrueger says. “If I can do small things that help make people feel infinitely better, I want to do that, too.”

To foster a supportive community like the one she had, Heidekrueger plans to expand Complicated Cancer by creating chatrooms where cancer survivors can share their experiences and give support and advice.

“I want them to have someone who can say, ‘This is what it's like. You might feel this way, and that's normal. Here's how you can get through it,’” Heidekrueger says.

“Everyone deserves to have some hope, some encouragement, someone to connect to their pain and give them reasons to move forward.”

Faculty approachability strengthens students’ work

Graduate school appeared impossible for first-generation student Blake Trujillo.

Only certain types of people went on to continue their education—and he, the first person in his family to complete a bachelor’s degree at a university, did not see himself as one of them. At least at first.

“That's something that is often neglected,” says Trujillo, a master’s student in religious studies. “If you don't have someone with you who's been (through the application process), then it becomes a much more difficult experience, especially at the graduate level.”

Born in Wheat Ridge, Colorado, Trujillo moved to Silverdale, Washington, at a young age. He attended Central Washington University (CWU) in Ellensburg, where he was a middle-distance runner and studied political science.

After completing his bachelor’s degree in three years, he wanted to stay at CWU and continue to run track. On a whim, he decided to take a few religious studies classes and fell in love with the subject.

“It opened my eyes,” Trujillo says. “I realized that maybe the world isn't exactly how I picture it and there are new aspects to religion that we can explore and discover.”

Blake Trujillo

Blake Trujillo is a master’s student in religious studies.

Of particular importance was his undergraduate advisor, Lily Vuong, whose dynamic lectures and mentorship encouraged Trujillo to reframe what he believed possible in religious studies. Vuong, who is an associate professor of religious studies at CWU, also encouraged Trujillo to consider pursuing a graduate degree.

Vuong helped Trujillo put together a compelling application with which he gained admission to CU Boulder and, just as important, earned a strong financial aid package.

With high expectations for his first year, Trujillo hoped to enjoy the best of Boulder’s residential experience, spend time digging through the library’s vast access to primary texts and explore his research interest in Gnosticism, or a set of religious beliefs in some early Christian and Jewish sects that emphasizes personal spiritual knowledge over orthodox teachings and traditions. He also wanted to replicate the mentorship he received at CWU.

Trujillo is excited to practice being an approachable scholar, replicating the mentorship he received. He hopes the informal manner with which he interacts with students encourages them to seek him out. In conversations with students, he wants to help them see themselves at their best and create an environment that gives them opportunities to become that person.

“Professors are brilliant, and at the same time, this is an avenue that anyone can pursue and should believe that they can pursue. If I can do it, anyone can,” Trujillo says.

Trujillo believes leveling his position of influence and power as much as possible makes him appear more human. That effort creates familiarity with students, which he hopes leads to more students seeking out mentorship.

“Some faculty seem like mythical figures who went to mythical universities, and it can be tough to want to approach someone like that,” Trujillo says. “I want students and professors to know they can approach me and talk.”

Trujillo argues that if faculty maintain distance to give the appearance of expertise, they might inadvertently encourage their students to submit work that is not their best. Instead, he believes intimidated students try to simply meet the established requirements. In his experience, when you give students the benefit of the doubt and make yourself available, they meet even higher expectations.

“After I built a connection with Dr. Vuong, my advisor for undergrad, I felt much worse turning in something that I thought was bad,” Trujillo says. “I knew she had given me a certain amount of grace and kindness, so I felt like I needed to step up to the plate.”

“When people give you grace, in the end it motivates you.”

(Header image illustration by Alex Steele)