By Published: May 2, 2024

Student who was just a few credits shy of graduating in 1997 will walk in May commencement ceremony thanks to Finish What You Started program

Marcos Castillo is a big believer in second chances.

Part of that comes from his years of experience working for Catholic Charities of Denver, where he has provided assistance to the Mile High City’s homeless populations and Colorado’s immigrant communities.

Perhaps just as importantly, Castillo knows the value of second chances in his own life and career, which has not followed a straight path.

So close to finishing

Marcos Castillo

Marcos Castillo credits a return to his Catholic faith with getting his life back on track, including a renewed focus on completing college. He will walk with other graduating seniors on May 9 during ceremonies at Folsom Field on the CU Boulder campus.

In 1997, Castillo was on a trajectory to success. He was a senior at the University of Colorado Boulder, finishing his degree in political science and international business. Fate seemed to further smile on him when he was selected for an internship with the Colorado International Trade Office, which was then in the early stages of establishing trade relationships with chambers of commerce in Mexico. That internship led to an offer of full-time employment working as a contract trade consultant in Mexico and the United States.

“When the job opened, I took it, thinking I was almost done with school, and I could use the money. Plus, I just didn’t want to pass up the opportunity,” he says.

Castillo worked in that job for about 10 years, and by all accounts he was successful at it, before ultimately deciding to return home to Denver. Finishing college was never far from his mind, he says, so he enrolled again. Unfortunately, at that same time he was struggling with depression and battling alcohol addiction.

It was a particularly dark period in his life, he admits.

“I bounced around from job to job for several years,” he says. “I didn’t have a sense of direction, quite honestly.”

Things started to change for Castillo not long after he took a job with Catholic Charities.

“It called out to me because, yes, I’m Catholic, and I wanted to return to my faith. And with these personal struggles, I hadn’t been able to find a way to overcome them on my own, until I decided to take my faith seriously. Once I committed to that, it allowed me to focus on my work, and, later on, school.”

An opportunity with ‘Finish What You Started’

While working to help others in his job with Catholic Charities, Castillo in 2022 received some positive news about his own longstanding goal to finish college. That was the year that the CU Boulder Division of Continuing Education contacted Castillo to let him know he was eligible for assistance in completing his degree through the Finish What You Started program (see related story below).

Castillo embraces his calling with Catholic Charities work

With the passage of time, Marcos Castillo says he has come to look at his work for Catholic Charities as a calling.

“I’m committed to working for Catholic Charities and doing whatever I can to help those in need,” he says. “Whether it was helping the homeless population, like I did in the beginning, or now working with migrants, it’s something I know how to do and it’s something I’m good at.”

In his current role at Catholic Charities, Castillo spearheads the Temporary Protective Status and Employment Authorization workshops for qualified migrants, potentially allowing them to obtain temporary protective status and a work permit.

Castillo’s job with Catholic Charities is deeply personal. He was born in Mexico City and emigrated to Denver with his parents when he was just 8 and did not speak English. He says he sees his work as important and meaningful.

“I enjoy going to work every day. It’s hard work. Some days it can be emotionally taxing. There is always a lot going on, but I can’t see myself doing anything else,” he says. “This is where I need to be and this is what I need to be doing. So, that’s what my calling means for me.”

Castillo says he was excited about the prospect of returning to college, but also a bit nervous after being away for so long.

In retrospect, he didn’t need to worry.

“Ann Herrmann with Finish What You Started was amazing to work with, from the beginning until the end,” Castillo says. “She explained what forms I had to fill out, she helped explain the assistance I was eligible for, and she helped me narrow down which classes I needed to finish up my degree. Plus, she would just check in with me during the semester to ask how things were going. So, I felt really supported all the way through.”

That ended up being fortuitous, Castillo says, because he struggled in his first attempt to take an online biology course—an option that didn’t even exist during his first time in college. After he expressed his misgivings to Herrmann, she suggested he take the course as an evening class on the CU Boulder campus—and everything clicked.

“She gave me the encouragement to try again and get it done,” Castillo says. “Had it not been for that, I don’t know that I would have tried again, because I was really frustrated with myself at the time.”

With that first college class under his belt, Castillo then took an anthropology class called The Human Animal and an Introduction to Western Philosophy class, both of which he says he enjoyed and successfully passed. He was the oldest student in those classes, but both the instructors and the students made him feel welcome, he says.

Officially, Castillo finished his classes in December, but he’ll walk with other seniors during the May 9 commencement at Folsom Field on the CU Boulder campus. One regret is that the timing of the event will prevent his mom and younger brother, Tony, from attending, because they already had plans to be in Mexico at the time.

“It’s kind of sad. My mom, more than anyone, really pushed me to finish college,” he says. Still, Castillo says he has already promised to take selfies and livestream part of the event for absent family members.

The long road to finishing college

Even before re-enrolling at CU Boulder, one of the biggest turning points in his life, Castillo’s quest to earn a college degree took a number of twists and turns over the years.

A graduate of Denver East High School, he first enrolled at the University of the Americas Puebla, near Puebla, Mexico, where he studied psychology. All of the coursework was in Spanish, which Castillo says was actually a bit of a challenge because he didn’t learn formal Spanish growing up, so there was a learning curve.

After spending about a year and a half at the university in Puebla, where Castillo admits he struggled academically, he decided to return home to Denver. He enrolled at Community College of Denver, then transferred to University of Colorado Denver, where several of his high school friends were studying.

Marcos Castillo and family

Marcos Castillo (left) with his dad, Juan, his mom, Victoria, and his younger brother, Tony. Castillo says his parents strongly supported his efforts to finish college.

“And then some of us just decided, ‘Let’s go to CU Boulder.’ We transferred over and moved up to Boulder. It was as simple as that,” he says. “My friends finished college, and I got through my senior year. I was so fortunate to have a good group of friends who helped me by serving as an example of how to do this. Had I not had those examples, I don’t know what I would have done.”

Reflecting on his quest to complete his degree, Castillo says, “I’ve done everything in a zig zag; I’ve never done it straight. I’ve taken the most random routes to attend and finish college.

“It’s funny, when I talk with my brother, he’s like, ‘You’ve been doing this for 25 years. You start, then stop, then start again.’ It’s true. When I stop and think about it, school has been a part of my entire adult life.”

Looking to the future

As for what his own future holds, Castillo, who recently turned 50, isn’t sure what comes next. However, after successfully earning his bachelor’s degree, he says he would love to pursue an advanced degree.

“There’s so many things that interest me. I’ve just started to consider what’s possible,” he says. “Religious studies is something I would be interested in. Obviously, something in the liberal arts—something where I could still be helping people. There’s just so much out there you can study.”

For this moment, though, as he prepares for commencement ceremonies next week, Castillo is happy to reflect on the hard work it took to finish his degree and to celebrate his success.

“I’m proud of being a senior graduate,” he says. “And I’m proud of being a part of the community here. I came to Denver when I was really young. I’ve lived here and in Mexico, but I consider Denver my home. And Boulder’s a big part of me, too. And so, I’m proud of staying in Colorado and being a part of the community here. I definitely couldn’t see myself doing this anywhere else.”

As for advice he would have for others contemplating finishing their degree, Castillo says, “There’s a lot of ups and downs, but it’s not impossible. And once you get it done, that feeling of accomplishment is unbelievable; it’s something that can’t be taken away.

“And this is from a normal guy who took a long time and finally found his place. I think that if I can do it, a lot of other people can do it, too. So, I think it would be cool if my story could help someone else.”

Finish What You Started’ helps former CU students complete their degrees

Since its inception in spring 2022, the University of Colorado Boulder Finish What You Started program has helped 52 students who were a few credits, or even semesters, shy of finishing their undergraduate degree to graduate—with still more students graduating this May.

“It’s rewarding and fulfilling work, for sure,” says Ann Herrmann, program manager and advisor for the grant-funded Finish What You Started (FWYS), which is administered by the Division of Continuing Education.

To be eligible for FWYS, an applicant must be a Colorado resident, must have missed at least two semesters and must be working on their first degree. Applicants also must answer questions about income, must attest that they were negatively affected by the COVID-19 pandemic and they must be able to complete their degree by spring 2025, when the grant period ends.

The $3.1 million grant funding was part of a larger pool of money provided to all state colleges by the Colorado Opportunity Scholarship Initiative, which is supported by the American Rescue Plan, a $30 billion federal aid package intended to address the devastation of COVID-19.

FWYS offers students mix of advising and financial assistance. Eligible students have access to semester-over-semester scholarships starting at $1,500, as well as other sources of financial support, depending on individual student need.

“Our goal is to limit out-of-pocket expenses and college loans, if at all possible,” Herrmann says. “Our goal is to maximize the use of this grant money to help them finish their degrees without any additional financial burdens.”

Student support services include one-on-one academic advising and coaching, enrollment support and career advising to help students transition to the workforce after graduation, according to Michelle Pagnani, senior academic coach and lead program specialist for the FWYS program.

“Service offered include a combination of academic skill building and life coaching. Really, life coaching is sort of pulling from a model of positive psychology and motivational interviewing, as well as asking open-ended questions, so students can process their academic experience in light of other things going on in their lives and careers,” Pagnani says. “Lots of conversations are focused on time management and stress management.”

Students enrolled in FWYS program run the gamut in ages, from 20-somethings to those in their 40s, 50s and older. One student who graduated last year was 76 years old.

The Division of Continuing Education hosts a graduation celebration for Finish What You Started graduates on commencement day, and Pagnani and Herrmann say that event highlights how meaningful the program is.

“It’s the most emotionally impactful event I’ve probably ever attended in my career,” Pagnani says.

“For some of these students, we’re their main source of support, so it’s super gratifying to celebrate with them,” Herrmann says. “Many students have said they don’t think they would have finished if not for Michelle’s help.”

Individuals interested in learning more about Finish What You Started can visit the program page or contact a program advisor at or 303-492-9671.