By Published: May 8, 2024

As Ainsley Baker accepts her integrative physiology degree this week, she joins a family history that dates back to 1886

It wasn’t so much rebellion, Debbie Baker admits now, but stubbornness. She grew up hearing endless stories about the University of Colorado Boulder, and not just from her mother, but stories going back generations.

She remembers her grandfather telling her, “Of course you’re going to CU” and thinking, “Of course?

Ainsley Baker as child and CU graduate

Ainsley Baker as a 3-year-old CU Buffs fan (left) and preparing to receive her bachelor's degree in integrative physiology this week.

So, she went to Texas Christian University in Fort Worth for her freshman year. And she loved it—had a wonderful time, made great friends, “but I never quite felt grounded,” she remembers.

She knew, in a way she couldn’t really put into words, that she needed to transfer to CU Boulder, which she did for her sophomore year. In a geology class that year, riding the bus on a field trip to the canyon, she remembers looking out and seeing the spine of the Flatirons stretching to the sky, seeing what seemed like the entire Front Range spreading before her to the horizon and “feeling a rush of ‘I’m grounded, this is where I need to be,’” she says.

In coming to CU Boulder, she’d come home—the fifth consecutive generation of her family to attend the university. This week, Debbie’s daughter Ainsley is donning a mortar board and gown to celebrate earning a bachelor’s degree in integrative physiology, becoming the sixth generation of her family to attend CU Boulder.

“At this point, I think CU is pretty much in our DNA,” Debbie says with a laugh. “My husband and I have tried really hard not to make our kids feel like this is where they have to go …”

“… but it’s where we’ve ended up wanting to go,” Ainsley adds. Her next-younger brother, Brennan, just completed his freshman year at CU Boulder studying quantitative finance.

A family history

Edith Noxon and David Corbin with family

Edith Corbin (left, with father Victor Noxon behind her) graduated CU Boulder in 1918; her son, David Corbin (right, with wife, Mary Jane, and their daughter, Nancy), graduated in 1948. Nancy would go on to study fine art at CU Boulder.

The family’s roots through CU Boulder are almost a century-and-a-half deep, stretching back to 1886 and the university’s fourth graduating class. When Victor Noxon, Debbie’s great-great-grandfather, began his engineering studies, the university consisted of one building—Old Main. His graduating class totaled six—five men and one woman.

Noxon, who was grandfather of CU Boulder alum and astronaut Scott Carpenter and who started the Boulder County Farmer and Miner newspaper, was father to three sons and six daughters—all of whom attended CU Boulder. Among them was Edith Corbin, Debbie’s great-grandmother, who graduated in 1918 and became a nurse. Her son, David Corbin, graduated in electrical engineering in 1948, and his daughter Nancy studied fine art.

“Both my parents went here,” says Nancy, now Nancy Heaney, and her daughter Debbie adds, “In fact, she was born one month before graduation.”

Nancy’s parents courted on the bridge over Varsity Pond and, after they married, lived in a Quonset hut on campus.

So, as Debbie walked around campus as a student, so many spots held memories from the stories she’s heard all her life. She’d grown up in Littleton and came to Boulder and the university campus occasionally for football games or the Colorado Shakespeare Festival, but it was different now that she was a student studying communication and pursuing an elementary education certificate. She was adding her own stories to the growing family chain of lore.

She was part of Kappa Alpha Theta, which had been her grandmother’s sorority. She met her husband, Mark, in Kittredge Hall and auditioned for women’s choir in Macky Auditorium: “I sang in women’s choir for one semester, then in co-ed choir, and we always sang in Macky for Christmas,” Debbie recalls. “That was always such a special experience, and I remember my grandfather would come and just beam.”

Mark and Debbie Baker kissing on stairs at CU Old Main

Mark and Debbie Baker kiss on the former spiral stairs at Old Main on one of the last nights of their senior year (left) and recreate the moment almost two decades later (right).

She and Mark, who represents the second generation of his family to graduate CU Boulder (plus a grandfather who taught in CU Boulder’s U.S. Navy ROTC program), played on champion intramural Ultimate Frisbee teams on campus. At the end of their senior year in 1996, they got an old film camera and ran around campus one evening issuing dares and taking pictures: splashing in a fountain, walking on the shelves in Norlin Library, kissing on the old spiral staircase at Old Main.

“Everywhere I look (on campus) there’s a memory,” Debbie says.

‘CU has felt like home’

When Ainsley—who is the oldest of four, with three younger brothers—was thinking about college, she considered a few out-of-state possibilities, “but not seriously,” she says. Even though her parents never pressured her to attend CU Boulder, she’d grown up hearing their stories and attending occasional football games, so by the time she needed to commit to a university, “I was pretty excited to go to CU.”

Her first year coincided with the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, so her classes were virtual. She completed chemistry labs in her bathroom and remembers concerning her roommates when she burned aluminum foil with magnesium citrate.

The nearby mountains and trails helped keep her grounded that year, and when in-person restrictions began lifting her sophomore year, she was ready to dive in: as a Young Life leader, playing intramural soccer, attending football games, playing cross-campus miniature golf with tennis balls, storming the field after CU’s win against Nebraska. She even appeared in a background shot of the documentary about Coach Prime.

Brennan, Debbie and Ainsley Baker, Nancy Heaney

Brennan, Debbie and Ainsley Baker (left to right) and Nancy Heaney (right) represent three of six generations who have studied at CU Boulder. (Photo: Kylie Clarke)

And when it was time for Brennan to consider college, he also looked into a few out-of-state options, but like his sister, it was almost a foregone conclusion.

“A lot of friends told me, ‘You’re going to CU,’ and it’s actually where I wanted to go,” he says, adding that it’s close enough to home and family in Highlands Ranch, but just far enough away “that I can have my own experience.”

“It’s been really fun to have this time with Brennan here,” Ainsley says. “We would have lunch every Wednesday, and I’d get texts from my friends whenever they had a Brennan sighting on campus.”

Like Ainsley, Brennan learned to balance school and a social life—playing intramural soccer with his sister, getting active in Young Life, riding a bike to campus in the middle of a snowstorm, getting trapped in an elevator with his friends and singing songs to pass the time until firefighters could pry the doors open. He also is part of the Dean's Fellows Program and President's Leadership Class, as was his father. 

He’ll be cheering for Ainsley as she accepts her diploma this week—she actually finished class in December and is working at Boulder Community Hospital while she applies to nursing school—and trying not to pressure their two younger brothers about attending CU.

“I think our family has been really lucky to have this connection to such a wonderful place,” Debbie says. “For generations, CU has felt like home.”

Unless otherwise noted, photos courtesy Debbie Baker

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