Published: Dec. 18, 2017

Carolyn CastanonCarolyn Castanon was a happy teenager. An A student attending high school, she loved hanging out with her little sister and parents in their Colorado Springs home and playing tennis with her friends. Then, two weeks before her 15th birthday, her world broke.

Her father, an undocumented Colorado resident for 20-years, had been detained and imprisoned by Immigration and Customs Enforcement. To protect their mother, the family moved to a stranger’s basement, where they all shared a queen-sized bed. A few months later, after her father was deported to his native country of Peru, her mother made the agonizing decision to join him, but to leave her eldest daughter, Carolyn, a natural born U.S. citizen, in Colorado to finish high school.  

“I wanted to drop out,” says Castanon, who is graduating from the University of Colorado Boulder’s Technology, Arts & Media (TAM) program in December. “I just wanted us to be together.”

After travelling back to Peru with her mother and sister for a short visit, Castanon returned to Colorado alone. She would never live with her family again.

Castanon’s challenging childhood is the focus of her interactive web project, “Being American,” which recounts her teenage and young adult struggles. Her project, which she built as part of a Capstone 2 class, incorporates JavaScript, Cascading Style Sheets (CSS) and HTML.

Site visitors follow her story through a timeline, finding photos, videos, drawings, diary entries and other personal relics along the way.

“I just left my parents, my sister, the only people I have as family,” she wrote after her first visit to Peru. “I am going back to my country, all by myself. I am only 15.”   

Upon her return, she lived with her high school math teacher, a woman she barely knew, and the woman’s family. Over time the woman became a second mother to her, and Castanon became part of the family.

TAM Instructor Arielle Hein encouraged her to pursue the interactive story project, Castanon says, but it wasn’t easy. “When I started writing, I started remembering,” Castanon says. “That was the hardest part. At times, I had no motivation. I couldn’t bring myself to remember; I didn’t want to remember.”

Finding her community

Castanon developed a passion for web design after taking a class in ATLAS and soon switched her major to TAM. The move brought her more than a new degree program: “The ATLAS community is a family to me. So many people have supported me and showed me so much love,” says Castanon. “My peers have been the best people in my life.”

The bachelor's degree grew out of the ATLAS Institute’s popular TAM minor and certificate option, launched in the late 1990s, which now enrolls more than 1,000 students. She now works as a lab assistant for the Web class.

“After doing this capstone project, my voice is being heard,” Castanon says. “And that for me is so beautiful.”

Pursuing a TAM degree also allowed her to conceive and build projects—something she enjoys. She is especially proud of the two she made in her Objects class with recent TAM graduate, Marla Bernstein. For one electronic lighting project, Illuminating Garden, the two women built and programmed an interactive art installation that is both “entertaining and soothing,” using conductive paint and a conductive touch board to trigger multiple LEDS. They also wired and programmed “Chill Out Carly,” a teddy bear with an embedded MP3 Trigger Arduino board that offers a collection of encouraging and comforting words when hugged or squeezed.  

Since age 18, Castanon has tried to bring her parents back to the United States. Her father works in a shipyard in Peru. Her mother now has stage-four cancer. Her attorney says it may take another three years.

Castanon and her boyfriend recently purchased a home together. This summer she plans to bring her 15-year-old sister, who is also a U.S. citizen, to live with them and attend high school.

“I want others to be aware that an American citizen can go through something so tragic, yet be where I am right now—a fourth-year student graduating with an engineering degree,” says Castanon.

“My story is me. I am who I am because of my story. I am so proud of who I am and who I have become.”


Visit Castanon’s website: Being American