When graduating senior Laura-Elena Porras-Holguin attends the College of Arts and Sciences honors convocation on Dec. 16, COVID will be on her mind.
She and her family all contracted the virus in 2020, and her grandfather passed away on Christmas Eve. As a result, she wasn’t able to finish her sociology honors thesis in time to graduate last May.
But her family’s experience with the coronavirus also gave Porras-Holguin personal insight into how a pandemic disproportionately impacts immigrant and low-income communities. This solidified her desire to pursue a master’s in public health and gave her new resolve to finish her thesis, which she dedicated to her grandfather and her immigrant community.
“I can’t believe I got here,” said Porras-Holguin, who is graduating magna cum laude. “I worried that I would have to give up my thesis in order to graduate.”
Precollegiate program paves the way
The path to CU Boulder began for Porras-Holguin when she was a high school junior in Commerce City. She joined CU Boulder’s Precollegiate Development Program, which helps prepare first-generation middle and high school students and their families for postsecondary opportunities through mentoring, academic enrichment and community-building activities.
The program, which is part of the Office of Diversity, Equity and Community Engagement’s Precollege Outreach and Engagement Office, also helped with her transition to CU Boulder, connecting her with other first-generation students.
“I attended a charter school where everyone was of Mexican heritage, and coming to this predominately white campus was a culture shock,” said Porras-Holguin, who is the daughter of Mexican immigrants.
She eventually started to work for the precollegiate program, serving as a mentor to high school students, helping to support various academic programs and more.
“Laura was a phenomenal employee,” said Maria Castro Barajas, director of the Precollege Bridge Program and Porras-Holguin’s supervisor. “She was passionate about helping students and their families transition to college, drawing on her experiences as a first-generation student. She wanted to understand their stories and help them learn how they could leverage their narratives and unique assets to succeed at CU Boulder.”
Discovering her own path
At CU Boulder, Porras-Holguin was accepted into the McNeill Academic Program, the School of Education’s Multicultural Leadership Scholars Program and the Be First program for first-generation students within the Student Academic Success Center.
These academic programs gave Porras-Holguin the confidence to discover her own path. She originally wanted to follow in the footsteps of her mother, who had been a nurse in Mexico before immigrating, but an introductory sociology class opened up new possibilities.
“I became really interested in community engagement, social work, politics, gender and religion,” she said. “I’m very analytical, and I love being able to look at the world and figure out why things work the way they do, connecting the psycho social factors to the conditions people are in.”
Porras-Holguin‘s passion for community-focused work led her to the School of Education’s Research Hub for Youth Organizing, where she was hired as a research assistant. She published a paper with Prof. Ben Kirshner, who co-leads the hub, on the role of the professional school counselor in advocating for students during distance learning, and presented the paper at the American Educational Research Association 2020 conference.
“Being able to work with professors who are experts in their field, who had faith in my contributions taught me to step away from the feeling of imposter’s syndrome,” she said.
That project also laid the groundwork for her sociology honors thesis, which analyzed the types of services Colorado nonprofits provide to immigrants, how immigration policies impact their work and more.
Inspired to study public health
The COVID pandemic brought together in a deeply personal way what Porras-Holguin was learning through her classes and community-based research.
All of her family members were deemed essential workers and everyone eventually tested positive for the coronavirus. Her grandfather’s lungs, already damaged from working for 30 years in the gold, silver and copper mines in Chihuahua, Mexico, left him particularly vulnerable.
While the family diligently tried to protect him from exposure to the virus, living together made that impossible. Her grandfather contracted COVID and was in the intensive care unit for 10 days on oxygen. They said goodbye to him during a Zoom call.
“This whole experience has inspired my interest in public health, making me aware in a new way of the hardships facing lower economic classes,” she explained. “There are so many systemic issues, and studying sociology enabled me to figure that out.”
Putting it all into practice
Porras-Holguin finished her classes in May, defended her thesis in July, and currently works as an enrollment specialist in a nonprofit clinic in Littleton that helps undocumented families navigate the health care system.
“I want to work with those who are underserved, who are struggling to go to the hospital,” said Porras-Holguin, who is in the midst of applying for master’s programs in public health and health administration. “These are systemic issues and administrators have the power to change policies.”
She will be receiving a bachelor’s degree in sociology, a minor in leadership, a certificate in public health and a certificate in peace, conflict and security on Dec. 16.
“What I did here in college had a purpose,” she explained. “I managed to finish my thesis, and I have my family and CU Boulder to thank for helping me find my identity. I’m proud of my culture, of being a first-generation student and being pushed to learn about our world.”