It was an easy day at the office for Adela Aguirre.
12 people, including her mother and closest friends in the campus community piled into the Office of Diversity, Equity and Community Engagement (ODECE) suite. There was music. There was conversation. Empanadas, salad and sodas engulfed the front desk accompanied by donuts, cake and Ghirardelli chocolate squares on the table adjacent.
But when it was time for gifts and a celebratory toast, there was nothing but elation and tears of joy. Aguirre’s mother sat in the corner of the room with a grin from cheek to cheek capturing a video of a moment she will never forget.
Her daughter had done it. She was a first-generation student who endured adversity to graduate from the University of Colorado Boulder.
Early upbringing fuels the inspiration
The journey for Aguirre began when her parents immigrated to the United States from Zacatecas, Mexico. They arrived in Boulder, Colorado just months after she was born, but Aguirre still holds true to her Mexican roots.
“You can truly say I was made in Mexico,” she exclaimed.
Her time spent in a college town as she grew up rubbed off on her. She saw the beautiful campus on her walks to University Hill Elementary School. She watched as college students trudged through Boulder snow and sunshine, hoping one day she would get to experience college, as well.
“I always thought it would be so crazy to reach college one day,” she said. “If you’ve grown up in Boulder, you know that going to CU is like the epitome of success. It was always a goal of mine and there happened to be a really good school close by.
Aguirre’s hard work in school eventually paid off. She secured full funding to attend CU Boulder and become the successful woman that she dreamed of being.
She also got involved in a program called Community Connectors, where she worked to elevate the voices of underrepresented populations in Boulder and connect them to city government. It was if she had found her calling, and Community Connectors Engagement Manager Ryan Hanschen recognized that right away.
“Adela brought dedication and thoughtfulness to her partnership with the City of Boulder, as a Community Connector dedicated to elevating the voices of underrepresented communities and building trust in city government. Her commitment to build power within Latinx, CU student, and manufactured home communities was extraordinary."
Of course, Aguirre knew the great difficulty that was ahead of her. With plans to double major in Psychology and Ethnic Studies, she understood her college years would be no walk in the park. She was ready and determined for the challenge.
But she would soon realize that another, even more difficult transition awaited her. One that she wasn’t prepared for in the slightest.
Adversity changes her course
The wide-eyed eagerness for Aguirre to begin her college career quickly turned into struggle and adjustment. Not inside the classroom, but inside the fabric of culture and diversity at CU Boulder.
“I feel like I was a little naive throughout high school, honestly. I thought I wouldn’t have that hard of a time adjusting to college,” she said. “But I was so wrong.”
The culture shock had stunned Aguirre. She thought her time as a Boulder resident had prepared her for the melting pot of higher education.
“The culture of Boulder itself and the university are so different,” she said. “My schools growing up were not the most diverse, but I still saw people that looked like me. Here, it wasn’t easy to fit in with other students. We all come from different backgrounds and I was not expecting that culture shock. Why would I, you know? I’ve lived here all my life.”
Still, Aguirre stayed strong and did her best to adjust to a new space in her freshman year. But entering her second year, these doubts began to loom even larger. She started to feel out of place and her grades began to suffer.
“I felt like I didn’t belong,” she said. “I also experienced racism for the first time. People treating me like I didn’t belong.”
“My second year I actually did terrible. I failed my first class ever. I told my family that I was having a hard time and I don’t know if I want to continue college. But they picked me right up and said ‘nope, you can’t quit.’ Go back and let’s find help.”
Building community and making impact
For Aguirre, it was this tough love from her family that got her back on track.
She got in touch with her academic advisor. She sat down with TRiO Student Support Services to outline how she could get back to success and find community on campus.
“I thought they were going to console me. Tell me it’s going to be okay,” she said. “But instead they lifted me up and encouraged me. They told me I was going to get it together and it really was a reality check. College is going to be hard and I need to struggle.”
Embracing this struggle was something that inspired Aguirre. As a first-generation college student, she understood how different her situation was when compared to others. More importantly, she realized how she could use her unique experiences to help and inspire students in the future who may be dealing with the same problems.
“Growing up, I didn’t have a single counselor that looked like me or could relate to my story. In high school, I found it super challenging to just ask basic questions, like where to apply for college or where to find scholarships,” she said. “I felt like it was common knowledge because nobody really understood my situation.”
“That really motivates me to be that person for future first-generation, underserved or underrepresented students, because having support and just knowing that someone can relate to you can be very empowering.”
In fact, Aguirre has already started this work as part of her role within ODECE. In 2020, she pitched an idea for a professional development workshop series where first-generation and underrepresented students had the opportunity to develop real-world applicable skills. Workshops included resume building, professional writing and speaking, and more.
The pilot program took place the following semester and was a huge success. The turnout was excellent, the feedback from students and alumni were positive and there was even scholarship funding awarded through the Colorado Department of Higher Education’s Colorado Opportunity Scholarship Initiative.
“I have always had an idea for the role as a student assistant,” she said. “It’s always been about hopping around the office. A front desk job. But I always envisioned much more than that.”
This passion and enthusiasm didn’t just make a lasting impact on the first-generation community on campus. She left her mark within the ODECE office, as well. Something that Rosie Allen, Director of Student Success and Scholarships is truly thankful for.
“Having Adela lead workshops for her peers was so impactful and relatable,” Allen said. “She gave ODECE profound insight into the inequities of many experiential learning opportunities and her contributions will continue to be at the heart of this program.”
Today, her proposal has evolved into the Build Your Path Program, and has grown to not just involve professional skill development, but research, creative work, internships and study abroad, as well. There’s more funding and support than ever before, and the ODECE team plans to continue Aguirre’s efforts to support first-generation students.
A motivated and ready look to the future
Going forward, Aguirre is looking to expand on what she brought to the CU Boulder campus and become a resource for underrepresented students everywhere. A clear plan may not be in place, but there is a constant variable: educational support.
“I want to do some nonprofit work for at least a year to make sure that’s truly what I want. Then the plan is to apply for a master’s program,” she said. “The big goal is to eventually get a PhD. I’m not sure yet on what, but public and education policies interest me.”
“The main one right now is school counseling. Having someone to guide you through academics is so important and I hope I can be that person for our future generations.”
There’s some anticipation on Aguirre’s future path from others, too. Savannah Santana, a Student Success Program Coordinator in ODECE, has high praise and says she will be on the lookout for Aguirre’s future endeavors.
“Adela's creativity, drive, and willingness to guide others toward success are qualities you cannot teach,” Santana said. “She naturally leads through compassion and I can't wait to see the impact she will make on the world outside of CU Boulder."
But Aguirre doesn’t get too ahead of herself. She understands the sporadic nature of life and its effect on her trajectory. A lesson she hopes others can learn from her story, too.
“Life is not linear whatsoever,” she said. “Coming into CU I thought I had a structured plan and I was so wrong. Nothing went to plan and I feel like that was the plan because I’m a strong believer in all things happening for a reason. All the opportunities, failures and challenges have put me exactly where I need to be and I am proud of that.”
As for Aguirre’s mother, her joy in watching her daughter achieve excellence is everlasting, as well. In fact, she would even tell you that the word proud may be an understatement.
“Yo he visto a Adela estudiar y luchar por este diploma. Yo se que su carrera en la universidad no ha sido fácil, por eso estamos muy orgullosos de ella. Adela es la primera en la familia en graduarse. Ese es un logro muy grande para ella pero también para nuestra familia. Estamos felices y emocionados para ver los muchos logros que cumplirá,” she said.
“I have seen Adela study and fight for this diploma. I know that her career at the university has not been easy, so we are very proud of her. Adela is the first in the family to graduate. That is a very big achievement for her but also for our family. We are happy and excited to see the many things she will accomplish.”
It’s that fight that embodies Aguirre’s journey and makes her a worthy mentor for the next generation of underserved and underrepresented students.