By age 50, Patrita “Ime” Salazar had compiled an impressive list of personal and professional accomplishments.
As an IBM project manager, she became vice president of the company’s National Native Diversity Network. In the nonprofit arena, she worked as a fundraiser and national event planner for the Native American Rights Fund and the American Indian Science and Engineering Society.
In 2003, she co-founded Boulder Valley School District’s American Indian Youth Leadership Institute, where she still mentors middle- and high school students.
Her good deeds have not gone unnoticed. In 2007, Boulder County bestowed its Multicultural Award on Salazar to honor her contributions to the local business community.
Salazar also raised four daughters alongside Gary Salazar, her husband of 34 years, and the couple watched proudly as their three eldest graduated from CU Boulder, one by one. Tachara, 30, received a bachelor’s degree in ethnic studies in 2009; Kalee, 28, followed with bachelor’s degrees in environmental studies and ethnic studies in 2012; and Cibonet, 23, earned bachelor’s degrees in history and ethnic studies in 2015.
Yet, even as Salazar racked up accolades and forged stronger community ties, the New Mexico native still harbored one unmet goal: the bachelor’s degree she had started working on in 1981.
“It was always in the back of my head bothering me,” Salazar says. “When I would write my name, or people would see my bio—I wanted that degree. After our third daughter graduated, I told my husband, ‘I’m going back to school.’”
On April 29, more than a dozen American Indian students participated in a graduation ceremony hosted by the Center for Native American and Indigenous Studies (CNAIS) at the Koenig Alumni Center. Among the honorees was Salazar, who wrapped herself in a black-and-ivory “Los Ojos” Pendleton wool blanket to honor her family and her tribe. After all, her parents, her husband, her children and her New Mexico and Colorado communities were instrumental as she walked on a path to higher education success.
“Education was always a very key privilege for my family, and for my husband’s family. It was something we needed to go and do. It was always the mindset that you needed a college degree so you could have further opportunities,” Salazar says.
On commencement day May 12, Salazar, 54, will receive a bachelor’s degree in communication some 36 years after she set out to study at CU Boulder, leaving behind Taos, New Mexico, and the Santa Ana Pueblo—the Tamaya Reservation or “the rez.’”
Stories like Salazar’s inspire David Aragon, assistant vice chancellor for the university’s Office of Diversity, Equity and Community Engagement (ODECE). She symbolizes the growing number of adult learners returning to college to reclaim lost dreams, explore new opportunities or cross long-held goals from their bucket lists.
Like Salazar, Aragon was participating in a summer program for first-generation students in the 1980s when the two met and became lifelong friends. When his former classmate returned to college after raising a family, he introduced her to CU LEAD Alliance and the CMCI Diversity Scholars Program. Aragon also served as a mentor to Salazar’s daughters when they were undergraduate students.
“It was wonderful to see Ime embrace the opportunity to be a student again,” Aragon says. “I would encourage other students like her to pursue their educational goals. It’s never too late. In my experience, learning is much more interesting when you are older and bring your life experience with you.”
Salazar said returning to college to complete her degree was easy. Getting used to how things had changed on campus was another matter. She’d left college in 1984 during her junior year after she and her husband, whom she met at CU, learned they were going to be first-time parents.
A lot had changed over the years, but she was ready to test herself as a nontraditional student in 2016. She learned new technologies, got used to being older than some of her professors, and resisted the urge to dominate class discussions because she had seen so much, done so much and had a lot of takeaways to share with classmates who were younger than her children.
“You have to totally check in and really set your mind to it, especially with children,” says Salazar. “I had to be fully engaged. I went back full time, and that’s all I did. I had to be on campus, immersed and going to classes. I basically treated it like a work day.”
Her middle child, Kalee, said that she and her sisters are proud of the example their mother has set for them and other young people in Colorado and New Mexico. Masani, 15, the youngest of the Salazar clan, is a Centaurus High School freshman who is poised to follow the trail blazed by her elders.
Kalee said her mother and her father, an electrician and entrepreneur, taught their children that everyone follows a unique path through life, and people can wear many hats while working to make the world a better place – starting in their own communities.
“Seeing our mother celebrated for her accomplishments fills our hearts with pride and our eyes with tears of joy,” she says.
Meanwhile, Salazar pointed out that her family still attends CU football games and participates in other campus activities. She will always remember those summer days as a young student living in Libby Hall, where she met her future husband and stared down the challenge of being separated from her family for the first time. She’s grateful for the lifelong friends she met in college while working in the community.
“Being a part of the CU Boulder community is ingrained in the family dynamic,” she says. “CU has always just been a part of us.”