Published: May 4, 2018 By

Born in Zacatecas, Mexico, but raised in Aurora, Colorado, Efren Herrera Hurtado first set foot on CU Boulder’s campus as a junior transfer student intent on earning a degree in French and Italian. The 21-year-old, however, unexpectedly discovered a new passion during a junior-year elective class.

Herrera credits the course, American Indians in Film, with helping shape his interest in race and sociopolitical issues. While retaining a French minor, he changed his major to Ethnic Studies that same semester.

“CU Boulder has changed so much about my perspective on life, especially in an ethnic and sociopolitical stance,” said Herrera. “Before coming into CU Boulder, I was not ‘woke’ in these two aspects of life.”

The slang term “woke,” used to signal a heightened awareness around social justice issues, describes the motivation behind Herrera’s many academic and extracurricular accomplishments at CU Boulder.

In 2017, he co-founded the group United Leaders in Higher Education (ULHE) to improve campus climates and educational accessibility for the immigrant youth of Colorado. Now endeavoring to unite immigrant student leaders across the country, ULHE held its inaugural United Leaders in Higher Education Conference in January.

Herrera, who has also served on the DACA Task Force/Network and Cultural Events Board, said the Ethnic Studies program has broadened his understanding of race, ethnicity, social systems, the criminal justice system and even creative poetry. He specifically thanked Professor Joanne Belknap for shaping his education and the way he views the world.

Herrera was one of 16 undergraduate students in Professor Belknap’s spring 2018 course on mass incarceration in the United States, the second-ever CU Boulder class taught in a prison. The semester-long course, which also included 15 Colorado Correctional Center inmates, was modeled after the Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program and sought to break down stereotypes and promote collaboration between undergraduates and inmates.

At the end of the semester, Herrera’s team created a job fair to serve inmates that will launch at the Colorado Correctional Center this fall and will be available every six months. He called the class—supported through a CU Boulder Outreach Award—a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

“I went in with a narrow mindset about prisons and inmates and I walked out of there feeling more knowledgeable than ever about the criminal legal system and inmates,” said Herrera.

“This class taught me to deconstruct the negative stereotypes and stigmas that society creates about inmates.”

Culminating his time at CU Boulder, Herrera has been awarded magna cum laude honors for his thesis, “No Soy Güero, Soy Latino: A Phenomenological Approach to Racial Discrimination Against ‘White-Looking Latinxs.’” The study examined the racism and discrimination that “white-looking Latinxs” face at CU Boulder and their experiences in K-12, college and with family.

In recognition of his contributions to the CU Boulder campus and community, Herrera also received the prestigious Jacob Van Ek Award in March. The award, conferred by the College of Arts and Sciences, is regarded as one of the highest honors in the program.

Herrera, who is currently working on social and educational programs for youth in the state of Colorado, hopes to build on his passion for social justice and education after leaving CU Boulder.

“As much as I am exploring right now all my possibilities, I am hoping to follow a career trajectory that involves: social justice, youth, education and public speaking,” he said. “I hope to become a motivational speaker and create and manage my own social enterprise that focuses on helping underrepresented youth and students of color access resources to make their dreams into reality and create equal access for higher education.”

“Thanks to CU, the stellar faculty and connections that I have made, I feel prepared and very confident in my future decisions and endeavors.”