Published: Feb. 28, 2019 By

Erika Isabel BailonCU Boulder undergraduate Erika Isabel Bailon believes that growing up at the intersection of three cultures, two languages and two countries has made it easier for her to move deftly between user interface design (UI) and improving user experiences (UX).

Bailon understands the binary-based technology underpinning her work and how to talk about it in English, Spanish and tech-speak with other designers and engineers who are working to improve the human-computer interface to enrich the experience for end-users.

“A boss once called me a ‘unicorn’ because I understand people and can talk to them, and at the same time I have an engineering mind to create a design and problem-solve,” she said.

A 28-year-old junior working toward her bachelor of science degree in computer science in the College of Engineering and Applied Science, Bailon also points to her pre-college work experience as another important factor that has inspired her to succeed as an innovator who also happens to be a great communicator.

This year, Bailon is one of nine CU Boulder students who received Latin American Education Foundation (LAEF) scholarships to pursue their academic and career dreams. On March 2, LAEF will celebrate 70 years of providing Colorado Hispanic/Latino students with greater access to higher education.

David Aragon, assistant vice chancellor for diversity and student success, says LAEF has granted academic scholarships to nearly 350 current students and alumni through a longstanding partnership with CU Boulder. The persistence and graduation rates for CU’s LAEF scholarship recipients is 80 percent, exceeding CU’s overall six-year graduation rate of 71 percent, he said.

Students who self-identify as Hispanic, Latina, Latino or Latinx comprise the fastest-growing segment of CU Boulder’s student population. In fall 2018, some 3,504 undergraduate students counted themselves in the ethnic group, accounting for 12 percent of the university’s undergraduate enrollment. Aragon said that was a 118 percent increase over the past decade.

Aragon credits the upward trend, in part, to university partnerships with LAEF, the Denver Scholarship Foundation (DSF) and other community-based organizations. This year alone, the DSF has granted scholarships to 169 CU Boulder students, and on March 2 LAEF will honor DSF co-founder and oil executive Tim Marquez with the Sol Trujillo National Lifetime Leadership Award. CU President Bruce Benson won the award last year for his work as the university’s longest-serving president and for his strong support of CU’s statewide Pre-Collegiate Development Programs.

“CU Boulder students who benefit from these scholarships make our student body more vibrant and enrich the learning experience for all students,” Aragon said. “Their leadership is recognized across campus among our programs and learning communities.”

Bailon, who was born in Florida to a Mexican mother and Peruvian father, grew up in her mother’s native Mexico City, and has navigated easily between her U.S. and Latin American identities. She came to CU Boulder as a nontraditional student after working as a bilingual paralegal for six years and, next spring, will be the first in her family to graduate from college.

Coding came easy to her, and she has always had a passion for calculus, physics and other hard sciences despite warnings from high school teachers in Mexico City that a career in STEM would be “really hard for you as a woman.” She has already received a promising job offer from one tech giant and could entertain another after graduation. She is a member of the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers, holds leadership roles in Women in Computing and the engineering honor society Tau Beta Pi, and hopes to earn a master’s degree in engineering.

As an undergraduate, she has received multiple merit- and need-based scholarships that have helped her succeed, including the LAEF scholarship. She said receiving the scholarships has helped her focus on her studies without worrying about financial pressures.

“It gives me hope and encouragement to see other people trying to succeed just like me,” she said of meeting fellow LAEF scholars.

Daniel Gonzalez-Beltran of Aurora, Colorado, is one of those fellow LAEF scholars. A sophomore who is studying integrative physiology with minors in leadership and business, he hopes to work in sports medicine or physical therapy after he graduates from CU Boulder.

Laura-Elena Porras, a sophomore from Commerce City, Colorado, is majoring in sociology with a minor in leadership studies, and is also working toward a public health certificate. Porras hopes to enroll in graduate school after she graduates and said her LAEF scholarship and the chancellor’s matching scholarship have helped her financially. More importantly, she said, her LAEF scholarship has helped her create a community in Boulder she might not have had otherwise.

“They are part of my support group,” she said of fellow scholarship recipients.