Zaira in her graduation gown

Zaira Villalobos has had a longtime interest in the area of mental health—for reasons she kept to herself for many years.

“I was born in the United States, but when I was a baby, my mother decided we would return to her home country of Mexico so we could live near my grandparents and live a simple, rural life,” Zaira says.

“We came back to the U.S. when I started school and I knew no English, and it wasn’t easy for me to acclimate,” she recalls.

“I started isolating myself. By the time I was in middle school, I was in a dark place, battling myself every day and trying to understand and communicate what I was feeling to my family.”

Onward and Upward

Although her own struggles were difficult, Zaira became fascinated by the human mind, and started thinking about psychology or psychiatry as possible career paths in high school.

At Westminster High School, she was encouraged to get involved with Front Range Community College’s TRIO Upward Bound program, which encourages first-generation and limited-income students to learn about (and ultimately enroll in) college. She participated in the program’s mentorship, academic support, and college and career guidance offerings as well as the Upward Bound summer academy.

Taking College Classes in High School

Upward Bound opened Zaira’s eyes to the idea of higher education. “I had a lot of self-doubt about whether I could succeed in college,” she remembers. “But when I learned that I could take FRCC classes while at Westy [high school], that was exciting to me.”

As an upperclassman, Zaira took four FRCC concurrent enrollment classes, earning high school and college credit simultaneously. “It was great. I got some college exposure and it really just extended the community that I’d found through Upward Bound.”

An Interest in Researching Neurologic Disorders

Zaira also joined the Career Technical Education program at Westminster High School. She chose the Biomedical Science pathway, learning about everything from the human body to current medical practices.

She took a special interest in Alzheimer’s Disease after watching a close friend’s grandmother suffer from the progressive neurological disorder. “I was already interested in psychiatry, but that furthered my interest,” she says.

Zaira even bought her own copy of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders—considered the authoritative handbook on the subject—so she could learn more about neurodevelopmental, psychotic, depressive, anxiety, trauma-related and other types of disorders. 

Summa Cum Laude and a Personal Achievement

Zaira reached the graduation finish line with an impressive 3.903 GPA, ranking fifth in her high school class of nearly 600 students at Westminster High School.

She completed an internship at Denver Health in the inpatient psychiatric department during summer 2020—and became certified in Adult Mental Health First Aid, as well as becoming a Certified Nursing Assistant.

But perhaps her most personal achievement was the founding of PEEPS—Participants Emotionally Engaging in Peer Support—a program that spreads mental health awareness and provides an inclusive, safe environment within Westminster High School.

“I noticed how many students were going through something,” she says. “There isn’t enough mental health support for 2,000 students at Westy, so I wanted to create something where students could help one another.” PEEPS meets once a week. Now that she has graduated, Zaira participates as a mentor, attending meetings virtually.

Next Goal: Medical School

Today, Zaira is a freshman at the University of Colorado-Denver, where she is part of the BA/BS-MD program. This partnership between the CU-Denver’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences and the CU School of Medicine admits outstanding students with the goal of becoming primary care physicians.

She is studying psychology for her bachelor’s degree and intends to become a psychiatrist one day. “I want to work in inpatient psychiatry, because I want to work with those who need the most help,” she says.

Her FRCC experience definitely prepared her for the rigors of college.

“College is a lot of work, but those concurrent enrollment classes helped me get ready for the transition from high school to college,” she says.

To others who want to make their college dreams come true, Zaira suggests taking full advantage of the resources available to them. “I felt that FRCC made college welcoming. In school, I did my best when I found my community. That’s what I found in Upward Bound and again with PEEPs.”

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