The Salazar siblings with their aunt Angelica standing in front of a tree with pink flowers

Four family members are walking together at FRCC’s 2024 commencement.

Richard Salazar has served as a guinea pig for his family.

The oldest of four siblings, he is a young man of few words—but he’s been bold enough to test the waters of higher education for his younger sisters. His experience at FRCC started them on a path that has led four family members to graduate together this week.

Their mother was only 18 when she had Richard. Growing up in Pueblo with a single mom, the Salazar kids had a rough start to childhood.

Left to right: Vickie, Reesa and Richard Salazar

“There was a lot of gang violence,” his sister Reesa recalls, displaying a maturity uncommon for a teenager. “Drugs were prevalent and there were not a lot of opportunities. It was not a place for us to flourish.”

Their mom struggled to create a stable home environment for the kids, but their grandmother was a major force in their lives. Eventually, Richard (now 22), Vickie (19), Reesa (17) and Angelica (12) ended up living with her. Their grandmother raised the kids with help from their aunt Angelica Franco, who now works at FRCC.

“We’ve had a lot of responsibility ever since we were young,” says Vickie. “It was a lot of pressure. We had to grow up fast, but we’re a great team. We work together.”

Blazing a New Trail

Although no one in the family had gone to college, education was a top priority for their grandma, Veronica Franco. She ended up enrolling at Pueblo Community College when she was in her forties. When her daughter found out, she signed up for classes too. “Well, I couldn’t let my mom beat me to college,” laughs Angelica.

Mother and daughter both did well in school (although Angelica couldn’t top her mom’s high GPA). They graduated together and then both continued on to earn bachelor’s degrees from Metropolitan State University of Denver.

Finding the Family’s Roots

As a Chicano studies major at Metro, Angelica began to discover her Chicano and Indigenous roots—and how important they were to her identity. “Learning about our heritage and culture connects us to who we are,” she says.

One of the powerful connections she felt to her Indigenous background was through Danza Azteca. “The drum always called to me,” she remembers. “So, I started learning the traditional dances. First, I watched a lot, and then I was invited to dance.”

When the Salazar kids moved up to Denver with their grandma, they started learning the dances, too. Their aunt has helped instill a strong sense of cultural identity in her nieces and nephew. The family now all does Danza Azteca together through Grupo Tlaloc. They perform and help give educational presentations throughout the Denver metro area to preserve and nourish the ancient knowledge of their ancestors.

Making Education a Priority

The Salazars’ grandmother has continued to push education as a high priority in their lives. “The one thing my mom asked of these kids was to get an education,” their aunt Angelica recalls.

Richard Salazar

So, when Richard got the chance to take Front Range Community College classes through concurrent enrollment at his high school, he decided to go for it. That’s when he became the guinea pig for his family—and his experience taking college classes turned him into a great example for his younger sisters.

“I wasn’t very good at writing,” he recalls, but he describes a “cool” English professor who did a great job of teaching writing skills to him and his classmates. While still in high school, Richard also took horticulture and automotive classes through FRCC.

After graduation, he did a fifth year of high school through Colorado’s ASCENT program, which allows students to take college courses at no tuition cost. Two years later, Vickie followed suit—starting with college courses in high school, then continuing at FRCC through ASCENT. Seventeen-year-old Reesa, now a high school senior with 80 college credits under her belt, plans to do the same.

This month, Richard is going to graduate with an Associate of Applied Science degree in automotive technology. But he won’t be alone as he walks across that stage at commencement.

Vickie Salazar

A Family Affair

His younger sisters are also graduating—along with their aunt Angelica who started working at FRCC two years ago. Vickie graduated from Goal High School last year and will walk with an Associate of Science degree and a certificate in Business Fundamentals. Next, she plans to continue on to a bachelor’s degree in engineering.

Reesa will receive her Associate of Arts degree at FRCC’s commencement ceremony—about a week before she graduates from high school. She plans to continue taking classes at FRCC for her phlebotomy and project management certificates and then transfer to Metro for a bachelor’s degree in Chicano studies—and eventually a master’s in social work.

Reesa Salazar

“I want to serve my community—especially people who have been historically left out,” she says.

The tightly knit family does everything together, so they say it just made sense that they would all graduate together.

Matriarchal Motivation

Having been raised by their grandmother, the Salazar kids feel a very strong sense of responsibility to focus on their education. “We’re doing it all for her,” says Reesa.

 “We’ve had incredible female role models in our grandma and aunt,” she adds. “We’ve had strong, independent women raising us. Our grandma watches us like a hawk and keeps us safe.”

In talking with the Salazar kids, you can see how much admiration and gratitude they have for their grandmother. She inspires them to improve their life circumstances—for themselves and for each other.

“I’m going to work hard to put myself in a better position so I can help take care of my family,” says Vickie.

Lots of Support

The three graduating Salazar siblings and their aunt Angelica all say FRCC has given them great support and resources to be successful in college. They describe their professors as welcoming and supportive.

“I have great professors who make learning fun and interactive,” says Reesa. “They’re really willing to work with students. If you’re having a hard time, they’ll give you a little extra time to work on something. They like helping students and they push us to do our best.”

“I’ve had very good, supportive professors,” says Vickie. “I do a lot of community work and they’ve been flexible—they even let us bring our littles with us on campus.” (Their “littles” are their youngest sister and their cousin, Angelica’s daughter Nia.)

When the Salazars lost their uncle recently, Vickie remembers going through a really hard time focusing on school. “But I had a professor who really connected with me on a personal level. He made sure I was doing what I needed to for class, but I felt very supported.”

“Front Range gives us the opportunity to integrate everything in our lives that’s important to us,” she says.

Undercover Student

As an academic advisor at FRCC, their aunt Angelica also recently became a student at the college. In her work, she helps students navigate the Career Advance Colorado program, which offers free college education in several of the school’s career-focused programs.

Angelica decided to take some early childhood education classes and go through the enrollment process to see how it works for students. “She’s like an ‘undercover boss,’” quips her niece, Vickie.

When Angelica walks across the stage at commencement with her nieces and nephew, she will earn her certification as an early childhood assistant teacher. She credits her two supervisors at FRCC for nurturing her in her work.

“They’re the reason I’ve flourished here,” she says. “I feel so supported by them.”

Role Models

By enrolling in college as a non-traditional student years ago, their grandmother seems to have started a domino effect for the entire family. That’s when Angelica’s competitive nature wouldn’t let her mom beat her to a college degree.

Then, as the oldest sibling, Richard became the role model for his younger sisters. And now the dominoes keep tumbling.

“We have younger siblings,” says Vickie, “and they pay attention to everything. If we act out, if we argue with the adults, it becomes OK for them to do it.”

So, she says, they respect their elders, are dedicated students and work together for the benefit of everyone in the family. “If we stay on our track, we’re good role models for them.”

You only have to meet these young people once to feel confident that they’re providing an excellent example for their “littles.” And when the two youngest Salazar-Franco children reach high school age, you can bet they’ll follow suit.

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