Melissa in her blue cap and gown

Graduate Melissa Chavez has overcome great challenges to attain her dream of becoming an engineer.

As we celebrate our graduates this May, we hear many powerful stories about their experienceboth in college and in life. More often than not, they’re stories of overcoming significant obstacles to reach their dreams.

During our 2024 commencement ceremony, we got to hear from one of these students with a powerful experience. Here is Melissa’s inspiring story, in her own words…

Melissa Chavez: Associate of Science in Mathematics

“School will never work out for you.” I heard this over and over growing up, and for many years, I believed it. However, I stand before you tonight having overcome those lies. I stand before you tonight, a GRADUATE.

My name is Melissa Chavez, and tonight, I will receive my associate degree in mathematics. 

Overcoming Obstacles

I’ve faced many obstacles along my journey to this stage. When I was eight years old, I first experienced what would end up being a decade of abuse and personal trauma. It left me struggling to figure out who I was… how I felt… what was okay… and what was not okay.

These events weren’t reported until I was 12, but even then, I was not permanently removed from my home – so the problems persisted. Over the next six years, I was periodically taken out of my home and put into foster care; then back home; then back to foster care; and back again.

I wanted so much to find acceptance and encouragement from my mother, because growing up she was all I had… but my attempts at recognition did not pay off. 

In middle school, I became more rebellious, I began pushing away any forms of help. I developed substance abuse issues, got into problems with the law, and skipped a lot of school. 

An Unexpected Recognition

Because I was still able to excel academically despite all my absences, an intervention team came up with the idea to let me skip a grade – as a way to help address my behavior, truancy, and lack of engagement in school. Because of this extra challenge, I discovered a passion for mathematics. 

For the first time in years, I received real recognition for my academic achievement; I had wanted this for so long. So in eighth grade, I realized I was capable. I could do this.

I had a lot of dreams: I wanted to be an aerospace engineer, to fly planes, and to have a future in aeronautics. I wanted to go beyond high school; something I had never seen anyone in my family do before. 

Becoming a Mom, Finishing High School

Fast forward a few years, and a half a dozen moves and schools, and I found myself a teen mom in high school. Nonetheless, I stayed motivated and earned scholarships for college, despite my mother telling me that school would not work out for me. 

I spent my last two years of high school at Justice High in Lafayette, where they allowed me to bring my son to school with me every day, and I graduated in 2017.

A Tough Start to College

I used the scholarships I accumulated in high school to attend Metropolitan State University of Denver, but my scholarship money quickly ran out after my first year. I had no choice but to drop out because I couldn’t afford college. And for the next few years I focused on working, while a hunger for something greater brewed inside me. 

In 2020, I got a job at the same high school I graduated from. Justice High School focuses on at-risk students, much like I was, and I found myself on the giving end of the support and guidance that led me to pursue college in the first place.

I found an entirely new passion, helping at-risk youth, and my perspective on my own trauma changed. My experiences didn’t have to be something that held me back; I could now look at my trauma as a tool to relate and help people who had been through similar things.

Finding a Home at FRCC

The principal at Justice also helped me enroll for classes at FRCC, during the summer of COVID. Classes were remote, on Zoom, but even there – I felt at home.

Slowly classes returned to the campus, and my sense of belonging to something just grew. It still far from easy. I had no choice but to put school second to working full time; I often struggled with childcare, and the guilt of having to do homework some days (instead of spending time with my kids) ate me alive. 

Still, FRCC provided me with opportunities and relationships I never thought I would have. It gave me a community.

Finding Support, Overcoming Doubts

Front Range allowed me to be surrounded by like-minded people with similar interests and varying passions. Professors like Ken Monks and Aaron Allen helped me find my calling and the resources that allowed me to transfer to one of the top engineering schools in the country.

As my passions developed, I always doubted I could be an engineer, and I kept my options open. But Aaron once told me after I mentioned how scared I was of how hard engineering school would be, that he knew my work, he knew what I was capable of, and he knew I could do it. It was that day that I went home believing I could actually BE an engineer. 

I genuinely thought, what if he was right? What if I put my everything into this – could I do it? 

A Passion Leads to a Clear Path

I took more Math and Physics classes and LOVED them. I thrived. I found validation in my success; I felt like I was proving to my mom – I was proving to MYSELF – that I could do it. School WAS working out for me. I COULD be an Engineer. I WOULD be an Engineer. My kids were going to have a mother who persevered, who worked hard, who loved them, and who set them up for success, too. 

My journey at Front Range led me to meet some amazing people. Shoutout to my extraordinary TRIO Advisor Beck Seren, who sometimes seemed more excited about my wins than I was. The scholarship opportunities and resources you helped me with are part of the reason I got here more quickly than I’d anticipated.

I also met some amazing lifelong friends through school events like the catapult competition, which I’m forever grateful for. 

On to Engineering School

With the support of this new community, old friends, new friends, and my sister who’s been by my side since the beginning, I transferred to CU-Boulder in January to study Electrical Engineering, after earning my associate degree in mathematics from FRCC. I just finished my first full-time semester of engineering school with straight A’s. But my finals haven’t been posted so that’s subject to change.

I am a first-generation student. I am a teen mom, and I am a survivor of abuse. In a world where so many people live untraditional lifestyles, please know: An education system for you does exist. A path to success for you can be paved if you put in the hard work to pave it. 

To the class of 2024:

Remember, YOU are capable. Don’t ever doubt your abilities; we all know it wasn’t easy to get here. YOU overcame, and YOU are here. Whether this is where your educational goals are fulfilled or it’s just the beginning, move forward knowing that if you can dream it, you can achieve it. 

Today is about you – today is about US. Soak in your success, remain motivated, stay disciplined, and whatever you do, continue to be inspired. It’s your story; make it a good one. 

Now that you’ve heard my story, we’d like for you to hear from some of my fellow graduates about their experiences at FRCC.   

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