“Everyone was kind, open, and so civically minded. What else could you want? It was a place I could feel inspired,” said Puksta Alum (CSU ’16) Chand Jiwani as she reflected on her memories as a Puksta Scholar. Since then, she’s continued the Puksta tradition of spreading kindness, positivity, and inspiration to others. Even in her professional life now, she maintains the spirit of service in all she does. Only four years after graduating, Jiwani has already elevated to the position of Senior Specialist of Engagement & Inclusion at Boston Medical Center, where she serves marginalized communities in New England’s largest safety-net hospital.
Service has always been at Jiwani’s core. Her Puksta project focused on the elderly population, a community that is often overlooked. She led programs at a local Fort Collins nursing home to keep patients active physically, mentally, and most importantly, socially. “They really appreciated the chance to connect with someone,” Chand said, “but I really feel like I benefited more from it than they did.” Beyond being able to practice leadership and civic service, she cites learning to develop relationships with the patients and hearing their stories as the most enriching part of her experience.
Jiwani counts her ability to develop relationships as her biggest takeaway from her time with Puksta. “When you’re serving people, it’s important to speak to them in a way that’s not only eloquent, but also accessible,” she said. Programs around her work have involved communities ranging from people experiencing homelessness, to undocumented peoples, to local residents that just want to learn to cook more healthy. “Different people need to be approached differently so that they don’t get confused and miss out on chances to get the help they need,” she said.
Years and miles since her graduation at CSU, Chand Jiwani continues to spread the spirit of Puksta in all she does, and she hopes the next generation of young leaders get to experience the same thing. “It’s a family that will accept you as you are and elevate you to what you can be, nothing would ever change my recommendation,” said Jiwani.
While COVID has prevented all of us from gathering in person, it certainly hasn’t stopped us from connecting and sharing meaningful moments with each other, even if it is virtually. Normally around this time of year we’d be packing our bags to hit Estes for our annual retreat, but this year we decided to keep things physically distanced and do our first ever online Puksta Scholar Spirit Week instead. In true Puksta fashion, we all got together in the spirit of education, civic engagement, and family bonding.
We kicked off Monday’s events with a session on voting led by Jessie Jennett from IGNITE the Vote. For many of us, this election is the most important time in our lives to step up and be active citizens. We talked about our passions, frustrations, and what keeps us hopeful about the country we live in. Most importantly, we learned about our powers and capabilities to actually created change in the civic sphere. One of our own scholars Oliver Martinez-Reyes shared his experience of testifying in the state legislature and helping a bill passed to increase access to concurrent enrollment, proving that even as students, we still have power.
Tuesday we took things in a different direction and looked more inward as individuals. As civic minded young leaders, it is often too easy to get buried in all the problems of the world around us, without taking enough thought to ourselves. Riana Mitchell led our session, appropriately titled “All the Cares in the World… but who Cares for YOU?” The topic of self care has rightfully gained more widespread attention recently, and we haven’t needed it more than we’ve needed it this year. We learned how to take in deeper appreciation for the little things, not get crushed by the big things, and most importantly, give ourselves the chance to take a break and think about nothing every once in a while. Thanks to Riana we were able to equip ourselves with more tools to really examine and nurture our emotions and wellbeing in order to stay in the fight for justice.
For our next session we were so delighted to be led by two of our own alumni, Nick Martinez and Felipe Vieyra, as they talked about education equity and how to continue civic engagement during COVID-19. Although this pandemic has taken away many of the activism activities we’ve grown reliant on, it has presented new tools for us to use. As Nick pointed out in our session, there’s no reason why a district administrator shouldn’t be able to get on a zoom with 50 community leaders that have questions about the education system. Regardless of what we’re facing, there’s always an opportunity to connect, and there’s always a way to exercise our power as young leaders to demand change.
Thursday we went back to the world of self-help and self-improvement through a conversation with Charline Burgess from Morgan Stanley on financial literacy and financial health. For many of us, knowledge about personal finance was the kind of education we were missing the most. We asked tons of questions about budgeting, saving, and how to use credit especially. Like any other kind of wellness plan, we learned how to monitor our finances and identify areas that needed to be changed and improved.
Perhaps the biggest highlight of the week was our daily zoom lunches. We gathered around the virtual dining table to connect with friends old and new from across all of our campuses. Whether it was with Scattergories, charades, or just talking about our days, we had tons of fun just getting to be in each other’s virtual presence. The lunches also offered a chance to really vent and talk to other student activists about all the trouble we’re experiencing in our own lives and in the world around us. In times like these, we are incredibly thankful to be able to lean on our Puksta family for hope, support, and inspiration.
On this edition of Scholar Spotlight, we talk with Mateo Manuel Vela and the way he’s using spoken word poetry to bring a creative emotional outlet to students in these very challenging times. Watch Below:
Aristotle famously said, “educating the mind without educating the heart is no education at all.” The spirit of that quote very much lives inside the work of Puksta scholar Mateo Manuel Vela. At the age of 20, he is already stepping up to create spaces and opportunities for high school students to freely discuss express their identities and thoughts on the environment in which they exist, through the art of spoken word poetry. While many schools are moving towards more STEM focused curriculums, Mateo is making sure that the arts don’t get left behind. Work like his is becoming increasingly important as the world gets more complicated with culture, politics, and society shifting in ways nobody ever expected. This “education of the heart” is especially crucial for the marginalized youth that Mateo is serving, who are often labeled and impacted by society before they even get a chance to negotiate their own self-image.
Growing up, Mateo was confronted with the social implications of being a Latinx first generation American growing up in a lower-income neighborhood. This, on top of an early battle with depression caused a great deal of confusion for Mateo as to who he was and where he belonged. Thankfully, poetry found him through a workshop in one of his sixth grade classes. “Honestly, poetry saved my life,” he says, “it gave me the opportunity to critique the world around me, and also articulate my place in the world.” This gift of creative expression gave Mateo the freedom and agency to begin answering life’s big questions and develop him to become the man he is today. Through poetry he has been able to compete with the DSP Slam Poetry team, and get the paid opportunity to perform on various stages, including the international Brave New Voices competition in Washington, D.C. Even more impressive than his competitive accomplishments, however, is his work as a leader in bringing poetry to students that are also from underprivileged backgrounds.
Today, Mateo serves as a board member and teacher for Sacred Voices, a Denver based organization that provides access to poetry workshops and open mics for high school students from underserved communities. The majority of his classes are centered around writing about identity, experience, and environment. At the moment, his workshops are supplemental education that isn’t budgeted or scheduled into regular school curriculums, but Mateo’s project is part of the push to change that. “Art is a very human aspect of our lives,” he says, “and if [students] don’t get the opportunity to do that, I fear that they’re missing out on a lot of emotional and social growth.” His dream is to see arts programs become an uncuttable part of public school curriculum, but he understands that this will be difficult to achieve. Until then, he is dedicated to making sure that he can provide this education to as many students as he can, and creating a model that can be adopted by schools in the future.
We recently had the pleasure of virtually sitting down with current Puksta Scholar Betelhem “Betty” Tewodros to discuss the work her and her father have been doing to help the people of her hometown of Jijiga, Ethiopia. Watch now below:
Betty was only eight years old when she left Jijiga with her family to come to America, but her heart has always been and will always be back home. For her, maintaining her native language and culture are a central aspect of her identity and daily life. Although she is based in Denver now, she still attends a traditional Ethiopian church, stays active in the local Ethipoian community, and celebrates Ethiopian holidays. Along with all the work she has done to make sure Jijiga stay a part of her life, she’s also made sure to keep her life a part of Jijiga.
When Ameha Admassu, a family friend, shared stories of difficulty and need in Jijga on Facebook, Betty and her father Teddy knew they had to help. Elsewhere in America and other Western countries, other Jijiga natives felt the same: Dawit Degenu, Dereje Asefaw, Wondwossen Tadesse, and Yonas Delelegn. Like Betty, they understood that living in the West puts them in a position of power to help those back home. Together, they joined forces and started a GoFundMe page to fund assistance in the form of masks, hand sanitizers, food and other basic necessities. Through their first campaign, they have raised over $6,000 which was directed to the ENAT Organization which distributed the supplies together with the Jijiga Regional Health Bureau.
Betty credits community elders like her grandmother for instilling this spirit of service and generosity in her. Respect for elders is a pillar of Ethiopia’s culture. With the first fundraising campaign having come to an end, and life slowly getting back to normal in Jijiga, Betty is now gearing up to launch a second campaign specifically to help the elders in Jijiga. For them, normal will come much later than it will for younger generations. Being higher risk, and less capable of managing daily tasks, the elders will be the ones that need the most help. Still, the duty of helping elders is one that Betty is more than willing to take on. In her eyes, there is no work more important than helping the generation that spent their lives raising the community she loves. Betty wants to do everything she can to pay this generation back, and set an example for other young people to do the same.
Click here to help Betty and the community of Jijiga https://www.gofundme.com/f/helping-our-elderly-locals-through-enat-charity?sharetype=teams&member=6408368&utm_medium=copy_link&utm_source=customer&utm_campaign=p_na+share-sheet&rcid=b4ae7a2dd7384ffcae12f328427438f8
“When the going gets tough, the tough get going.” It’s an old adage, but one that certainly applies to Puksta alum and Student Doctor William Mundo. Through a global health pandemic and growing inequality he has not only persevered, but strived, in his relentless pursuit for medical education and health equity for marginalized communities. Mundo is the latest recipient of the Achievement Rewards for College Scientists (ARCS), which recognizes and aids exceptional young minds in the STEM fields. Former students also recognized by the ARCS foundation include famed astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson and medical inventor Peter McDonnell.
Mundo’s achievement is well-deserved, especially considering the challenges of adversity he endured as a minority student in medicine and higher education. He details this journey in his upcoming book, Margins to Medicine: A First-Generation Student’s Health Equity Guide on Overcoming Adversity with Diversity. Mundo describes the book as “an in-depth exploration that explains how the understanding of medicine and its relationship with public health equity is a vital framework that we can utilize to overcome health inequities in our country.” He hopes that his writing inspires other medical professionals and allies to promote justice in public health.
Amidst times of unrest and uncertainty, Puksta Alum and Southwest Denver local, Nicholas Martinez, is leading the way to unite his community through art. Like many other Denver neighborhoods, his has seen a rise in violence over the last six months. Resiliently, he proclaims that his community is “not willing to stand by and allow it to continue to affect our neighborhoods.” He and many other have every right to be angry and frustrated, but Martinez is directing that energy towards something more positive.
In response to this violence, Martinez and other community members have started a mural project that will be displayed at the Kepner Middle School campus. “Part of our solution to stand agains that violence is to bring our community together and create a public message of remembrance and hope,” said Martinez.
“We can’t do this without our community” said Martinez. Local artists, organizers, youth, and educators, have all come together to begin bringing this project to the neighborhood. Still, help is always needed and appreciated. Martinez has set up this GoFundMe page for supporters to contribute in any way they can.
Today is the Premiere of the World’s Toughest Race: Eco-Challenge Fiji, hosted by Bear Grylls on Amazon Prime Video. And it comes to no surprise that one of our very own CU Puksta Alumni ’05, Travis Macy (a finisher of over 120 ultra-endurance events in 17 countries), is one of the competitors in this 11-day physically demanding, emotionally testing adventure race.
Some of you Puksta Scholars and Alumni may remember Travis as he and his wife, Amy Macy (also a CU Puksta Alum ’04!) came to speak at our most recent winter retreat in Denver. The theme for that weekend was resiliency, a topic that was perfectly suited for this couple’s wealth of knowledge and experiences.
Today we have the chance to watch Travis test his emotional and physical resiliency with our own eyes as he navigates this race, not only by himself but with his father Mark. Travis grew up watching his dad compete in Ironmans, ultra-marathons, and Eco Challenges starting back in 1995. Either this spirit of competition is contagious or it can be attributed to genetics because Travis followed right in his dad’s rugged, mud-stomped footprints. Mark Macy was originally set to complete on a different team than Travis’s, but after being diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s it didn’t seem like the right fit and he had to consider the additional support he would need. So, father and son decided to join forces on Team Endure! A name that seems to conform to the spirit of the people that make up this team, which also consists of a professional whitewater paddler, and a woman who survived two nights alone in the desert after a deadly fall before being rescued by her dog.
Team Endure pushes forward through this race for another purpose and that is to promote organ/tissue donation and mental health. Travis’s mom had a fatal liver disease and thankfully received a life-saving liver from a deceased donor, and through the years has also needed two kidney transplants to continue living. She is now doing well and to give back, Travis’s father Mark, donated his own kidney in 2008. Travis says “Organ donation is dear to my heart, and I seek here to support a cause that saves lives.”
Mental health has also come onto Travis’s radar through his work with endurance athletes and the pressures that come with high-intensity training and overall well being. He hopes that sharing openly about his own experience with depression may empower others to seek help, move forward, and partner in camaraderie.
With a foundation of friends and family and honoring what is truly important in this life, I can’t help but be completely in love with this team and everything that they stand for. I am looking forward to watching their journey from start to finish.
*Click here to listen to Adventure Audios’s Podcast where Mark and Travis about their recent competition in the World’s Toughest Race: Eco-Challenge Fiji.
*Besides being an amazing Puksta Alumni, Travis is also speaker, author, coach, professional endurance athlete, and the author of The Ultra Mindset: An Endurance Champion’s 8 Core Principles for Success in Business, Sports, and Life.
TEAM ENDURE: Travis Macy, Mark Macy, Danelle Ballengee, Shane Sigle, and Andrew Speers
~NiChel Mulstay, Director of Development and Community Outreach
What is happening at Puksta?
The impact of COVID-19 on our Puksta Scholars has been devastating.
Several of our Puksta Scholars have lost family members to this virus, many are dealing with the loss of their jobs and income, most have lost their housing and access to food, and almost all have struggled to maintain the support systems they had prior to the pandemic.
In the 20+ years that the Puksta Foundation has been providing scholarships, we have never faced a challenge like we see today to provide our scholars with the programming and support that has proven to be so important to our students who are coming from underresourced and marginalized communities.
What can we do now?
The best action that we can take right now is to reach out to ask for your help in creating a “COVID-19 Emergency Relief Fund.” The purpose of this fund will be to provide immediate financial support to our Puksta Scholars who are facing growing challenges meeting their basic human needs of food, shelter, access to healthcare, and adequate technology to continue their education remotely.
Our goal is to raise $50,000 which will be set aside and made available for our current Puksta Scholars to apply for on a case-by-case basis with any funds remaining when the immediate need subsides being made available for scholarship funding.
None of us knows where this pandemic will take us, but we do know that our students have a need today that is far above our normal funding for scholarships, programming, and community projects, and, we want to be there to help them through this time.
We do hope you will partner with us in our effort to raise the Puksta Foundation COVID-19 Emergency Relief Fund.
DU Puksta Scholar Blanche Ndoutou (’22) recently wrote a thoughtful piece discussing her journey and experiences as a Puksta Scholar through the DU Center for Community Engagement to Advance Scholarship and Learning’s “Public Good Impact” newsletter. Reflecting on the evolution of her Puksta project, Blanche explained,
Puksta taught me how to be a leader. It taught me that it is okay for my passions to change in life. I came into the program wanting to work on helping newly arrived refugees adapt to Denver, however, I realized that although I cared about this topic, it was not my strength. I needed to focus on something that I am passionate about and something that I can be good at. Therefore, I merged my criminology major and my Puksta project. I decided to help educate the youth in my neighborhood of Sun Valley, the poorest neighborhood in Denver, about the realities of the criminal justice system in the United States. I realized that I made the right decision when I saw that the youth were learning something from me that might possibly save their lives. This project became personal and I decided that I will be continuing the project in the future by expanding my project to other underserved neighborhoods in Colorado.
We’re so proud of the positive impact of your Puksta Project on the Sun Valley community, as well as your inspiring leadership, Blanche! Thank you for your beautiful words and reflections on your tremendous journey as a Puksta Scholar. We’re so grateful to be part of this family with you.
Read the full article in the “Public Good Impact” Newsletter: