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Access to higher education can mean the difference between unbreakable cycles of poverty and a bright future

Justin Cowan is an elementary school principal, chaplain in the Colorado Army National Guard, Air Force veteran, guitar player, husband and father to two sons.

Justin was also a poor kid.

Growing up in Pagosa Springs in southwestern Colorado, Justin saw his parents go from minimum-wage job to minimum-wage job. His dad was a janitor at a local resort. He would bring home Styrofoam containers of half-eaten steak and lobster tail, leftovers from extravagant meals that vacationers threw away. Sometimes the family went dumpster diving for food like expired (but safe to eat) dough balls from the local Pizza Hut or bags of partially rotten fruit from the grocery.

On those nights Justin felt lucky.

They moved a lot, too-once living in a Winnebago at campsite.

"The last house I lived in as a high school senior didn't have a front door. We used a piece of plywood to cover the doorway-otherwise snow would get in," he says.

It's perhaps poetic now that Justin's oldest son, Tyler, is studying architecture at CU Denver. Or that Tyler will get the opportunity to travel this winter break to a community where he and his classmates will design and build houses. Or that he plans to become an architect and help vulnerable populations living on the edge, just like his dad did as a kid.

"By today's standards, he would probably be labeled an at-risk kid," says Tyler of his dad, who has inspired him to never give up and always give back. "As I'm looking forward to my future and what I want to do with my life, touching the lives of others in a positive way is what a person should strive for."

For many students and their families, a college education seems out of reach. Barriers are formidable and many. The University of Colorado, often through donors' generosity, works on countless frontlines to support students-to provide the education they want, and reduce or remove obstacles big and small.

Through 1,995 distinct scholarship funds across CU's four campuses, philanthropy plays a big part in making sure students like Tyler can attend CU. He's studying at CU Denver thanks to the Kossman Scholarship for students who come from families with military, police or fire service.

The Cowans practice guitar at their local church. (Photo by Glenn Asakawa)
The Cowans practice guitar at their local church. (Photo by Glenn Asakawa)

The University of Colorado was born out of the storied generosity of frontier settlers in 1876. Since then, almost a half-million alumni have led the way in business, science, the arts, health care and their communities, and they're joined by 15,000 CU graduates each year.

Almost 150 years since the university's founding, CU continues to recognize the indispensable value of education for all who seek it. Here are a few of the many ways the university plays a vital role:

It's inspiring to know that a group of women believe in you and are rooting for you, Becca Tonn, a UCCS alumna, says. (Photo by Tom Kimmell)
"It's inspiring to know that a group of women believe in you and are rooting for you," Becca Tonn, a UCCS alumna, says. (Photo by Tom Kimmell)

'School was my solace'

Becca Tonn knows firsthand the doubt planted by barriers to a college education.

A single mom of two, she says paying her first tuition bill from UCCS in 2002 was daunting on her salary as a restaurant manager and bartender.

A UCCS staffer encouraged her to apply for the Karen Possehl Women's Endowment Scholarship, which provides tuition assistance, mentorship and networking to nontraditional students who have overcome personal adversity. Since its inception in 1996, 182 women have received KPWE scholarships, totaling more than $1.15 million.

Some past scholars include women who were homeless, teen runaways, divorced, unwed mothers or victims in abusive relationships. UCCS celebrates these scholars at the annual Unstoppable Women luncheon, where community partners from the Pikes Peak region help raise hundreds of thousands of dollars for the program.

Because of such spirited support, 94 percent of KPWE scholars have received bachelor's degrees or are on target to do so; 33 recipients now hold or are working toward a master's degree; and four recipients have or are working toward a doctorate.

"School was my solace," says Tonn, a 2005 UCCS alumna. She is now the communications manager and public information officer for the Pikes Peak Workforce Center. She's helping build partnerships with businesses and organizations. She is also a donor and mentors KPWE scholars.

"It's inspiring to know that a group of women believe in you and are rooting for you," she says. "That kept me going as I studied late into the night after my kids went to bed. The psychological support of KPWE-having a team behind me-kept me going through the exhaustion."

Alla Yousif and her father at the White Coat Ceremony at CU Anschutz (Photo by Andrew Vessely)
Alla Yousif and her father at the White Coat Ceremony at CU Anschutz (Photo by Andrew Vessely)

Breaking the cycle of poverty

That seamless support-be it to help pay for tuition or to quiet the whispers of self-doubt-is found throughout CU's four campuses.

When Alla Yousif, the oldest of five, received her stethoscope and physician's coat at this year's White Coat Ceremony at CU Anschutz, she saw her father crying for the first time as he sat in the audience. The event marked her matriculation to the CU School of Medicine.

In 2000, her parents sold everything and moved to the United States from Qatar after she and two younger siblings were diagnosed with Type I diabetes. Her mother even sold her wedding ring.

Yousif was 10 years old.

"It was a very scary moment for my parents," Yousif says. "They didn't even know what diabetes was, and now they had to learn how to give us these injections."

The United States offered better medical care and more freedom for women. But it came at a cost. In the States, her parents took low-paying jobs, and the family, like the Cowans from Pagosa Springs, moved a lot and relied on food banks. Her dad, once a police officer in Qatar, became a cab driver in Denver.

She quickly learned English and, as children of immigrants often do, became the interpreter for her parents. Her father didn't attend college; her mother's education stopped at age 11, when she was forced to marry. Yousif wanted to become a doctor after seeing how they treated her and her siblings' diabetes. She knew she wanted to work in women's health after seeing the cultural gaps in the American health care system for women like her mother, a victim of female genital mutilation at age 6.

When Yousif was a freshman at Thomas Jefferson High School in Denver, her dad signed her up for CU Pre-Health Scholars Program for high school students, where she took classes on the medical campus. She next enrolled at CU Denver, thanks to scholarships and grants, but after she graduated in 2013 with a degree in biology, "imposter syndrome" set in.

"I wasn't sure if I wanted to go into medicine anymore, or what to do with my life," Yousif says. "I thought my grades weren't good enough or I wasn't smart enough."

CU is helping us break a cycle of poverty,
"CU is helping us break a cycle of poverty," Yousif says. "That's huge." (Photo by Andrew Vessely)

Over the next four years, Yousif worked in the Department of Emergency Medicine at the CU School of Medicine as a research assistant. She volunteered with the CU Anschutz Office of Inclusion and Outreach. She wrote essays. She finally felt ready. She took the MCAT. She applied to the CU School of Medicine ... and was rejected.

Self-doubt crept back in. But she earned a spot on a post-baccalaureate program designed for students whose backgrounds limited their shot at medical school admission. The program boosts their chances through a year of intense science courses.

"CU is helping us break the cycle of poverty," Yousif says. "The next generation of my family will not go through the same things that my parents, their parents or my ancestors before them had to go through. That's huge."

She has hope, and so does her family.

Her sister, Isra, completed a dual degree in psychology and criminal justice in May 2014 and graduated with her master's in criminal justice in May, all from CU Denver. Her youngest sister, Arwa, is a high school sophomore enrolled in the same Pre-Health Scholars program at the CU Anschutz Medical Campus that changed her life forever.

A world away, but forever close to family

Until now, college was never an option in the Cowan family, either. Generations endured poverty and addiction that were fueled, Justin believes, because of the absence of education. After high school, young men-even if they finished-went into rodeo, construction or the military.

"I remember thinking college was for rich kids or smart kids. Me? I was neither," says Justin, who now has an undergraduate degree and three master's degrees. He wants a CU education to do the same for his two sons. "Tyler's scholarship is exponentially speeding up the exit from generations of at-risk behaviors in our family. I'm forever grateful to CU and to Mr. Kossman."

But downtown Denver is a world away from Pagosa Springs, famous for its hot springs and ski slopes. At first, the big city made Tyler's parents nervous. It made Tyler excited.

He first wanted to study engineering. But he soon chose architecture.

"My brother and I always loved to build forts and played with Lincoln Logs. I remember as a kid making Popsicle houses and, as geeky as it sounds, I loved Minecraft," Tyler says. "So I know for a fact I'm in the absolute perfect program for me."

"When I realized he loved his choice," says his mother, Melanie, "I had to let go my worries."

Says Justin: "If this scholarship didn't exist, Tyler wouldn't be in college right now. But I think Tyler now is going to be the first generation that will be able to help his kids and provide a different life. I can't wait to see what he does."

Tyler with his mother, Melanie, and his father, Justin, outside their home in Pagosa Springs, Colorado (Photo by Glenn Asakawa)
Tyler with his mother, Melanie, and his father, Justin, outside their home in Pagosa Springs, Colorado (Photo by Glenn Asakawa)