Throughout her dedication to helping others, and with navigating through many obstacles over the last four years, Karen Sandoval graduates this spring with honors and a 3.955 GPA. Sandoval is a first-generation student earning a Human Development and Family Studies major at Colorado State University with a concentration in pre-health professions and a minor in Spanish.
“As a first-generation student, I did not know a lot about higher education or how to navigate this system,” said Sandoval. “When I came to CSU and visited during the Choose CSU event in March of 2017, I fell in love with the campus. I could envision myself walking around campus and embracing the student life.”
Mentorship and making others feel connected
Sandoval spent a large part of her undergraduate experience volunteering and working with CSU’s El Centro, a space for Latinx students to connect and create relationships.
“I have truly enjoyed my work at El Centro and meeting so many smart, resilient, and courageous people,” said Sandoval. “Every student I have mentored has become very special in my heart, and I am rooting for each and every single one of them to graduate one day too.”
At El Centro, Sandoval served as a facilitator for the Somos Rams retreat, an event for first year and transfer Latinx students on campus; and as a Family Leader for La Conexión, the first year and transfer student mentoring program.
“I have and will definitely miss chismeando with friends and peers at the Chisme table in El Centro and meeting other students,” said Sandoval.
Outside of El Centro, Sandoval works with La Cocina, a non-profit mental health agency in Fort Collins aiming to dismantle systems of oppression and co-create paths to liberation by providing full access to traditional and non-traditional forms of mental health and health equity support services.
After graduation, Sandoval plans to take a gap year, working full time at La Cocina, then apply to an occupational therapy graduate program to pursue a doctorate degree in occupational therapy. Sandoval hopes to work as an occupational therapist, serving children from the Latinx, Black, Indigenous and people of color communities who have intellectual or developmental disabilities.
“I hope to continue to learn from our amazing group of bilingual and Latinx mental health professionals and therapists,” said Sandoval. “We have goals of more directly supporting families with intellectual and developmental disabilities, and I look forward to learning new intervention skills and gaining experience working with this population. I love working with the children and am passionate about the values and the skills I am gaining within La Cocina.”
Currently, Sandoval works part-time at La Cocina as the Respiro program coordinator, providing trauma-informed childcare to families while they attend individual or group therapy. She also oversees the holistic mentoring program, Florecer.
Overcoming obstacles during a tough time
Sandoval overcame several obstacles during her undergraduate experience, from distance and isolation, to the death of someone near and dear to her.
“Being away from home was a huge challenge,” said Sandoval. “I am the oldest of four siblings, and although I’ve only been an hour and a half away, it was difficult being away and missing those special moments where they grew up.”
However, Sandoval said the hardest challenge for her was, and continues to be, the death of her grandfather who passed away one week into the spring semester of her junior year.
“He is my role model and someone I have consistently said time and time again that I want to be like when I grow up,” said Sandoval. “He was an honorable and wise man who really truly believed in me.”
After the passing of her grandfather, Sandoval built a good support team at the university, which included HDFS professor and Sandoval’s honors thesis adviser Zeynep Biringen, adviser Lindsey Topper, HDFS professor Jen Krafchick, and multicultural counseling services – to name a few.
“I am honestly really appreciative and grateful for all the professors, mentors, and advisers I have been able to work with and learn from,” said Sandoval. “I have had really positive experiences with CSU staff and feel very grateful…I have learned so much from every interaction and will take that with me into my future life experiences.”
Shortly after her grandfather’s death, COVID-19 became more prominent in the United States.
“I finished probably the toughest semester ever feeling more isolated online,” said Sandoval. “My senior year has continued to prove to be challenging, but I feel very proud of the journey that has led me to this point. I know my grandpa is really proud of me and still rooting for me. He is my hero.”
Accolades and accomplishments
From the list of her undergraduate accomplishments, Sandoval was selected to sit next to former CSU president and now chancellor, Tony Frank, and Vice President for Student Affairs Blanche Hughes for the First-Generation Award annual dinner during her first year at CSU. Sandoval was also the director of internal operations for the CSU Dance Marathon, a non-profit student organization on campus. The group hosted an eight-hour long dance marathon and raised money for Children’s Miracle Network Hospitals.
“[The dance marathon] was an amazing and fun time, and something I still look back on and can’t believe I danced for eight hours straight,” said Sandoval.
For her Honors Program thesis, Sandoval completed a literature review on Emotional Availability, working closely with Biringen.
“I am really proud of my honors thesis,” said Sandoval. “…I learned so much and believe I grew a lot as a person and student through that process.”
Through all her accomplishments, Sandoval said the biggest one to her, and the one she is most proud of, is graduating.
“This degree and education mean so much to me and my family,” said Sandoval. “I feel very grateful and proud of myself for so much. I have been very lucky to have experienced such wonderful and impactful memories.”
The Department of Human Development and Family Studies is part of CSU’s College of Health and Human Sciences.