CO3.jpg

Cesar Olivas

I first came out to Denver, Colorado, in the summer of 2003, at the age of seventeen. My family had
been displaced from Pasadena, California, as the housing and rental market had risen at a rapid rate. We moved into a North Denver neighborhood where I had the opportunity to see Denver through a
different perspective than many of my current colleagues.


I left Denver for the central coast of California in 2004 to study architecture at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo and returned periodically over the next 5 years. After graduating in 2009 I returned to Denver but was unable to find work in architecture and in 2010 saw myself moving to Washington DC to work at a small firm I had interned at while at the Washington Alexandria Architecture Consortium, a program through Virginia Tech that worked with other universities from around the world.


In late 2011 I received a phone call from Jesse Adkins, a principal at Shears Adkins Rockmore, who had somehow gotten a hold of my resume from my job search a year and a half earlier. He offered me a job and very soon after I found myself back in Denver.


Now working in the architecture profession in Denver, I quickly realized how much of a bubble I had been in when coming to Denver and how I had entered a different one. As a first-generation Mexican American, I never truly felt as a minority until my first day at Cal Poly. It took some time for me to become accustom to that fact, but I did finally accept it. But now, here I was in a city that I know has a
substantial minority population living just outside of downtown that never comes downtown. The
Denver that I had know for the past 8 years was not the Denver I was working in.


As a first-generation Mexican American, you learn to live in two worlds and adapt quickly in both. You
become ambassador to both cultures and are neither one or the other. The fine line of both cultures
never felt as bold as it did now working in Denver. It felt like I was hitting a switch for one and a different for the other.


After becoming licensed in 2014 I decided I needed to learn more as to why there was such a huge lack
of minorities in Denver’s professional fields when, just by observation, I know they make up a
considerable portion of our population. I found out that Denver Public School’s student population was made up by 80 percent minorities at the time. I also found that in 2010 Denver Public Schools only had a 50% high school graduation rate and that by 2014 it had gone up to 60%. The city of Denver and the state of Colorado are not preparing their youth for a post-secondary education.


In my effort to help, I started a group through the American Institute of Architects that would expose
students in Denver Public Schools to architecture with a goal of having it be seen as a viable career choice. After some time this effort began to feel minor in terms of the big picture and I decided it was time to help minority students who were already in a university, finish. Statistically minority students are at a 25%higher risk of dropping out of school than their peers and over 50% of those that drop out attribute their decision for financial reasons.


Around the same time Tyler Michieli, who teaches at a local university, told me the story of one of his
students who had little to no time to complete her classwork due to longer work shifts she had to pick
up for her to respond to her financial hardships. It was then that I knew what the next step was. With the help of Tyler Michieli, we started a scholarship through CU Denver to help minority students facing financial hardships finish their degree, as well as a fund that will help cover unforeseen financial hardships to other students besides the one awarded the scholarship to help the student
stay in the classroom.

The goal is to help diversify the architecture profession by investing in the minority pool already in the university system. This scholarship is not going to be the solution to the much bigger problem facing Colorado public schools, as more school districts go to 4 day school weeks and we continue to rank in the bottom 20% of state spending per student. But it does seek to help those in current need so they can one day serve as the minority role models this city and state desperately need.