The difference between quitting and graduating? Sometimes, it’s just one person who cares.

Two men dressed in black shirts and multi-colored graduation sashes stand in front of a courtyard with trees, a patio and grass.
Chalkbeat Colorado reporter Jason Gonzales, left, on graduation day with David Martinez, a coordinator at CU Boulder’s College of Media, Communication and Information. (Laura Gonzales for Chalkbeat Colorado)

When you join Chalkbeat, you’re asked to introduce yourself to readers and talk about why you do this work. 

Since I began my journalism career as an intern at the Longmont Times-Call in 2007, I’ve only written about my story once. I was reluctant that first time and it took plenty of convincing. So it feels familiar that a Chalkbeat post about myself would take more than a year.

I wanted to become a reporter to tell other people’s stories. I loved being in a newsroom and observing history unfold. I chose to stay behind the notebook, and to be frank, I never figured I had a story worth telling. 

What I’ve experienced, in many ways, never felt extraordinary like the stories of hundreds of people I’ve reported on in classrooms, college quads, town squares, and tornado and hurricane disaster zones. I’ve been blessed that others have trusted me to put words to tragedies, triumphs, and everything in between in North Carolina and Tennessee.

But Colorado is home. I returned here to launch the higher education beat for Chalkbeat, telling the stories of students who struggle to obtain a college degree. And inevitably, this work feels personal. Since joining Chalkbeat in spring 2020, I’ve seen myself often in the stories and statistics. I share many of the same struggles with the students I’ve talked to. 

And I know I could have been part of the majority of Hispanic men who stopped going to college, instead of finding my way here to share this story.

During my sophomore year, I walked into a communications class final — and panicked. I tried to steady my shaky hand. I forced myself to concentrate. But 30 minutes later, with what felt like dozens of eyes on me for finishing so quickly, I turned in my test and left. 

I couldn’t tell you what was on that exam and I can only assume the grade wasn’t great. I know I was mostly prepared. But the panic didn’t stem from school.

The previous year had been filled with worry for a sister whose health issues were a mystery to doctors (to this day they aren’t quite sure how to treat her) and the tumultuous end of my brother’s relationship with a significant other that threatened to keep me from seeing my nephew. At the time, I also was trying to help someone close to me with childhood mental and physical abuse.

When I walked out of the side door of the building that day, I breathed in the cold Colorado winter air. As I exhaled, I could see my life going in two directions — I could give up or I could press forward.

I decided I couldn’t quit. 

Looking back, I realize a huge reason was David Martinez

I’m the son of a factory worker and day care provider, raised just outside Greeley. My dad had joined the Marine Corps right after high school. My mom never graduated. But they pushed me to go to college to take advantage of an opportunity they never had.

When I arrived in Boulder 16 years ago, I brought their support but didn’t find too many other students like me on the University of Colorado campus. As an 18-year-old Hispanic man, I felt pretty much out of place in a sea of white faces. That year, in fact, just 6% of the students at CU were Hispanic.

My freshman year, I can’t recall seeing another Hispanic student on my dorm floor.

But Dave — as we called him — never let me feel alone. Dave’s job today is the coordinator of inclusive excellence and outreach at the College of Media, Communication and Information.

Back then, I didn’t know his title. I just knew he was a person who cared.  

For students like me, it can be difficult to find a community that looks like you and shares your life experiences at CU Boulder. Dave, however, motivated me to excel and helped me connect to friends who encouraged me to finish school. 

When I finished that exam — even though I felt terrible — I knew I couldn’t let my family, Dave, or those friends down. 

Dave never once gave up on me throughout my college journey, even when he didn’t always know what was going on in my head. He was one of the first people I met on campus, and we hugged the day I graduated.

Not every student has a Dave. I might have made a different decision the day of that final if it weren’t for him. I might not be able to share this story, or the thousands of stories I’ve shared during my career, if it weren’t for Dave.

There aren’t many months that go by that I don’t think about him. When I accepted the job at Chalkbeat Colorado, he was one of the first people who came to mind. 

He’s part of why I graduated. He’s who I thought about when I first started reporting on colleges. Because of Dave, I know that someone who cares can change a student’s trajectory, calm their fears, and propel them to become someone they didn’t expect. 

Everyone deserves a Dave. And that’s why at Chalkbeat I want to continue to keep schools accountable to the students who need that extra nudge to get through college. 

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