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Helping Colorado's refugees

SEHD student celebrates diversity and jumps into volunteering and mentoring opportunities

Martha Chavez’s freshman-year volunteer work at Sun Valley Youth Center changed her career goals and her major at CU Denver. The center is a spark of hope in one of Colorado’s most underserved neighborhoods, a community with a large number of refugees who are striving for better schools, better jobs, better nutrition and better overall opportunities. It was here that Chavez found her purpose and her passion as she provided bilingual math tutoring at the after-school care program. A young girl looked her in the eye and casually announced, “Miss Martha, you would make the best teacher.”

CU Denver student Martha Chavez

CU Denver student Martha Chavez works with students in a local school as part of her out-of-the-classroom learning experiences. Photo by Trevr Merchant.

“It was at this moment that I realized that I wanted to interact with diverse young children in person and make an impact on their lives. I wanted to share knowledge and hope with refugee and at-risk youth when so many others just walk away.”

Soon after this experience, Chavez went to a School of Education & Human Development open house and changed her major to the BA in Education and Human Development with a concentration in Elementary Education. A year later, she added SEHD’s Human Development and Family Relations (HDFR) program as her minor. This year, she’s participating in a yearlong internship in a Denver Public Schools high-need elementary school as part of SEHD’s Denver Student Teacher Residency.

Denver Student Teacher Residency Because she is deeply committed to working with Denver’s children in the city’s classrooms, Chavez was accepted into the Denver Student Teacher Residency, a partnership between Denver Public Schools and CU Denver. Her final year at CU Denver involves paid residency work at Ashley Elementary. She will work alongside a highly qualified mentor teacher in a mixed first- and second-grade Spanish instruction class teaching science, social studies and English literacy. “I will have a lot of responsibility from the start,” said Chavez. She will create lesson plans and actively teach in the school. Chavez will also be considered a priority candidate in the Denver Public Schools hiring cycle. For more information about this opportunity, please visit

Chavez was attracted to the CU Denver undergraduate program because SEHD graduates are recognized as among the most prepared in the nation to support diverse languages, cultures and abilities in the classroom. She was also impressed by SEHD’s close partnerships with local schools and community organizations, many of which are the longest running academic partnerships in the country.

Chavez loves her teacher education classes at CU Denver, where faculty make learning theories come alive. She also loves the out-of-classroom learning. “The intensive, well-supported residency work and mentoring experiences inspire me,” she said. “I go into the classrooms and feel like ‘Yes! This is what I want to do.’ And, it’s all interconnected with what I’m learning in the classroom [at CU Denver].” Chavez will graduate with more than 1,200 hours of classroom experience, hours that far exceed the average teacher training for first-year teachers.

Chavez’s passion for understanding and improving the lives of children in her future classrooms spurred the addition of her HDFR minor. HDFR classes help Chavez remember that her students have a family life outside of school that significantly influences what goes on in the classroom. “Why not minor in something that will help me in the classroom and help me understand the children who walk into the classroom?” said Chavez.

CU Denver student Martha Chavez

Martha Chavez volunteers at a community garden that supplies fresh produce to Denver’s underserved neighborhoods. Photo by Rene Galindo.

One of Chavez’s favorite classes was called Food Justice, taught by SEHD associate professor René Galindo. “I am going to take what I have learned in this class and apply it for the rest of my life to become a better teacher,” said Chavez. “Dr. Galindo made the class impactful for all of us. He really walks the walk. He is an avid gardener, probiotic-maker, beekeeper and more. He taught us about food deserts, where within a certain radius, it’s hard to get fresh fruit and vegetables. It’s heartbreaking to see. We also saw signs of hope, like GreenLeaf Community Garden. GreenLeaf is run by high school students who grow pumpkins, cilantro, squash, cucumbers, carrots and more. They also learn how to sell the produce. This course inspired me to bring plant life into the classroom and teach urban children about planting food and good nutrition.”

“Martha is a very thoughtful and caring student who brings a strong commitment to everything she does in and out of the classroom,” said Galindo. “She always looks for opportunities to volunteer, such as working with refugee children at a community garden this summer. Her ongoing volunteer work with refugees reflects her commitment to social justice.”

Since her first volunteer experience at Sun Valley Youth Center, Chavez’s compassionate spirit to volunteer just grows and grows. Currently, she teaches weekend English as a second language courses at A La Source, a community center for refugees and immigrants. “I like it because I get to meet and help people from all over the world, including Iran and the African Congo. The number of refugees is growing in Colorado, and they really need our help.”​

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