An Aurarian descendant and career changer returns to campus to become a professor
When Val Gonzalez walks near Ninth Street Historic Park on his way to a calculus or linear algebra class, he can’t help but think of the past—and of his family. This one-block stretch of preserved homes is part of Auraria, a historic and largely Hispanic neighborhood from which residents and businesses were displaced in the late 1960s and early 1970s as the Auraria Campus was created. And for Val, his connection to this place is deep.
He can point to St. Cajetan’s in the distance, where his pregnant mom walked and walked around the church’s annual bazaar on a Saturday to help induce labor, and it worked; he was born the very next day. At the time, his parents lived in an apartment above a garage business (the building is no longer there) that was close to the family restaurant: the Casa Mayan, which was run by Val’s great uncle. His parents bought a house shortly after he was born, but he remembers coming back to the neighborhood to visit and driving through the alleys to reach the restaurant, where family would settle in for conversation, coffee, and menudo (a traditional Mexican soup).
My dad was very attached to this place and the people.
Five decades later, Val’s back in the area—as a student. He’s a recipient of the Displaced Aurarian Scholarship. The scholarship was expanded in 2021 to cover all descendants in perpetuity, meaning that Val’s children, grandchildren, and any future generations will be able to attend CU Denver for free. He heard about the scholarship from old Auraria neighbors who wanted to make sure he and his kids knew about the opportunity.
“It has turned into a magnificent, beautiful urban campus, but it is definitely on the backs of some people,” Val said, adding that it was good to see that there is reciprocity for the neighborhood’s displacement. “I think it speaks well of the city of Denver and the people.”
Val, who recently retired from a 26-year career as a civil rights investigator for federal agencies and in higher education, felt drawn back to the classroom and knew that the scholarship would help make his long-held dream of becoming an international math professor a reality. He started classes, and quickly found out that he was a little rusty. “I think you get comfortable in the professional workplace and then you think, ‘Oh, I can do anything,’” Val said. “At my age, returning is definitely interesting.”
He quickly reached out to the math department and sat down with an advisor to make an individual learning plan to fit his needs. Like an athlete preparing for the start of the season, his advisor suggested he warm up with a few specific courses in linear algebra, calculus, and statistics. Once integrals and derivatives feel comfortable to him again, he’ll ramp into a master’s program to reach his goal of sharing his passion for mathematics with students— thanks, in part, to the scholarship. “I have cousins who call me and say, ‘I’m proud of you for doing this thing,’” Val said. “I think, really, the part that strikes me is how cool Dad would think it was,” Val said. “My dad was very attached to this place and the people.”