'A very bright light'

Alumnus dedicates life to his native people

September 30, 2015

Never before have the nations most vulnerable children been a national priority, until now. I encourage us all to join in the national movement to generate solutions and rejuvenate best practices across the board that will enrich the lives of Native students and help unlock their potential. Non-support or mere surface action is just not acceptable anymore.”

Joaquin Gallegos
Joaquin Gallegos

As Joaquin Gallegos stood before an audience of world leaders at the 2015 Aspen Ideas Festival and spoke those words, he hoped to change the future of the American Indian and Alaska Native community. As a native of the Jicarilla Apache Nation/Santa Ana Pueblo and a recent graduate from CU Denver, Gallegos is single-minded in his effort to break barriers that he and his people face.

For much of American history, traditional education was often used as a tool to westernize tribal nation communities. Gallegos believes those efforts failed, and today he says that tribes face multiple challenges, including declining graduation rates, poor living conditions and inadequate education levels.

Gallegos is a Native American success story, thriving despite the odds. “My family raised me to be attuned to our history and our needs for our future,” Gallegos said. “I don’t live or work for myself. Everything I do is aimed for advancing us, as a people.”

Gallegos at CU Denver

After graduating from high school, Gallegos had no intention of pursuing higher education. His plan for his future changed, however, after CU Denver’s American Indian Student Services (AISS) recruited him. “I’m not sure where I would be if I hadn’t been connected to CU Denver,” Gallegos said. “If people hadn’t believed in me like that, I would never have gotten the opportunities I’ve been presented over the years.” With AISS financial support and faculty mentorship, Gallegos found himself not only getting a degree, but also making a difference in his community.

In his freshman year, Gallegos started working for the Centers for American Indian and Alaska Native Health (CAIANH) in the Nighthorse Campbell Native Health Building at CU Anschutz. His experiences sparked his passion for change in his community, and inspired him to pursue the issue of health care for Native American youth.

During his undergraduate years, he also became involved in the Fourth World Center for the Study of Indigenous Law and Politics, founded by Glenn Morris, J.D., an associate professor in the Political Science Department, College of Liberal Arts and Sciences (CLAS). The center serves as a resource commons providing information focused on legal and political issues faced by indigenous peoples. Mentored by Morris and working with the center, Gallegos was able to assist and contribute at the United Nations permanent forum on indigenous issues. “Morris has been a critical force in my academic growth,” Gallegos said. “His program has given me the opportunity to witness and partake in real and active change.”

“Joaquin is a very bright light in our alumni spectrum,” Morris said of his prized former student.

The Results

After graduating in 2014 with a major in Public Health, Gallegos used his CU Denver experience to become a policy fellow at the Center for Native American Youth (CNAY) at the Aspen Institute in Washington, D.C. For a year, Gallegos witnessed and contributed to significant Native American policy actions concerning health, child welfare, and Generation Indigenous (Gen-I), the President’s initiative aimed at creating more opportunities for native youth to find success.

For Gallegos, a high point of his time at CNAY was helping to generate the Creating Opportunities for Native Youth convening, a part of Gen-I, which featured the First Lady. “Witnessing Michelle Obama highlight the needs and priorities of my people inspired me,” Gallegos said. “I want to further stir the nation to work together to advance native youth measures.”

Aspen Ideas Festival
Gallegos at the Aspen Ideas Festival

Aspen Ideas Festival

Gallegos has now returned to CU Anschutz and CAIANH to advance health research among Native Americans. He was named a 2015 Aspen Ideas Festival Spotlight Health Scholar by the Aspen Institute. Hosted by the Aspen Institute and The Atlantic magazine, the institute brought leaders from around the globe to discuss ideas and bring thoughts into action. Gallegos’ speech described the urgency of the health problems facing Native American youth, including suicides, homicides and intentional injuries, and received rave reviews.

“This opportunity was extremely important to me as I presented alongside impactful, humble leaders who are truly moving the needle for Indian Country and have played a significant role in my personal and academic progress,” Gallegos said. “We explored cutting-edge strategies that can help us lead full, meaningful lives.”

As Gallegos studies for the LSAT and makes plans for law school, he remains focused on the future of his people.

“I feel like I can make broader changes in policy and health care,” Gallegos said. “My target is to always use my knowledge and education to help Tribal Nation citizens to lead the vibrant lives we need and deserve.”