CU Denver Helps CTO Richard Michalka Return to School—and Walk Away With a Degree

May 11, 2023

Richard Michalka was 18 years old when he arrived at CU Denver as a first-year student—and the timing was wrong. “Yeah, I lasted about a semester,” Michalka said. “I just wasn’t ready for college.” He spent the next few years trying out other industries. He got an insurance license, worked in an operating room, did pool management, and helped out a civil engineer. Eventually, he came up for a promotion and failed a test designed to see if he’d be a good fit for a particular management position. 

Well, failed isn’t the right word: Michalka scored too high, especially in math and science. The job wasn’t the right fit, but something else was. “I realized that made sense, and I actually missed school,” Michalka said. “So, I decided to go back, a couple classes at a time, 10 years after I started.”  

And he came back to CU Denver because, now, the timing was right. On a whim, Michalka took a programming class. “I realized that’s what I loved,” he said. “I mean, I just programmed for fun.” He was interested in a computer science degree, but he didn’t want to waste his existing class credits in anthropology, psychology, and biology. “A professor, [Dr. John Bennett], told me that I could take all of those classes and combine them with computer science to create my own degree: Integrated Studies,” Michalka said.  

Integrated Studies is a program that combines disciplines to create unique degrees. The flexible format is ideal for students going back to school, students interested in more than one field of study, or students who might have credits from one or more previous majors. Integrated Studies makes it possible to craft a path to a diploma that is relevant to current or future employment opportunities. For Michalka, this meant his individual degree paired computer science, human-centered design and innovation, and anthropology.  

While going back to school, Michalka was able to continue his career. Leveraging his math and science skills—now bolstered with computer sciences classes—he started his own data science company, became a software developer, and in 2019 was promoted to Chief Technology Officer at Indigo Education Company, a Longmont-based social enterprise specializing in technology tools that support learners from middle schools to higher education. “I ended up launching my career while finishing my degree,” Michalka said.  

The flexibility of CU Denver’s Integrated Studies degree reassured Michalka that the individualized major was the right decision. “I love the well-roundedness,” he said. “I have a minor in computer science as my foundation, and anthropology really paired well with that. At the end of the day, we’re designing things for humans. Having a broad liberal arts degree is helpful in a lot of ways.” 

Michalka credits much of his success to support from faculty and the on-campus resources that were available during his time at CU Denver. “One of the benefits of CU Denver is that it’s such a welcoming place, especially for nontraditional students,” Michalka said. “Something I did the second time around was really try to get involved with activities. That kept me engaged and made it easier to stay in the system. There’s just a lot of resources available.” 

Nearly 20 years after he started, Michalka will graduate on May 13. It was a long path, but one that allowed him to set his course. As for the future? Michalka plans to continue his work as CTO at Indigo. He doesn’t think this is the end of his educational journey, though—CU Denver will have to keep an eye out for a new grad student.