As a child growing up in Buffalo, New York, CU Denver student Zac Lees got along with his family and friends, excelled in music, loved playing baseball, watching hockey, and the Buffalo Bills, and did well in school. But in high school he struggled emotionally and experienced bullying. “I started to make some risky decisions as I fought to properly deal with difficult emotions,” he says, looking back on his formative years as he now graduates with a bachelor’s in Human Development and Family Relations.
Lees attended Alfred University from August 2010 to May 2011, but grappled with issues of sexual orientation, substance abuse, and mental health. He attempted to transfer to a larger university but lost the co-signer for his financial aid at the end of freshman year and decided that enlisting in the U.S. Marine Corps might help him turn things around. He took a gap year to clean up physically, mentally, and emotionally, and started bootcamp at Paris Island, South Carolina., in March 2012.
Interested in aviation, Lees was designated as a crew chief and attended SERE (Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape) in Maine before transferring to the Marine Corps Air Station New River (North Carolina) to complete flight training and mechanic school. He was deployed in 2014 to the border of Africa and the Middle East, where he served as the youngest person in his MOS (Military Occupational Specialty) before returning to base.
“During my year back in North Carolina between my deployments, I earned every single one of my remaining mechanic and flyer qualifications and had to pick 12 flyers to supervise during my second deployment, where I was top guy in my MOS ,” he says. “I had to grow up very quickly.”
That deployment from March 2016 to November 2017 sent Lees back to the Middle East as a weapons and tactics flight instructor, enlisted operations manager, and a CH-53E helicopter tail gunner patrolling borders for an anti-terrorism unit. He also served in a seven-week humanitarian mission to Haiti in the aftermath of Hurricane Matthew in October 2016, delivering food, medicine, shelters, and other needed supplies.
Honorably discharged on Christmas Day 2017, Lees has mixed emotions about his military service. “I joined for the wrong reasons,” he says. “I was trying to validate myself regarding my identity and masculinity. I appreciate traveling the world, the connections with people I made—especially my best friend Carson—and ironically it was in the Marines that I first came out as gay. I’m also very grateful for the GI Bill that allowed me to attend college free, and don’t know if I’d be graduating now without that financial support.” Still, the experience ultimately jeopardized his mental health, a toll he would pay
, down the road.
Facing His Demons
“There was something about Colorado, Denver particularly, that had a freeing, vivacious energy,” says Lees, an avid skier, hiker, and mountain biker, who moved here in May 2018 and enrolled in the CU Denver Business School as an accounting major that fall.
“For a while, things were great,” Lees says. “I was putting myself out there, landing internships meant for seniors at private equity firms.” But he began falling behind as underlying mental health problems surfaced and he took a year’s medical leave. “I had given up on myself and my life,” he says, recalling those dark days.
Diagnosed with multiple mental health disorders, he sought help through the
Hoping to do something meaningful to help troubled youth, he changed his major to Human Development and Family Relations, and made a fresh start at CU Denver in spring 2020.
Finding a Home and Discovering His Dreams
His experiences at CU Denver helped transform a vague yearning to work with youth into concrete career objectives. An internship he landed with the Denver nonprofit Project PAVE (Promoting Alternatives to Violence through Education) in November 2021 helped further hone his future goals.
Lees worked with his supervisor Brent Adams on PAVE’s True Man program, codeveloped by Adams and sponsored and funded by the Denver Broncos. His responsibilities included meeting with a dozen middle-school football teams involved in the Broncos’ Futures Football Program, in three weekly, 90-minute sessions, to deliver curriculum focused on gender identity, self-acceptance, and healthy masculinity.
“In the first session, Brent and I share our stories to help create a ‘brave space’ to talk about things society tells me to keep inside,” Lees explains. “We discuss gender and how if we suppress the feminine, human qualities within ourselves, we’ll never be truly happy. That can evolve into a lifetime of anger and strained relationships.”
The curriculum helps young men develop self-awareness, empathy, and find healthy outlets for channeling difficult emotions. “Similar to the military, in the context of football, there’s this rhetoric around being violent and masculine that provides an ideal opportunity to talk about these things,” Lees says. “By the end of our sessions, some boys open up about their home life situations or mental health and relationships issues. It’s incredible to widen their viewpoint and help them see that no matter what they are or wish to be, it’s OK.”
Adams believes the boys have benefited greatly from Lees’ commitment and candor. “Zac has been incredibly reliable, invested, and brave in his work with us,” Adams says. “He diligently studies the developmental tools/guides I assign him, and courageously shares vulnerable and painful experiences from his own life with the boys which helps free them to share and process their own.”
Lees found the internship invaluable. “Brent has been a big part of my support,” he says. He’s also grateful to professors like Jenn Greiving, instructor of Global Family Resource Management and Family Life and Community Programming I., and his Human Development and Family Relations internship professor, Dr.Ruben Anguiano, “who provided so much and expanded my ideas for options after graduate school.”
Grieving has confidence in Lees’ ability to help others in whatever professional role he chooses. “During his time in our program, Zac’s evolving skills of active listening and empathy demonstrated his compassion for others and his ability to view people through a strength-based lens,” says Greiving. “He was intent on deepening his understanding of the diverse people and communities around him in order to better serve them as a helping professional.”
After graduation, Lees plans to attend the Master of Social Work Program at Metropolitan State University of Denver and to work one-on-one with high-school-age students as a school counselor or therapist. As he pictures holding his diploma in his hand, he’s proud of never giving up on himself, despite the problems that plagued him.
“I’d like to thank my professors for that,” he says. “There were times I was falling behind on homework, and it would be easy for professors to give a zero. Instead, they would send me an email to say ‘hey, just checking in to see if you’re doing OK.’ When I had no energy to get out of bed for days at a time, those emails helped me remember people care. I didn’t give up on myself, but I wouldn’t have gotten to that point if my professors hadn’t stuck with me as well.”