Dana Mallozzi with son

Dana Mallozzi Gets Some Perspective in Panama

November 8, 2021

After her parents divorced when she was seven, CU Denver student Dana Mallozzi spent much of her childhood traveling back and forth from her mother’s home in Washington to her father’s place in Colorado. By the time she got to high school, she’d traveled more than she would have liked. “I went to about 20 different schools, and my living situations too were very unstable,” she said.

Pregnancy, Homelessness, and Dropping Out

When she got pregnant at age 17, Mallozzi moved yet again, this time to Hilo, Hawaii, where her mother, stepfather, and sister were living. Although she’d dropped out of high school to take care of her son Jeremiah, her goal was to get some help from her family so she could get her diploma. She enrolled in K12 Hawaii Technology Academy, but then her home life got complicated again.

Her mother left her stepfather and moved back to the mainland, leaving Mallozzi with nowhere to live, so she got creative. “In Hawaii at that time, they gave out food stamps like crazy, like candy,” she said. “So I traded my food stamps for a place to live.” This enabled her to earn the high school degree she wanted.

After getting that invaluable piece of paper, she returned to Colorado, where she tried to go to college. “I didn’t really have much support, so I ended up dropping out,” she said. She went back a second time, only to have to leave once more. “I was struggling to pay rent, and I had to drop out once again due to homelessness,” she said. When she left, she had accumulated four F’s on her transcript.

Dana Mallozzi and son
Dana Mallozzi with her son; Top right: the day of her high school graduation

Luck or Angelic Intervention?

And that’s when things got interesting. “I took a job as a waitress and, honestly, there were a lot of borderline supernatural things that happened,” she said. “This guy came into the restaurant and he asked me to go to Panama with him, so I literally went from sleeping in my car to standing on top of the tallest skyscraper in Central America within the same month.”

During that three-day trip, she had some interesting conversations. She decided she really wanted to go to college, and she started the process of appealing her failing grades, as well as navigating the student loan system and applying for scholarships. “Having that experience with that person that came into my life—that was really a gift of perspective for me.”

Mallozzi would love to let her traveling companion know what that trip meant to her, but she can’t find him anywhere, not even on social media. “I feel like he was an angel, because I don’t even have any proof that he existed,” she said.

Dana Mallozzi in Panama
Dana Mallozzi at the top of the skyscraper in Panama

Finding TRIO, Sociology, and Support

Mallozzi found her groove at Front Range Community College, where she became part of the TRIO program, a federal program that supports low-income and first-gen students, along with students who have a documented disability. With help from TRIO Counselor Elizabethe Plante, Mallozzi transferred to CU Denver, where she is completing her degree in sociology with a concentration in women’s and gender studies.

At CU Denver, she became a TRIO McNair Scholar, which connects undergraduate students with research opportunities and faculty mentoring, as well as a member of the Reisher Scholars program. She is also involved in the Education Through Undergraduate Research and Creative Activities (EURēCA!) Program, as a sociological research fellow. Mallozzi gets a lot of support from Keith Guzik, PhD, her faculty mentor in sociology; Jessica Luna, director of TRIO Programs; and Sonia Valencia, senior program coordinator for TRIO.

None of Mallozzi’s success would have been possible without TRIO Programs. “Starting out, I actually did not know about student support programs,” she said. “Once I found a network that could support me, that was a game changer. I wish I had understood the importance of that sooner.”

Mallozzi intends to continue her education at the graduate level by studying for her master’s and doctoral degrees in sociology. Her advice to other first-gen students is simple: “Keep going, be persistent, and get clear about what you’re working towards.”