Carl Wright in the Marines

Finding Purpose and Adventure at CU Denver: Meet Carl “Wes” Wright Jr.

December 13, 2022

If Carl “Wes” Wright Jr. were to tell his 16-year-old self he would someday attend graduate school, “there’s no chance he would believe me,” he said. After a failed attempt at college following high school, Wright decided to join the Marine Corps to move away from his hometown of St. Louis, Missouri. He then moved to Colorado to finish his education and be closer to the mountains. Seven years and one undergraduate degree later, on Saturday, Dec. 17, Wright will graduate from CU Denver with his master’s in urban planning. 

Like many students at CU Denver, Wright’s educational journey is unconventional. The adult learner came to CU Denver after serving in the military and attending Colorado State University (CSU) in Fort Collins, where he also worked in water conservation. He soon discovered a passion for urban development and sustainability—fueled by his studies, surroundings, and one family member in particular. “When my niece was born, I wanted to make sure her life was good; that she could drink clean water,” Wright said. “I was interested in CU Denver because they have one of the better urban planning programs, and I had roots here.”  

Path to CU Denver 

Born and raised in St. Louis, Wright was 21 years old when he joined the Marines. At bootcamp in San Diego, California, he remembers seeing the ocean for the first time in his life. He became a sergeant and flew drones for five years before finishing his contract and being honorably discharged. While he enjoyed the camaraderie and shared understanding that service brought, he missed out on many milestones, including his beloved niece’s birthday, friends’ weddings, and holidays with his family. 

Carl “Wes” Wright Jr.

In part because of his love for the outdoors, Wright moved to Colorado and pursued an undergraduate degree in ecosystem science and sustainability at CSU. He ended up taking a job with the City of Fort Collins’ water district, where he educated households and businesses on how to better conserve water and conducted sprinkler audits. “I enjoyed the relationships I formed with community members,” Wright said, adding that his experience fueled his passion for pursuing a master’s in urban planning. 

When COVID-19 hit in 2020, Wright was laid off and moved back home to St. Louis. Eager to return to Colorado, he applied to CU Denver, worked with the Office of Veteran and Military Student Services (VMSS), and used the G.I. Bill benefits to fund a portion of his education.  

Finding Purpose in an Underserved Community 

The different ages and backgrounds within the College of Architecture and Planning’s Master of Urban and Regional Planning (MURP) program gave Wright a meaningful experience. And the school offered opportunities beyond his wildest dreams. For example, in summer 2022, he traveled to Turkey for one month for a resiliency planning study abroad program under study abroad coordinator Carrie Makarewicz and Jennifer Steffel Johnson, assistant professor in the Urban and Regional Planning Department. “Being a kid who grew up in a trailer, and then being on a boat in the Mediterranean Sea, where the water was so blue you could see to the bottom of it, was an incredible experience,” Wright said.  

For his capstone project, a culmination of a student’s academic work, Wright worked with residents of Valverde—a predominantly Hispanic neighborhood in west Denver that needs improvements to enhance the quality of life—to plan safer walking and biking routes for the youth to access community centers, including the Youth Empowerment Center, Barnum Recreation Center, and Valverde Elementary School. “They don’t have much, but they are always happy,” Wright said about the families he worked with. “It’s such a resilient community.” 

Those residents left a lasting impression on Wright, and although he’s not sure of his plans after CU Denver, he knows he wants to pursue a career in urban planning with an emphasis on community impact. In the meantime, after several years of academic work, Wright looks forward to returning to St. Louis to spend time with his loved ones. “I’m excited to be close to my family,” he said. 

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