From Military Service to CU Denver: Meet Our Student Veterans

November 8, 2022

An Air Force veteran who hopes to become an immunologist and a former Navy hospital corpsman who is studying business administration are just two of the 1,958 veterans, active duty, or military-connected students at our university. CU Denver’s efforts to support these students, including peer mentoring and priority registration, recently earned it a 2022 Military TimesBest for Vets: Colleges designation, which follows Military Friendly Gold Rank and Military Spouse Friendly designations earlier this year. This student population is incredibly important to CU Denver’s mission of making education work for all, said Leona Lopez, PhD, director of Veteran & Military Student Services. “Our veteran students contribute greatly to the fabric of our community,” she said. “Their lived experiences are significantly different than a traditional college student.” Here, meet two of the veterans we recognize on Veterans Day—and every day of the year. 

“This was my way to do something selfless” 

Jimmy Tangchittsumran was destined to go into the restaurant industry: his father is a chef and his sister is a sommelier at a two-star Michelin restaurant. A self-described scrawny kid from Queens, New York, he surprised his family when he told them he wanted to enlist in the Air Force. Growing up several miles away from the One World Trade Center, he said he always felt a calling to protect his country. “I found that the Air Force was particularly cool,” Tangchittsumran said. “This was my way to do something selfless.” 

At 19 years old, Tangchittsumran made his dream a reality and became an airman. He was stationed in the UK and tasked with researching environmental factors and threats to brief to the air crews. His skills progressed quickly, and he earned several awards and accolades, including earning the rank of sergeant. He mentored others, matured, and found a passion for research. He also spent time in Kyrgyzstan, which is considered the doorway to Afghanistan, and saw the devastation in the war-filled region.  

In 2015, while he was stationed in Korea, Tangchittsumran received a medical discharge because of an autoimmune disease. “As a result, I became more interested in science,” he said. “I wanted to research my own disease.” 

For his next step, Tangchittsumran decided to move to Denver to be closer to his sister. Because of its location in the middle of a thriving downtown metropolis, CU Denver felt a little bit like home. And he saw a career path for himself—he would start his studies at CU Denver and then either pursue a PharmD degree or attend graduate school. 

Today, Tangchittsumran is working at CU Anschutz in an rheumatology/immunology lab, where he studies arthritis in mice and the gut microbiomes of mice. He is on track to graduate from CU Denver in spring 2024 with a degree in biochemistry. He’s also a TRIO McNair Scholar, which provides first-generation students like himself with opportunities for research; a recipient of the 2020 Gates Summer Internship Program (GSIP); and part of the Education Through Undergraduate Research and Creative Activities (EURēCA!) Program.  

To stay connected to the veteran community, he’s in CU Denver’s 2022–23 Boots to Suits cohort. The program, which is celebrating its 10th year, matches veteran students with local mentors to help them transition from college to business life—or from military boots to business suits

Tangchittsumran values his education at CU Denver for many reasons: “It’s a combination of the people, the programs, the great opportunities to make friends, and the accommodating faculty,” he said, adding, “I’m a big food person. I love being close to the city and the different culinary delights.” 

From finding her voice in the Navy to falling in love with Denver 

Remia (Mia) Matias moved to Washington from the Philippines with her mother when she was 17 years old. Two years later, she enlisted in the Navy. “I wanted to travel the world and get away from my family,” she candidly said. She was based at Camp Lejeune in San Diego, California, and received her EMT license before working in and out of emergency rooms. She eventually became a flight paramedic. “If someone was having a heart attack, we had exactly seven minutes to pick them up in a helicopter and get them to safety,” she said. 

While there wasn’t as much traveling in the Navy as she expected, she liked the comraderie and made friends that she now considers family. She also learned invaluable skills about herself: how to set boundaries, how to advocate for her personal rights, and the importance of mental health care. “I was raised to be submissive, and I had to find my voice so I wouldn’t be taken advantage of,” she said. 

Remias left the Navy when her contract in ended in 2019 to focus on raising her now 3-year-old daughter. Shortly after, she visited a friend in Denver, fell in love with the city, and packed her bags. “Moving here is the best decision I’ve ever made,” she said. Enrolling at CU Denver has helped her feel more connected to other people and resources, including those dedicated to veterans, like Boots to Suits, and mental health resources offered through Veterans Affairs (VA). “I get to learn about others’ experiences and form a support system,” said Matias, who is studying business administration and human resources.  

When she’s not balancing motherhood and school, she enjoys trying out new coffee shops around campus and getting lunch with a classmate at her favorite restaurant, Gyu-Kaku Japanese BBQ. 

Veterans Day: An opportunity for recognition and understanding  

These students’ stories exemplify the range of experiences and backgrounds that make up CU Denver’s student population—the fabric of the campus community. On Veterans Day, which this year falls on Friday, Nov. 11, many people may default to saying “thank you” to a veteran for their service.  

While this is significant to student veterans, including Tangchittsumran and Remias, Lopez encourages campus community members to take an extra step. “Invite someone out for a cup of coffee, get to know someone’s story—understand that they are real humans with incredible experiences,” Lopez said. “Just to know that they have your support and gratitude means a lot.” 

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