2020 will be remembered for many things, but for those who graduate during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, it will also be a year of tremendous accomplishment. In one week, Austin Chavez will be among those new grads—and one of the most accomplished, too.
Finishing his time at CU Denver with a BS in public health, someday soon this Colorado native will join the many doctors who work to keep rural communities thriving despite the challenges that complicate healthcare delivery in remote areas. It’s a family calling of sorts, as Chavez’s mother, Natalie Chavez, is a practicing nurse in Alamosa.
Ambition and Achievement
Growing up in Sanford, CO, Chavez earned a full-ride scholarship from the Daniels Fund, which celebrates scholars who demonstrate exceptional character and a commitment to serving their communities. That sense of loyalty to his community still holds true for Chavez, who has plans to return to his hometown. It’s also part of what led him to choose CU Denver when deciding where to attend college.
“I could have chosen to go anywhere, but I wanted to be close to home and still get another perspective,” Chavez said. “I don’t know how much more downtown and in the city you can get, and it’s a great school for pre-med.”
Though he may take a gap year while studying for the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT), this soon-to-be graduate won’t necessarily be taking time off. “Once the train stops, it’s hard to keep going,” Chavez noted, and there’s zero doubt that he will stay busy and on track. During his time at CU Denver, Chavez worked as a Peer Advocate Leader and as a research assistant in an immunodeficiency clinic at Children’s Hospital Colorado on the Anschutz Medical Campus.
Research Assistant at Children’s Hospital
At Children’s, Chavez worked on the study of a new, injectable, pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) treatment for HIV, where the goal of better prevention acts as the nearest thing to a cure. His research into this successful treatment provided him a sense of reassurance during the pandemic—proof that with hope, time, and effort, medical studies make cures to disease possible. Helping to make such a cure possible for COVID-19, Chavez also worked on the Janssen vaccine clinical trials and felt inspired by the many people who signed up to participate. He felt humbled by the public’s willingness and enthusiasm to push the power of medicine forward amid uncertainty.
Perhaps because his goal of becoming a doctor long precedes the current uncertainty, Chavez shared that the pandemic has had little impact on his plans for medical school or his area of focus, which is still family practice.
“Being able to do preventive primary care, that’s where it’s always been for me. I’ve always thought mainly about the patient interactions—it’s all about relationships.”
Chavez attributed his interest in rural family practice to a time in second grade when an ordinary infection quickly spread to his kidneys and put him in a severe condition. With only two family physicians in the area, he learned at that early age how dangerous a health crisis can become when doctors are in short supply. His innate understanding of this reality and his compassion for those affected by it might be partly why Chavez was named one of two Outstanding Undergraduates by his department.
A Quiet Celebration
In any other year, a big celebration of this award and graduation would be in order, but given his knowledge of public health, it’s no surprise Chavez intends to keep festivities to a minimum. Despite the subdued celebrations, though, his family could not be more proud of him. Like nearly half of CU Denver students, Chavez is the first in his family to earn a bachelor’s degree (his mother earned an AA in nursing). After safely quarantining and testing per public health guidelines, his family was understandably eager to snap photos with him in his cap and gown over the Thanksgiving break.
As 2020 draws to a close and offers the promise of something new both for this graduate and for everyone else, the advice Chavez gave often as a Peer Advocate Leader is worth remembering—they’re words that would be encouraging to hear from any primary care physician, too:
“You shouldn’t get disheartened. It may be bad, but you’ve got to stick it out. I promise it gets better.”
That’s something we will all celebrate.