An image of CU Denver graduate Jessica Valdez.
Jessica Valdez will graduate with a double major on Dec. 16.

Graduate Jessica Valdez Finds Research Opportunities and Real-World Internships at CU Denver  

December 12, 2023

For Jessica Valdez, graduating from CU Denver is about more than a diploma. It’s about all the classes she’s taken (enough for two majors!). The three internships she landed through university connections to get real-world experience in career fields that interest her. The on-campus job as a student advisor in the Office of Undergraduate Research and Creative Activities where she gets to help students pursue research projects. The time spent as a representative in the Student Government Association. The McNair Scholars program, which helped her gain valuable research experience, and much more. So, when she crosses the stage at CU Denver’s fall commencement on Dec. 16, she’ll carry all that knowledge with her to her next goal: graduate school.   

Jessica Valdez will graduate with a double major on Dec. 16.
Jessica Valdez displays commencement stoles and cords she has earned at CU Denver.

Valdez grew up in Illinois, in the Chicagoland area, but moved to Colorado with her parents in 2008. When it came time, she looked at a variety of colleges, but liked that she could attend CU Denver and live at home. As a first-year student, Valdez started as a pre-med student in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, but she was also extremely interested in the School of Public Affairs’ offerings in criminal justice. As she explored both tracts, she realized a double major would help her keep her career options open.  

She worked closely with her academic mentors, including Nora Scanlon and Dr. Melissa Tackett-Gibson, to find ways to mesh the two programs together—something she encourages other students to do, too. “I think there’s room for that,” she said. “And students don’t always realize that you can actually fit things in.”   

One of her focus areas was research, something that drew on strengths from both majors. Early on, her research paralleled faculty member’s work, but soon shifted into her personal projects. She received funding support as a EUReCA! student assistant and as part of the Summer Fellows program. For one of her projects, she looked at how Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders reported hate crimes after the start of the pandemic, a topic that was important to her because of her Filipino heritage.  

She also applied to and became a TRIO McNair Scholar, a federally funded CU Denver program that aims to prepare students for doctoral-level research work. “It is a more intense preparation for graduate school,” Valdez said of the McNair Scholars program at CU Denver.   

Since becoming a McNair Scholar, she has attended several conferences and presented her research to big and small audiences. “I was counting, and I have presented—between the conferences and CU Denver—12 times,” she said. Her last presentation was at a national conference. One of CU Denver’s strengths for its students, Valdez said, is offering these types of research experiences for undergraduates.  

Valdez even found time for valuable internship opportunities. At the Denver District Attorney’s office, she got to go to court and learn how prosecutors make decisions. With the Auraria Campus Police Department (ACPD), she saw officers work on community building, and (when safe), she got to go on ride-alongs. She said that it was important to see how the officers interacted with people and how impactful their work was. In particular, she recalled a day when a nearby incident activated the ACPD. “It’s one thing to hear about it,” Valdez said. “And another thing to watch an entire department put their gear on and run and respond to something like that.”  

Now, through CU Denver’s Biology Department, she has an internship as a death investigator with the Jefferson County Coroner’s Office. “It’s intense,” Valdez said. “There have been some very tough situations.” But each experience has given her valuable insight into how to invest in her future. “I’ve done a variety of internships in three different criminal justice offices,” Valdez said. “That helped me figure out what I’m really interested in.”   

For her next step, Valdez has applied to CU Denver’s 4+1 Criminal Justice program, a unique opportunity for students that allows them to take credits earned during their undergraduate degree and apply them to a master’s degree, and, perhaps, a future PhD. This lets learners accelerate and complete their master’s in as little as one year (that’s where the 4+1 name comes from). The master’s will not only help her stay on the educational path that she wants, but also prepares her to pursue leadership roles. “It’s helpful for promotions,” Valdez said.  

Looking back, Valdez is proud of all that she’s accomplished at CU Denver. As a self-described introvert, she says that campus was initially intimidating, but she felt comfortable leaning in and getting involved. That’s a piece of advice she’d like to pass on to other students: “Don’t be shy,” Valdez said without hesitating, encouraging people to go to events where they don’t know anyone. “That’s how you meet people. And that’s how you get involved. So get involved!”