Karen Jaramillo grew up in west Denver and saw, firsthand, changes that would transform the city. In the early and mid-1970s she’d participate in Chicano-movement marches with her activist parents and family, many of which began at St. Cajetan’s Church on the Auraria Campus. The shared purpose among her community instilled a sense of hope for resolution, restoration, and reconciliation. One that would continue to motivate her.
By her teenage years, she was already a leader: She excelled at West High School and was student government president. She dreamed of earning a college degree and becoming a voice for change, but she wasn’t sure how to get started. “I was redirected into courses to prepare me for a job, not college,” said Jaramillo. “The message was, ‘College isn’t for you, just go get a job,’ or ‘Just graduate from high school, get married, and have a family.’”
After graduating from West High School in 1983, Jaramillo took a job as a clerical assistant with the City and County of Denver, got married, and had a son. Four years later, she became a single parent. While juggling work and motherhood, this first-generation student enrolled and took classes at Metropolitan State University (MSU) and Community College of Denver (CCD), but without support, she had to pause her education three times.
After marrying her husband, Eric, and taking time off work to address health issues, she started volunteering at her son’s school and was offered a position as a substitute teacher. During that time, she said she discovered her true calling as an educator.
Jaramillo earned an associate of arts degree in Spanish from Red Rocks Community College in 2001, a bachelor’s degree in Chicano/Latino Studies from MSU in 2006 and a master’s in curriculum design, instruction, and educational leadership from Colorado Christian University in 2010. She took a position as Red Rocks Community College’s first Community Learning Center coordinator, supporting and preparing Latino students at Jefferson High School for college. She saw a need among the parents of the students and collaborated with various community organizations and Jeffco Public Schools to create a family literacy program at Jefferson High School, which offers English as a Second Language classes and workforce skills development.
Although she longed to get a doctorate in education, the self-doubt she’d internalized in high school continued to haunt her. “The same imposter syndrome reemerged,” she said. “I must have inquired about the EdD (Doctor of Education) program at CU Denver 10 times, but I was terrified.”
In 2016, her health issues returned, and Jaramillo ended up in the hospital on life support. “I had a lot of time to think,” she said. While healing, she decided to continue her education. From 2017 to 2019, she studied social justice and theology in the University of Denver’s Iliff School of Theology Master’s program, which helped build the confidence she needed to apply for her doctorate.
Jaramillo enrolled in CU Denver’s School of Education & Human Development Doctorate in Leadership for Educational Equity in Higher Education Program in 2020 and will graduate in 2023. She credits faculty members like Scott Bauer, Robin Brandehoff, Amy Ferrell, Ruben Viramontez Anguiano, and Tania Hogan, whom she works closely with in her current role as treasurer and former president of the Doctoral Students of Color (DSoC), for helping her understand how the university can better support doctoral students of color from admissions to graduation.
Brandehoff, clinical assistant professor of culturally and linguistically diverse education, said Jaramillo’s leadership as president of DSoC has been incredible to watch and learn from. “With the support of the DSoC board, she has increased student membership, supported campus-wide events, brought incredible guest speakers to campus, and continually steps up to support student and university initiatives,” Brandehoff said.
The guidance Jaramillo has received at CU Denver has empowered her to support students like herself. “As a first-generation Chicana student, it’s been a challenge all the way through because no one in my family or sphere of influence has done this before, so I’ve been relying on CU Denver in so many ways,” she said.
In her free time, Jaramillo babysits her two-and-a-half-year-old granddaughter and spends cherished time with her family. She hopes to use her latest degree to land an administrative job in higher education, ideally at CU Denver or the Colorado Department of Higher Education, where she currently serves on the Equity Champions Coalition. Jaramillo was recently appointed to the City and County of Denver’s Latino Commission, a role that will continue her activism for Chicanos within her community.
Despite lingering self-doubt, Jaramillo continues to face her fears and lean into her passion for equity. “I’m still in school; I’m still alive,” she said. “My son, Ben, told me while I was in the hospital in 2016 that I’m the most resilient person he knows. He believes in me.” She reminds herself of her son’s words often, and she wants other adult learners contemplating going back to school to find their own resiliency.