When CU Denver moved operations to remote status in March 2020 to protect the safety of the campus community, two students used their personal experiences in navigating a global pandemic to create a safe space for connection and solace for their peers.
Karely Nava Chavez, who graduated with a degree in psychology and a minor in human development and family relations this spring, and Jocelyn Vangundy, who received a degree in human development and family relations in May 2021, are the organizers behind what they coined “Social-Emotional Peer Dialogues,” which saw such success that they continued over four semesters.
School of Education & Human Development Professor René Galindo, who has served in the Education Department for more than 30 years, provided oversight, and Assistant Vice Chancellor for the Office of Inclusion and Outreach and Undocumented Student Services Dominic Martinez and Vice Chancellor for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Antonio Farias provided support for the peer-dialogues.
“It’s incredible because they saw the need,” Galindo said. “They were going through it themselves as students, and they stood up and took leadership and did something about it.”
Creating a safe space for students of color
Nava Chavez, a first-generation student from Aurora, wasn’t sure about her degree path until she took Galindo’s undocumented immigration class. She found the content captivating and the support of her professor unmatched. Vangundy, from Littleton, shared a similar sentiment: when she was sick and lost her voice, she recalls, Galindo sat next to her and shared her comments to the class of mostly first-generation college students. They both described Galindo as a devoted mentor.
In the undocumented immigration course, Nava Chavez met Vangundy, who at the time served as Galindo’s teaching assistant (TA). His course influenced Vangundy’s decision to continue her education at Metropolitan State University of Denver, where she is currently working toward a master’s in social work and aspires to get a license in clinical social work.
When the pandemic began, Nava Chavez and Vangundy felt overwhelmed and were grieving peer-to-peer connection, they said. They were also hearing about the struggles of their peers. Students were expressing disruptions in their sleep patterns, anxiety, and financial worries. Some first-generation students were stressed about balancing school and work while caring for younger siblings at home. Additionally, communities of color were among the hardest hit by COVID-19.
Nava Chavez and Vangundy saw a need for meaningful connection among their peers, and they addressed it head-on. They worked with Galindo and his former TA, Marcia Maxson, to develop a plan for what would be the Social-Emotional Peer Dialogues. To start, they conducted research. Over summer 2020, they developed a needs assessment that included questions on academics, health, and wellbeing. They administered the Google survey to roughly 30 students that fall and used the data to design the peer dialogue sessions, which consisted of two, hour-long sessions per week, every other week, over Zoom.
Based on their research and data, they focused each session on one of eight wellness areas: emotional, physical, occupational, social, spiritual, environmental, financial, and intellectual. For each session, they paired a wellness area with a topic, such as emotional wellbeing and self-care and social wellbeing and COVID-19. They opened each dialogue session with a brief presentation and saved the remaining time for candid conversation among their peers. Roughly five to 10 students attended each session, and many were regulars.
“For a lot of these students, being people of color and first-generation college students, it was so important to give them a safe space,” Vangundy said. “We found that students kept coming back, even after they stopped taking Professor Galindo’s class.”
One of those students was Edith Moreno-Dominguez, a senior majoring in business management with a minor in public health. She took a core class from Galindo and wanted to participate in the sessions to talk about her experiences in college and hear about other students’ experiences. “In my academic life, giving time to be in those meetings helped me with my time management,” Moreno-Dominguez said. “In addition, having an outlet where I can talk about my struggles helped me release my stress, leading me to be able to complete assignments I didn’t think I could complete. It also gives me the opportunity to practice self-care talking about my thoughts with other people.”
Advice for other students: “Remember, you are not alone”
Nava Chavez took on Galindo’s TA role in fall 2020 and the two students continued co-leading the sessions for the next two semesters. As the pandemic peaked and waned, the sessions took on new meaning to meet the needs of students during the particular moment in time. “In fall 2021, we talked about feelings around returning to campus—what transitions were the students going through, what did it feel like to learn in person again,” Nava Chavez said.
To recognize the students their hard work and leadership, they were presented the School of Education & Human Development’s Leadership Education Award in the spring 2021 semester. In addition, they found personal relief from the sessions and formed lasting friendships. “I was dealing with the death of a loved one at the time, and I needed to connect with people who understood me,” Vangundy said. “It was a way for me to recharge emotionally because I knew that I wasn’t alone.
Nava Chavez, who will be continuing her education this fall in CU Denver’s School Psychology Doctor of Psychology (PsyD) program with a bilingual specialization track, added, “I came into college as an introverted person. Being in these situations, I have learned to come into my own and comfortably share with people so that they can share their authentic selves with me.”
In line with CU Denver’s Strategic Plan goal of becoming the nation’s first equity-serving institution, Nava Chavez and Vangundy encourage students from all populations to chase their dreams and find their place at CU Denver. “If you have a passion and see an unmet need, that’s something you should tap into,” Jocelyn said. Nava Chavez added, “Find your dream team, find the people who you can rely on and who are going to be there for you through the process. And just remember, you are not alone.”
As for Galindo’s legacy at CU Denver, his students say he creates an inclusive classroom, where each student is greeted by name and valued for their diverse perspectives in conversations. “I have never met a more caring, thoughtful, and impactful educator,” said Maxson, who is now a leadership coordinator for the Center for Identity and Inclusion. “He develops a rapport with all of his students and builds culturally relevant, social-emotional support to help students thrive in the classroom and beyond.”