– “I’ve learned that whenever I decide something with an open heart, I usually make the right decision.”
The words of renowned poet Maya Angelou could describe the way CU Denver student Tatiana Gomes will feel when she holds her hard-earned diploma in her hands for the first time at Saturday’s 2018 Spring Commencement Ceremonies.
Gomes, whose journey from a small Angolan town to the university’s commencement platform was rife with challenges, often used the writings of the civil-rights activist for inspiration. After also learning about “hope” from her other role model ̶ her mother ̶ Gomes framed her life around the faith-based word.
“My mom never lost hope,” said Gomes, whose father fought in the Angolan civil war and later moved to the United States. “Despite tough struggles, she raised three good women,” Gomes said. “And I feel like hope, especially for minority women, is what Maya Angelou is talking about.”
Holding onto hope
Gomes, who will accept a Bachelor of Arts degree in International Studies (INTS) with a focus on Sub-Saharan Africa this weekend, plans to complete a Bachelor of Science degree in Public Health next fall. Then she’ll do what she always intended to do: go back to her country still recovering from decades of war, helping and inspiring others who are less fortunate.
“I knew I had to study something that would impact my community and my family and friends who are left there because, essentially, I’m the lucky one. I got the opportunity to study in the United States. That’s what kept me going.”
Before coming to Denver, Gomes attended an underprivileged high school in Los Angeles, where one teacher assured her class they would all “end up in jail or married to someone in jail.” She and her sister had moved to California to join their father in 2011 in search of an education.
Finding hope scarce among her classmates, Gomes used hard work and her infectious positive attitude to fuel a college dream, encouraging others to join her in her vision. “We can do this,” she would tell them.
Keeping the faith
After graduating, Gomes moved to Denver with her sister, where they rented an apartment with only $50 to spare. It was a scary time, she said.
But the two were fighters, and Gomes quickly found a job at Wal-Mart, where she would work 50-plus hours a week during college. “I was happy every single day I worked. I told myself I had only 50 dollars once, and I’m not going back.”
Pondering community college, Gomes stumbled upon CU Denver while exploring its campus in the heart of the city. She found its science buildings, learned it had a health program and sensed it held her future.
“It just felt like it was the place I had to be,” Gomes said. So certain it was her destiny, Gomes applied only to CU Denver. Then her application was denied.
“I was heartbroken,” she said. Gomes called the admissions office right away. “I remember I cried on the phone, and I said: I swear, this is where I’m meant to be.”
Many tearful calls later, Gomes got a call back. “Come to the school to pick up your acceptance letter,” she was told. When handing Gomes her letter, the director who made the decision said: “You are so persistent, and you sound like you know what you want to do. Now go and do it.”
But Gomes’ celebration was short-lived. She soon learned first-year students must live with a parent or on campus. “My sister was all I had, and I couldn’t afford student housing,” Gomes said. And the tears returned.
This time, however, Gomes had an advocate: the TRiO Student Support Services on campus, whose office would become a fixture during her time at CU Denver. The federally-funded TRiO programs are aimed at guiding first-generation, low-income and minority students, as well as students with disabilities, toward success.
“I went in and was like: You guys have to help me with this. I tried so hard to get here,” said Gomes, who has since served as a mentor for the program and as president of the Society of TRiO Students Club. “From then on, they helped me every step of the way.”
With the aid of TRiO, Gomes completed two independent studies in Sub-Saharan health, returning to her native country to assess the effects of the Civil War on the health system and traveling to another region to collect health data on infectious diseases.
‘I kept that hope in me’
No stranger to the communicable illnesses and lack of accessible health care that plague her country, losing friends and family to diseases, such as yellow fever, and suffering malaria herself, Gomes wants to return to improve public health either as an epidemiologist or a physician.
“There’s a dire need for doctors,” said Gomes, who plans to teach her community preventative measures, from washing hands to using mosquito nets. “People are dying from things they shouldn’t be dying from.”
Wherever her next step leads, Gomes said she will come back to Denver, pausing a moment to fight back tears.
“Denver is home: the people, the university, TRiO,” she said. “They all helped me so much. “It was extremely hard,” Gomes said of both her life and college journey, which she began barely knowing English. “But it made me who I am today. And I kept that hope in me in some mysterious way.”