DENVER — Nimol Hen can't help but reflect on her own journey when talking about the students in the CU Denver program she helped start.
"I've heard students share the same kinds of experiences around their unique challenges as first gen and multicultural students," she said.
When Hen was a young child, she came to the U.S. as a child refugee.
"So I draw a lot on my own personal experiences with navigating college as a first gen student, helping my parents navigate a brand new country and navigate systems that are really complex," she said.
Hen was well aware of the impact higher education had on her life, and after about two decades with CU Denver, she played a pivotal role in forming its First Generation and Multicultural Business Program (FaM).
"I know how important and impactful it is to have a champion in your corner," she said. "Someone who does understand the unique challenges and the unique strengths that first gen and multicultural students have to really excel when they're given the right support systems, and people, and resources and opportunities to do college really well and prepare themselves for careers that they eventually hope to change systems and cycles and contribute back to the communities from which they come."
A focus on inclusivity
The program's first cohort kicked off this fall, and Hen estimates nearly 90 students are in it so far.
That group is made up of students with multicultural backgrounds and students who are the first in their families to attend college.
"Many of our students in this cohort not only attend school full time, but they're working," she said. "They've got familial obligations. They've got these beyond-school pushes and pulls."
The program provides better access to paid internships, scholarships, mentor opportunities, site visits and experiential learning.
"This need for networking and building an inclusive network is absolutely critically important for this group of students," she said.
On a Friday morning, a room was filled with energy as students completed a simulation on inclusive leadership, as part of the program's workshop.
Junior Antonia Verduzco describes the program as a sort of full circle moment for her.
"I wasn't really able to build that community since I was one of the only first-generation and multicultural students in my school," Verduzco said. "And now being here, it's just a whole completely different world that I never thought would be possible for me."
Verduzco came to the U.S. when she was around 4 years old from Nogales, Sonora, Mexico.
She described the program's environment as a community.
"I already have met other students that are from Mexico that are first-generation, just like me," she said. "It's such a sense of inclusivity in this program."
Just weeks into the program, she said, she has already gone on site visits, including to the Denver Zoo for a networking event.
"So the FaM program has really been a good stepping stool into the business world and has provided so many opportunities that I don't think I would have had otherwise," she said.
Understanding that leads to teaching
Hen also understood what it meant to have mentors help navigate the process of attaining opportunities like internships.
It's why there's also a built-in student mentorship piece to the program, where younger students are paired with more senior students.
"I understood what it meant to have trusted resources, people at the campus who could help me navigate this really complicated system of higher education," she said.
Hen also acknowledged that opportunities haven't always been evenly offered to students who identify as first-gen or multicultural, which is why she's working to have this program reimagine their student experience.
"The innovations, the creativity, the problem solving that comes with the first generation or multicultural student experience is is really an amazing, powerful lived experience that then feeds into a creative and adaptive mindset," Hen said. "So really elevating their opportunities to connect with people and resources and stabilities that may not always exist for first-gen and multicultural students."
As of right now, there's just one professor who teaches courses under the program, but Hen hopes to expand that, as well as the number of students, year after year.
"So it's a system where it's structured where students can decide which workshops, which networking opportunities they can attend based on their availability, their interests, their career plans," Hen said. "My hope in my heart is that a program like FaM that is centered on elevating opportunities for all students, including our historically underrepresented students -- that's focused on leadership, service and career -- gets replicated in other areas."
SUGGESTED VIDEOS: Education stories from 9NEWS