By Matt Watson
Juan Palacios’ goal when he started mentoring his peers was just to reach one person. When he enrolled in college at age 23 with more life experience than many of his fellow students, including some experiences he wanted to put behind him, the first-generation student just wanted to help others.
“When I was a teenager I got into some things that I shouldn’t have, so if I can reach at least one person and keep them out of the trouble that I got into, that’s a win,” Palacios said.
Earlier this fall, Palacios was one of 25 men and women honored by Mayor Michael B. Hancock for helping far more than one person. The Roadrunner was the only student among Denver’s second annual MBK25 class, a group of community leaders recognized as part of the city's My Brother’s Keeper program, part of the national initiative created by former President Barack Obama in 2014 to address persistent opportunity gaps faced by boys and young men of color.
“These fantastic individuals are on the ground having a real impact in the effort to empower the lives of boys and young men of color across our city, and we cannot put into words the gratitude we have for them stepping up to make a difference,” Hancock said. “These are unheralded folks who are about the work, not the limelight, so it’s a huge pleasure for me when we can showcase them and the important work they are doing.”
Palacios, nominated by MSU Denver’s Center for Equity and Student Achievement and the Center for Urban Education, was honored alongside college administrators, nonprofit founders and city and state officials, impressive company for a college junior. It wasn’t lost on Juan Gallegos, coordinator of the Brother to Brother program, that Palacios was surrounded by people twice his age.
“He should take it as an honor that he was recognized at his age for what he’s already been able to do,” Gallegos said. “A lot of these men and women are doing this as a career. That’s what they get paid to do. You’re looking at someone who has made this a part of his college experience.”
Palacios is a leader among leaders on campus, serving as a Brother to Brother peer leader and overseeing the other seven leaders in his fourth year in the program, which empowers men of color through mentorship, academic support and programming. The program has defined outcomes to complete by the end of the school year such as degree plan creation, financial aid form renewal and resume creation. Participants attend skill-building workshops, participate in community-building activities and complete community service.
“I care about the mission of Brother to Brother and helping young men of color. We go through some things in our lives that we don’t always get to talk about or don’t feel safe to talk about with others. To have that environment and that ability to communicate with each other and share those experiences and stories to help us get through whatever struggle we’re going through is a good thing,” Palacios said.
Palacios’ other service efforts include mentoring students from Denver Public Schools in a high school preparation summer camp and handy work at Cheltenham Elementary School.
“We would turn the soil, scrape paint off sheds, plant stuff, pull weeds, anything to provide a positive image of men of color in our community,” Palacios said. “It was cool because I got to see the little guys there at the school. There was a kindergarten class that came up – they were supposed to be playing outside but they all came to the fence and just wanted to talk to us.”
The K-12 physical education teacher education major plans to pursue a master’s in higher education affairs and continue on in community service long after he graduates.
“There aren’t a lot of students like him,” Gallegos said. “When you hear him talk about the mission, you know he gets it. This guy’s a gift to this campus.”
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