By Doug McPherson
As he graduates from Metropolitan State University of Denver, Saya “Ted” Richthofen has no problem telling you he’s a transgender male.
As a freshman? Not the case.
“When I started studying here, I wasn’t yet out as transgender,” Richthofen says. “I’ve had to navigate a unique and sometimes unknown path towards my success at MSU Denver.”
That path is lined with academic success, plus enough self-understanding and personal growth to assist other students to accept themselves. Now, that path also includes recognition as the University’s President’s Award winner for Spring 2019.
And when he takes the commencement stage this Friday to accept that award, Richthofen may very well be the first transgender man to speak at a Colorado university commencement ceremony.
“I’m proud to live in a time and go to a school where this is possible,” he says. “And I’m proud I’m out and that I can be there for people who don’t have a role model.”
It's fitting that in one of his final acts as a member of the MSU Denver community, his commencement speech will provide support and set a positive example for those dealing with identity issues.
“Through my transition, I felt a bit alone and scared – I didn’t know anyone else who was trans, so I was determined to be a supportive example for others, to be the person I never had,” Richthofen says. “I take pride in feeling that I can be a safe resource for students questioning their identities.”
Identity difficulties are surprisingly high on campus, Richthofen says, estimating that about one third of the students he has met have shared identity struggles with him.
It is his firm belief that hatred and discrimination can be stopped with compassion, empathy and an openness to speak to everybody.
“It is through these gentle conversations that I believe the Auraria Campus has become a safer, more inclusive space for all students within the MSU Denver community,” he says. “In my mind, the changing and broadening of one’s worldview are integral parts of higher education.”
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Megan Hughes-Zarzo, Ph.D., director of MSU Denver’s Honors Program, witnessed part of Richthofen’s journey as he chose to share aspects of his experience with peers.
“I’ve seen him engage in thoughtful conversations on personal topics in a way that … allows for candid expression of human experience,” Hughes-Zarzo says.
Meg Frisbee, associate professor of history, isn’t surprised he won the President’s Award. Richthofen is “a campus leader, a good person and among the highest achieving students I’ve worked with,” she says.
Beyond his work helping others, Richthofen juggled school, full-time work, four leadership posts in campus organizations and countless hours of community service. All while maintaining a 3.95 GPA as a history major who has presented his research around the country.
Up next for Richthofen are graduate and doctoral studies; his sights are set on working as a researcher, writer, scholar and professor of American history and culture.
His take on history reflects his passion around acceptance and inclusion.
“I’ll be honest, I get a bit bored by the same old history we hear over and over again – especially about wars,” he says. “History isn’t just about these few pompous men and their ego-driven destructive paths to power and glory.”
What does excite him about history is exploring stories of those who forged ahead despite pain and persecution.
“As I started to question my own reality as puberty struck, I sought comfort from those who came before me. Would the world treat me as horribly as they were treated? These are the pasts that make the world what it is today. I became determined to shift the historical narrative.”
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