By Joseph Rios
Roadrunner red runs through Michael Lechuga’s veins.
Lechuga attended the Auraria Early Learning Center starting at age 3 while his mother, Stephanie Lechuga-Peña, Ph.D., completed her undergraduate studies at Metropolitan State University of Denver. And as he pursued his own education at MSU Denver, his aunt, Chalane Lechuga, Ph.D., an associate professor in the University’s Chicana/o Studies Department, was also on campus to support him.
Lechuga’s days on the Auraria Campus are coming to an end as he prepares to graduate Friday from MSU Denver with a degree in Exercise Science and a minor in Holistic Movement. He recently walked in the school’s Latinx Graduation ceremony, where Lechuga-Peña was there to give him his graduation cords. His aunt will present him with his diploma Friday at the University’s Commencement.
“It means everything to me. You can’t write a better story than that,” Lechuga said of graduating with his mother’s and aunt’s support. “I can’t put it into words, and it still hasn’t fully hit me yet.”
Not only was it convenient to have child care on campus, Lechuga-Peña recalled of her college career at MSU Denver, but it allowed her to see her son while she earned money in a work-study job at Campus Recreation.
“(The Auraria Early Learning Center) would bring the kids to the gym to use the facility, so I would get to see him when I was at the campus recreation center,” said Lechuga-Peña, who graduated from MSU Denver in 2002 with a degree in sociology and human services and went on to earn her master’s degree and doctorate from the University of Denver. She’s now an assistant professor at the Arizona State University School of Social Work.
As he prepares for graduation, it's the small details of his childhood on campus that linger. He recalled how a teacher at the Auraria Early Learning Center would walk him upstairs to meet his mother after her night classes. As an MSU Denver student, he walked those same stairs and even parked in the same garage where his mother parked more than 15 years ago.
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But his path to the Commencement stage – like that of many Roadrunners – had its fair share of zigs and zags. Lechuga graduated from Arvada West High School as a tennis recruit and started his college career at Colorado Mesa University, where he played on the tennis team. But baseball was on his mind, and he transferred to MSU Denver in 2015 with the hope of playing for the school’s baseball team; when things didn’t pan out, he set out for Hastings College in Nebraska to play for its baseball team. However, when Hastings wouldn’t accept his MSU Denver credits, Lechuga returned to the University in 2018 to finish his education.
Reflecting on his academic career, Lechuga said MSU Denver is the place he knew he wanted to be all along.
“I wanted to be a Denver kid and graduate from a Denver school. I always wanted to do the same thing my mom did,” he said. “I’ve always been a part of the (Auraria Campus) community, and it’s nice to be able to graduate from (MSU Denver) as well.”
Now, Lechuga’s eyes are on the future – he’s applying for graduate programs around the country and aspires to work in the public health field to assist underrepresented communities.
He credits his mentor Summer Sides, an MSU Denver exercise-science lecturer, for helping him lay out a career path and lauds the University for the way it treats students as people, which he said challenged him to complete his degree.
“I’ve learned to grow into my own person and student – and there’s a difference,” said Lechuga. “As a student, I was able to learn how to complete my studies, and I even learned how to study (at the MSU Denver Writing Center). But as a person, (MSU Denver) allows you to grow into your own person. I think they do a really good job at preparing you for what’s to come.”
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