Presenting Kaia Renouf and Nohely Gonzalez, Liberal Arts Outstanding Grads
Anthropology | May 09, 2016
By Jeff Dodge and Mallory Baker, as appearing in SOURCE
When Kaia Renouf looks back at her struggles in high school, it makes her even more thankful for where she is now.
The California native grappled with substance abuse as a teen, but has now been clean for 11 years. She is graduating from CSU with a degree in anthropology after a college career marked by service, academic excellence and museum fieldwork.
But hers hasn’t been a traditional path. She switched high schools when she decided to change her life. After graduating spent five years in Portland, where she met her partner and soon-to-be wife, Asha Renouf.
“We moved to Colorado because we were ready for an adventure, and there were things here we wanted, like mountains and no one we knew,” Kaia says.
She got her associate’s degree at Front Range Community College. One of her FRCC instructors, Keri Canada, became a mentor — and the two ended up at CSU: Canada as an anthropology faculty member, Renouf as one of her students.
“She an incredible person and a wonderful teacher,” Renouf says of Canada. “We’ve become friends.”
Canada is just as effusive about her student.
“Kaia is absolutely amazing, and her story is really inspiring,” she says. “She had a rough start to her education and went through issues with substance abuse, but ultimately overcame everything and will graduate this spring with honors.”
In addition to being in the Honors Program, Renouf volunteers at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science, doing lab and field work. She created her own exhibit on Peace Corps volunteers at the Global Village Museum of Arts and Cultures in Fort Collins, and completed the anthropology department’s paleontology field school in Wyoming’s Bighorn Basin. Her Honors thesis focused on Coryphodon, a hippo-like mammal that went extinct for reasons that are still unknown. In addition to those activities, last fall she served as a mentor to at-risk youth in Campus Connections, formerly known as Campus Corps.
“If I had to go back and do one thing differently, it would be to get involved in Campus Connections earlier,” Renouf says. “It reinforced my belief that teenagers are the group I want to work with.”
Her dream job? Running a museum outreach program for at-risk youth.
“I think community involvement is a fundamental piece of keeping kids out of trouble,” Renouf says. “There wasn’t a whole lot to do in my hometown, and kids are going to come up with something to do. Having positive activities that treat them as adults is really important and undervalued.”
And her objectives extend to educating adults as well.
“I think a lot of problems in our society around how we perceive the world stem from misunderstandings of evolutionary biology,” she says. “Teaching people about that in nonthreatening ways is a fundamental challenge of being a scientist right now.”
Nohely Gonzalez is not only a first-generation college student but also a first-generation American. Her parents came to the United States from Mexico without knowing the country, the language or the people.
Gonzalez’s father worked at a beef-packing plant in Greeley, while her mother cleaned office buildings. Despite her humble beginnings, Gonzalez was set on the idea of going to college, and her parents constantly supported her in achieving her goals.
“To this day, I am still astounded to see how much I have accomplished in my life,” Gonzalez says. “I do not come from a family with money or a history of higher education — they couldn’t do anything more than encourage me to pursue my dreams.”
One of those dreams was fulfilled when the Upward Bound TRIO Program, a program run by the U.S. Department of Education, worked with Gonzalez during high school to support and encourage her to pursue higher education. Upward Bound helps high school students from low-income families as well as high school students from families in which neither parent holds a bachelor’s degree, enter and complete college.
“It gave me a fighting chance as a student of limited resources and allowed me to become a young, educated Hispanic woman,” Gonzalez says. “Their support and encouragement, their dedication to ensure the success of their students, has never left me feeling alone in this fight.”
CSU is the only Colorado higher education institution that serves students through all the TRIO programs, including Upward Bound and the Academic Advancement Center/Student Support Services program that assists students to obtain their bachelor’s degree. The support from TRIO encouraged Gonzalez to apply for the First Generation Award Program, Key Communities, President’s Leadership Program and Alternative Break service trips.
Gonzalez’s favorite memory at CSU is receiving the Jackson Distinguished First Generation Scholar award. “I had to get up and give a speech to everyone, and I have a huge fear of public speaking, so it was really cool to conquer that,” she says.
She also helped charter Colorado’s first chapter of the multicultural Kappa Delta Chi Sorority Inc., in 2013 with a group of women who had similar interests and concerns.
“I felt like there was no organization that I really fit in with,” Gonzalez says. “So I, along with seven other women, decided to bring a new sorority to campus. It was our home away from home.”
While she has held nearly every position in the sorority, Gonzalez currently serves as vice president and oversees all of the sorority’s committees.
Gonzalez has taken full advantage of her time at CSU, exploring different fields of study.
“When I came to CSU I didn’t know what I wanted to do, but I had a life sciences interest,” she says. “So when I came here I took a history class that talked about artifacts and evidence of human origins, and I thought it was super-cool.”
While she hasn’t decided if she wants to use her bachelor’s in anthropology to be Dr. Brennan from Bones or travel to Africa and dig for fossils, she is certain that she will be returning to school soon to earn her master’s degree.
“I wanted to go to graduate school, but I’m going to hold off,” she says. “It’s my dream to travel the world. I want to travel first so I don’t get tired of school, and just enjoy life.”