Marilyn Thayer, a Hawaii native, came to the mainland with a passion for education and the dedication to accomplish her goals. After graduating from the University of Hawaii with a degree in education, she decided to leave home in pursuit of a teaching job. At the time, there was an oversaturation of teachers in Hawaii, and her brother was working in the College of Engineering at CSU. Thayer came to stay with her brother in Fort Collins, but found her first teaching job — and subsequent dose of culture shock — in a rural Nebraska classroom where she taught special education.
After two years in Nebraska, Thayer returned to Colorado in hopes of continuing her career in education, even outside of the classroom, and soon met her husband-to-be, Paul, who also works at the University. Thayer heard about a project being administered by the College of Applied Human Sciences (now the College of Health and Human Sciences), which was funded by a federal grant from the U.S. Department of Education. Marilyn was hired for the project, called Even Start Family Centered Learning, and began working in one of the most high-need neighborhoods in Fort Collins.
“The intent of the grant was to really look at education as a strategy to help families break out of the cycle of illiteracy,” Thayer said. “This was very compatible with my philosophy and allowed us to start considering how we work with children at a much younger age. We wanted to acknowledge and honor the role of parents as the first teachers of their children, and look at education in a very holistic way.”
Thayer continued her involvement in this community for 17 years. The families she worked with were the most at-risk in the Fort Collins community, with high dropout rates, low levels of literacy and concentrations of families speaking a language other than English at home. Thayer knew that these community members had many other unmet needs, and as the trust built between the program and the community, these concerns were revealed.
“This was the sort of project that continued to evolve as we learned more about the people that we served,” Thayer said. “And as they started to trust us more, they would open up about other services that they would like to see offered through the program. We secured a grant from Housing and Urban Development to provide secure, stable living conditions for our community. Many don’t realize that there is a housing crisis in Fort Collins. Many residents who may not have the legal status or financial means to buy or rent their own home are living doubled-up in mobile homes.”
The last four years of the program were funded by a Substance Abuse Mental Health Services (SAMHSA) grant to serve the unmet mental health needs of the families. This grant enabled Thayer and her co-workers to start deconstructing the stigma surrounding mental health services.
“We were able to provide trauma-informed care, which was an opportunity for the youth and the families, as well as the neighborhoods, to start truly healing from the trauma that they were experiencing in their lives,” she explained. “We focused on three kinds of trauma: living in chronic poverty; being surrounded by violent conditions where gangs are prevalent; and the whole immigration experience.”
Take services to another level
Thayer viewed this as an opportunity to take their services to another level. When the project ended, she was able to bring that exemplary level of service back to campus in her capacity as director of the Academic Advancement Center, a role she has filled since August 2013. Thayer works with students in the TRIO Programs, which are federal outreach and student services programs designed to identify and provide educational and support services for individuals from underrepresented backgrounds.
The Academic Advancement Center is a Student Support Services program, which is one of the original three TRIO programs that evolved from the Educational Opportunity Act of 1965 as part of President Lyndon Johnson’s war on poverty. For Thayer, her interaction with students is the most valuable facet of her 20 years with CSU.
“Getting to know the students on a very personal level has been a defining feature of my experience here. I think that’s very special,” she said. “And helping students start to change their mindsets to the point where they start believing that they can do it; that we do believe in them; that they have the assets and they have what it takes to do well here.”
Work hard, play hard
She and Paul are both committed to the ideals of access to education. Paul works as the Associate Vice President for Student Affairs, and focuses on the issues of retention. Their interest and belief in education and the universal capacity to learn has provided them with a very focused and dedicated path. Marilyn and Paul both sit on the board for Trees, Water, People, a local nonprofit. They have two children with whom they like to spend time outdoors.
“In our family we have a motto of working hard and playing hard,” Marilyn said. “We have two really special things that we do together. In the winter, we love to go skiing and go to the mountains together as often as possible. And in the summer, we have a long standing tradition of doing an outdoor wilderness canoe trip in Canada. Just outside the Boundary Waters in Minnesota is a place called the Quetico, which is our Disneyland. We’ve been going to the Quetico for 21 years now; it’s a real tradition and such a magical place for our family.”
We thank Marilyn for her 20 years of dedicated service to Colorado State University, and her genuine contribution to the land-grant mission of access in higher education.