CSU System-Minds Matter partnership makes college a reality for students

Colorado State University System and Minds Matter are partnering to help high-achieving, low-income students achieve their college dreams. Photo courtsey of Evan Semón Photography

In a first-of-its-kind partnership, Colorado State University System and Minds Matter are working together to ensure a clear pathway to college for high-achieving, low-income students across the state.

“Working with partners like Minds Matter is one way that we, as a land-grant institution, can deliver on our belief that all people with the talent and motivation to earn a degree from our university, regardless of their background, race, gender, social status, religion, or beliefs, deserve that opportunity,” said Leslie A. Taylor, vice president of the Division of Enrollment and Access at CSU in Fort Collins.

CSU System formalized a partnership, this year, with the Colorado chapter of the national organization, to grant conditional enrollment to Minds Matter graduates to CSU in Fort Collins, CSU-Pueblo, or CSU Global.

Minds Matter is a three-year mentorship program designed to prepare students from low-income families for college and careers through weekly college prep, mentoring, and enrichment experiences. All of the program’s graduates have completed high school, attended summer programs on college campuses, received academic scholarships, and been accepted to four-year colleges and universities.

“CSU-Pueblo is dedicated to initiatives like Minds Matter that help Colorado students achieve their dreams without having to leave the state,” said Chrissy Holliday, vice president of Enrollment Management, Communication, and Student Affairs at CSU-Pueblo. “This partnership represents another way to make more students aware of the support available to them.”

Since its founding in 2004, Minds Matter Denver has graduated nearly 140 Colorado students – 17 of whom have enrolled at CSU in Fort Collins, and two of whom have enrolled at CSU-Pueblo – with an expected increase in enrollment through the partnership.

“We are excited to support the work of Minds Matter and look forward to building new pathways for students to earn career-relevant degrees and certificates,” said Andrew Dixon, assistant vice president of marketing for CSU Global.

Minds Matter’s high school curriculum demonstrates participating students’ academic rigor, including an expected unweighted GPA of 3.0 or higher, as well as scholarship-level SAT and ACT performance.

“We know our students deserve nothing but the best; that’s why Minds Matter exists – to help our students achieve the college access they deserve based on their merits and their efforts to succeed,” said Minds Matter Executive Director Savinay Chandrasekhar.

“We’re so excited that our partners at the CSU System have stepped up to show how committed they are to have our students enroll across all CSU institutions,” Chandrasekhar said.

Overcoming obstacles

When Alyssa Ledesma entered her freshman year at Denver’s West Early College in 2015, both of her parents were serving jail sentences and she and her five sisters moved in with their grandparents. While her sisters provided some support, she didn’t see them as “reliable role models” – her two oldest sisters became pregnant in their teens, and both left college before receiving diplomas.

“I used school as my distraction. I built close relationships with my teachers because I was able to tell them about my home life – the home life that I was often too embarrassed to tell my friends about,” Ledesma recalled. “Most people anticipated the same future for me – pregnant at 16 and dropping out of school.”

Determined to prove them wrong, Ledesma focused on her studies and completed her freshman year with a 4.0 GPA, an achievement that qualified her for an opportunity that would change her life’s trajectory. During her freshmen honors biology class, a small slip of yellow paper appeared on her desk: an invitation to attend an information session with Minds Matter Denver.

Ledesma’s Social Studies teacher Daniel Walter, familiar with the program, recommended she attend the session and encouraged her to apply, which she did. Minds Matter accepted her application, and she began attending weekly mentoring sessions at the start of her sophomore year, with three adult mentors and a fellow mentee from a neighboring high school.

Alyssa Ledesma addresses the audience at the annual Minds Matter Casino Night in Denver.

Alyssa Ledesma addresses the audience at the annual Minds Matter Casino Night in Denver.

With support from her Minds Matter mentors, Ledesma submitted nearly 30 scholarship applications, applied to five universities, and graduated eighth in her class with a final GPA of 3.9. She was accepted into four of the five schools, including her top choice – CSU in Fort Collins – where she plans to study political science and education.

Ledesma hopes to use her education to support advocacy groups working to address and eliminate the education gap experienced by minorities and low-income families and students.

In April 2019, Ledesma delivered a short speech during Minds Matter’s annual Casino Night fundraiser in Denver. She openly shared her family’s challenges and highlighted the integral role Minds Matter played in helping her overcome some of the obstacles commonly faced by low-income students – gang violence, youth pregnancy, lack of parental guidance, absenteeism.

“Minds Matter supported me – financially, academically, and emotionally,” she said to the crowd.

Shortly after leaving the podium, two families approached Ledesma and offered to cover the remaining balance of her CSU tuition.

This fall, Ledesma will begin classes at CSU along with two other Minds Matter Denver graduates, with all tuition expenses paid in-full through scholarships and financial aid.

Opening doors 

Ndey Hydara – one of three Minds Matter Denver graduates attending CSU in the fall – will be the first in her family to pursue a college degree.

Hydara lived in Gambia from age 2 to 11 before returning to the U.S. to continue her education. She took English learning development classes to improve her language skills, served for three years on the Student Leadership team at Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Early College, and was elected as the school’s Student Culture Ambassador in 2019.

“I heard about Minds Matter from my counselor [and current Minds Matter site lead] Hap Legg, who told me there was an open spot for a junior and Mr. Legg told me about the opportunities that they present to you,” said Hydara, who was inspired to apply after witnessing the impact the program had made on some of her peers.

Hydara plans to study international business and biochemistry at CSU, with the goal of pursuing a career in healthcare. She believes that the world needs medicine and that having more medical professionals will create additional opportunities for people to access healthcare.

With plans to follow a pre-medical track, Hydara is especially excited about the new medical school branch in Fort Collins that CSU is launching in partnership with the University of Colorado School of Medicine.

As part of her Minds Matter curriculum, Hydara participated in CSU’s Black Issues Forum (BIF) during the summer after her sophomore year. BIF provides students with opportunities to demonstrate and enhance written and oral communication skills while developing their leadership potential through focused dialogues on today’s most pressing issues affecting the African American community at local, national, and global levels.

Ndey Hydara holding Sean "Ranch" Lough scholarship check, which will cover the entire cost of her CSU tuition.

Ndey Hydara holding Sean “Ranch” Lough scholarship check, which will cover the entire cost of her CSU tuition.

The following summer, Hydara completed a three-month Medical Career Collaborative (MC2) internship program at Children’s Hospital, where she gained hands-on career experience alongside medical professionals in a hospital setting.

“I am truly grateful to Minds Matter for making me realize that I deserve to go to college and for giving me the tools and resources to make sure I have a successful future,” said Hydara. “Minds Matter has played a huge role in shaping the person that I am today, as well as my future.”

Mentorship: a two-way street

Zoey DeWolf, board chair of Minds Matter Denver, volunteered to serve as one of three adult mentors who supported Ledesma and another mentee through the pair’s high school graduation.

DeWolf found inspiration in Ledesma’s work ethic and dedication, and the two were quick to find common ground. Growing up in Lead, S.D., as the only person of color in her high school class, DeWolf was familiar with some of the barriers and challenges Ledesma had encountered leading up to and during her mentorship experience with Minds Matter.

“Alyssa is a great representative of the students Minds Matter serves. There are so few resources and so many obstacles for our students,” said DeWolf. “We are so happy that we were able to work with Alyssa over three years to support her, offer guidance where helpful, help her expand her horizons, and allow her to start fulfilling that potential, and we’re excited for CSU to continue helping Alyssa on her journey.”

“The beauty of Minds Matter is that it’s a community of helpers,” DeWolf said. “Once you get into it you know that the people you meet are there for the right reasons.”

Through Minds Matter, DeWolf discovered mentors of her own in the two professionals who joined her in supporting Ledesma and her fellow mentee.

“The women that I had the opportunity to mentor with were outstanding human beings that I would not have come in contact with in my typical political circle,” she said. “They’re my mentors for life now.”

As Minds Matter grows its network of mission-aligned partners and dedicated volunteer mentors like DeWolf, Chandrasekhar has set a goal for the organization to serve every eligible student in Colorado by 2027 – a goal he sees as beneficial for the entire state.

Mentor Zoey DeWolf [left] and student Alyssa Ledesma [right] attending a speech from former first lady Michelle Obama at the Pepsi Center in December 2018.

Zoey DeWolf (left) and Alyssa Ledesma attending a speech from former first lady Michelle Obama at the Pepsi Center in December 2018.

“Talent is our next gold rush – 150 years ago, people were smart enough to look under the ground to find gold and realize the riches there; now, we’ll be smart enough to look into the communities we haven’t looked into and find that there are riches there, as well,” he said.

With degrees from CSU, both Ledesma and Hydara intend to bring their knowledge, skills, and passions back to their communities, to leave a positive, lasting impact on the socioeconomic and educational systems that they feel can prevent even the most dedicated and high-achieving students from reaching their dreams.

Reflecting on her experience and the path ahead, Ledesma shared words of encouragement for low-income students facing obstacles similar to those she worked so hard to overcome: “You determine your own future, and there’s always a chance. You’re not another statistic, so change your fate – it’s up to you.”

About the Colorado State University System

The Colorado State University System is comprised of three distinct universities: CSU, a leading public research university and the state’s only land-grant institution, located in Fort Collins; CSU-Pueblo, a regional-serving campus and federally designated Hispanic-Serving Institution; and CSU Global, the nation’s first fully accredited online university. The CSU System’s institutions serve nearly 60,000 students annually. Learn more about the CSU System and its institutions, projects, and partnerships at csusystem.edu.

About Minds Matter Denver

Minds Matter Denver is on a mission to prove that access, not ability, limits college success for Colorado students. We connect bright students from low-income families with the relationships and resources often reserved for more affluent peers, including: accomplished mentors who provide consistent guidance for three years, weekly college-prep instruction, and prestigious summer programs at top-tier universities. Learn more at mindsmatterdenver.org.