Ben Gallegos-Pardo, 32, wants what’s best for his state. After all, he’s had relatives living in what is now Colorado for the past 400 years.
Coordinator of multicultural retention at Pikes Peak Community College, Gallegos-Pardo displays his Colorado pride alongside that for his immigrant heritage — his father is a native of Bogotá, Colombia.
His position was implemented this year to help all PPCC students, and especially underrepresented students, connect with resources at the college with the end goal of making it to graduation day or a four-year college.
Gallegos-Pardo spoke with the Business Journal this week about his push for educational equity and giving back to the city he calls his own.
Where are you from?
I’m proud to say I’m local. I was born in Greeley but moved here when I was 6 months old and grew up on the Westside. There are a bunch of quirky people over there. But I’m the first in my family who is a local. My father is from Bogotá and he moved to northern Colorado in the early to mid-’80s. On my mom’s side we’re Mexican-American, Chicano-American. They’ve been in New Mexico and the San Luis Valley for 400-plus years.
How did you get into education?
I went to CSU originally wanting to go into immigration and international law. I got my degree in social science with a political science emphasis. In school I fell in love with community activism and education in general. I worked with different groups within the community in Fort Collins and growing up here. My goals definitely shifted. Education is a huge passion of mine and my family. My mom’s side of the family is all educators, teachers. But I also come from entrepreneurs. My dad came to this country with no formal higher education and he started a business and chased the American dream with his printing shop.
I saw myself in both worlds. Education is fantastic and a key to success, but I also wanted to work with youth and find out what education means to them. You don’t need to become a lawyer or a doctor or whatever to be successful. If you have a skill, let’s build that skill.
What did you do after graduating from college?
I moved back to Colorado Springs. I had a young family at the time. I have three kids and I had my first daughter when I was a junior in college. … I moved back here and immediately began working with [Colorado Springs School] District 11 as a community liaison for [English as a second language] learners. I worked out of Monroe Elementary School and was in charge of all elementary schools as far as the ESL population. The population isn’t all Spanish speaking, but because I’m bilingual and that was their largest [foreign] language population, I was hired to translate everything from parent-teacher conferences, … [Individual Education Programs] and be part of behavioral interventions. Even then I was working with students who had the most barriers to staying in school.
I did that for 3½ years. The crazy thing is, there are students I helped as first-graders now enrolling as freshmen in college. Even though I’m not old, I’m seeing a whole new cycle — kids I saw early in my career when they were 8 and now they’re 18 and going to college. That’s a cool feeling.
What happened after District 11?
My wife and I decided we wanted to go into the business side of things and we opened a restaurant. It was downtown behind The Famous [steakhouse] called Café Corto. It was a great experience and we won seven or eight awards [from local publications].
That was a whole new world. [My wife and I] worked every position in the restaurant business growing up. It’s a whole new beast owning it and by then we’d had our second daughter. We were young, owned a business and with great successes there were also lessons learned. After three years we finished our lease … and the building was going through a sale so we didn’t renew it. … It was a humbling experience but we loved it. Part of it showed me I wanted to stick with education and share the lessons I learned from my entrepreneurial endeavors… . We finished with the restaurant in 2014 and, at the time, I said I knew I wanted to be in education. I did some higher education outreach and then was with Big Brothers Big Sisters for three years where I worked with high schoolers and creating curriculum. … Then there was an opportunity to come here to Pikes Peak Community College, which is a direct carryover of what I’ve been doing. I started at the elementary school level, moved up to high school and now I’m at the college level.
Talk about your position at PPCC.
I’m the coordinator of multicultural retention. I work within the Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion. It’s a brand new position.
We do a fantastic job getting students to Pikes Peak Community College, but we want to keep them here. It’s not enough to get them through the doors. My role is to help students figure out what their goal is and then complete that goal — not leave in the first semester or the first year. In college and especially community college, students might be the first in their family [to pursue higher education] and might find a little culture shock or it’s a little out of the norm and uncomfortable, so they leave in the first year.
They come here for a reason and have goals and aspirations. We don’t want them to come out of here with a bad taste in their mouth. We want to work with students to find out how to support them and keep them here.
Do you focus on certain student populations?
Our best practices are for all students but the realities of the data for K-through-12 education, and higher education specifically, is that male students of color aren’t performing at the level we’d like them to be at. My whole career’s been working with underrepresented communities which is what I’m looking at here — Hispanic, Latino, African-American as well as our Native American population.
What are the challenges to graduation?
This is not just a Pikes Peak Community College thing. If you look at higher education in general, there are these equity gaps. I think what causes these gaps is a one-size-fits-all approach — just assuming that everybody has this issue or this deficit. Really it’s a holistic approach. There are socioeconomic issues. Like within our Hispanic community there may be some individuals who have issues with [Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals] and legal status issues. But also within our communities — I grew up blue collar. When I was looking at programs to help, they were looking for the poorest or those from the worst conditions. But that’s not necessarily the same story for everybody. There are just some challenges students have who are in the middle of the road. I’m not poor. I’m not dumb. I don’t have a sob story about why I need support. I just need help navigating the waters.
There are so many things going on on campus where students aren’t connecting and my job is coordinating those with students’ exact needs — a mentoring program, a social service program. We have a huge military population [in need of resources].
What’s your assessment of educational equity in the Springs?
Demographics have been changing here over time and we’re in such a unique position now for the Springs historically. I think some of our leaders and longtime institutions are having a hard time figuring out what this change means. … I’ve been impressed though with the steps the city’s taking to become a vibrant and more accepting and welcoming city than we were in the early 2000s. It has changed and I think it’s fantastic.
One thing I try to message to youth here is that it’s worth investing your time. I know you want to get out of Colorado Springs and experience the world. I’ve traveled a lot and have been lucky enough to have family outside the country. It’s the whole ‘grass is greener on the other side’ concept and people don’t realize how great Colorado Springs is until they leave. … I think Colorado Springs is welcoming and understanding and is a diverse place, but what I still think Colorado Springs has a hard time doing is embracing that from a systemic level and embracing those conversations.
With changing demographics we need leadership across the board — from government to nonprofits to education and economics — to be leaders of brave conversations about what change means. Because one group is doing well or we’re focusing on closing a gap does not take away from another group. It doesn’t mean this other group isn’t as important.
Editor’s note: This article has been corrected with the accurate spelling of Gallegos-Pardo.