Ben Gallegos-Pardo has experienced the stereotyping that, as coordinator of diversity, equity and inclusion at Pikes Peak Community College, he’s seeking to overcome.
“Yes, there’s been people that have heard me speak Spanish with family members in the store, and immediately have said, ‘Go back to your country,’” he said.
But Gallegos-Pardo was born in Greeley and has lived in Colorado Springs since he was a baby. He grew up on the Westside in a family with deep roots in the Mexican culture of the San Luis Valley on his mother’s side; his father immigrated here from Colombia.
Gallegos-Pardo, 33, graduated from St. Mary’s High School, then went to Colorado State University in Greeley, intending to get a degree in international law. He earned a degree in social science and political science, then returned to Colorado Springs with a desire to make the community in which he grew up a better place.
His mother was a teacher who recently retired from Colorado Springs School District 11, and Gallegos-Pardo followed in her footsteps.
His first job out of college was as a community liaison working with people for whom English was a second language. He then worked with Big Brothers Big Sisters’ mentorship and sports buddies programs and did outreach for the Catholic Diocese of Colorado Springs and Corpus Christi Catholic School. At the same time, he and his wife opened a Colombian coffee house and fusion café in downtown Colorado Springs called Café Corto. The café closed in 2014 when its building went up for sale.
Three years ago, he was hired by Pikes Peak Community College as an admissions specialist.
“I just gravitated toward diversity and inclusion,” he said. “Working with youth and working within the education field just rubbed off on me.”
A year ago, he was named coordinator of diversity, equity and inclusion at PPCC, working with various groups of students to improve their educational experience and running a multicultural retention initiative. He is a finalist for a 2019 Mayor’s Young Leader Award.
Gallegos-Pardo spoke with the Business Journal about confronting stereotypes, how diversity supports businesses, and the community he wants to build for his three children.
What drew you to PPCC?
I think one thing that drew me to the college was the mission to serve the community. The college’s mission is that each community has its needs and its demographics. And this is serving the need for not just trades but a great quality education that’s affordable. You’ve got people here from all walks of life. You’ve got your traditional students coming out of high school, but you’ve also got your students that are doing a career change or are part of the military and they’re wanting to learn a new skill. And education is a big equalizer in society. There’s also different industries that our school can help support — construction, health care, education, the tech world, culinary arts. The fact that you can go here and get a great education without having to have the horrors of debt is something that I value.
What is the mission of your department?
Our enrollment has been on a great path for the last five years. So we had no problem getting students here, but once we get them here, how are we best serving them? How are we making sure that they’re completing their goals and their degrees? That’s where there were some gaps here on campus. There’s a gap specifically with our African American males and our Latino males that are not achieving and succeeding at the same rate as the overall campus. I was brought onto the diversity, equity and inclusion team to do programming and outreach that could tackle that issue. I started the United Men of Color program to provide mentorship, leadership development and a community of brotherhood, specifically around strength-based outreach. I did not want to look at any student demographic from a deficit. I want to say, ‘What do you bring to the table? What are you currently doing, both in your community at school and the greater community, to look at providing leadership pathways for you?’ So this was our first program. We do a monthly dinner, as well as bringing a speaker that comes from the community that has overcome adversity and has seen the value both of education and entrepreneurship. We have since grown it to do outreach to our local schools.
What is the multicultural retention initiative?
It is looking at different programming on issues going on within different cultural entities. We’re looking at rural communities, cultural identity, age difference — different outlets to educate the campus as well as provide support and services for them on campus. We have an initiative called Real Talk, which is a women’s forum. We have different cultural clubs; we’ve got LGBTQ, we’ve got the Black Student Union and Latino Student Union. We have Turning Point USA, which is a conservative outreach and club campus group. Each one of those is seen as a unique group on campus that has different needs and different perspectives that we want to support.
What’s your favorite thing about your job?
I think my favorite thing is confronting stereotypes and proving them wrong. Any student that comes in has what you see on the outside, but they’re navigating a world where they’ve got different expectations, different identities and stereotypes that they’re trying to confront. And I feel like I can help them do that. And the second thing is the diversity of this job. I work with every single type of student, all age ranges, all identities. Whatever their goal is, is going to be my goal.
The other side of that coin is generating more acceptance in students who are not considered diverse or members of a minority group. Does your work involve programs or outreach that would help accomplish that goal?
All of those programs and all of our outreach is for any and every student on campus. Every program is open to all communities. So our military and veteran programming supports all their programming as well as highlight the uniqueness of our military families and students. Like I said, we have Turning Point USA, which is a conservative group on campus. And so even though they don’t seem as quote unquote diverse, their thought process and their programming is seen as something that is unique and is a need. We do training for all of our staff and faculty on how to be culturally diverse and culturally appropriate teaching.
Inclusiveness for everyone is the ultimate goal. When people are able to come together and learn about people from different backgrounds and different religious identity, that encourages inclusivity. There’s so much more that we have in common once you sit down and provide a space for people to talk it out. … I encourage anybody in our community to come participate in one of our events. Any of these things are open to the community. Come and open yourself up to some different educational opportunities.
How does the college deal with the issue of undocumented people on campus?
Any student on campus, regardless of their status, ethically has to be served, and we need to provide the best service and education to them. They’re paying for school, and so we support them, just as any student that comes here. We don’t specifically ask it. I mean, it’s not a good practice. Just go around and ask people what their status is? That lends itself to profiling. … From my experience, most of the students that have come out as saying they’re undocumented are some of the best students that we have on campus. And so once that they feel comfortable enough to let us know that that’s their status, we serve them and we go above and beyond to make sure that they’re welcome here.
How do your programs help support the needs of our local employers?
I think that’s where I get most excited. We’re taking a large group of students — you know, we’re 18,000 students — and we’re preparing them for practical knowledge, practical skills. And they’re able to enter the workforce and be not just another employee, but they’re going to be leaders within their industry. We’re not hindering them with large amounts of student debt. And so they’re able to go in and buy more goods, buy houses, start businesses. And I think that’s a huge win for us as a community.
We’ve got relationships with the Chamber of Commerce & EDC, the Black Chamber of Commerce, the [Southern Colorado]Women’s Chamber of Commerce. I’m on the board of Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. Something that we do specifically is diversify the group of the Quad [Innovation Partnership, which connects students from PPCC, the Air Force Academy and Colorado College]. Those students have such a unique and hands-on experience of solving real issues for our community. …
What we’re doing here is providing a better space for my kids and other kids in the community. You know, when you’ve got more productive community members, it’s a safer place for family. I want them to have the same community-oriented outlook so that hopefully in 20 years, they’re here in Colorado Springs, making it a better place as well, or at least trying to.
What would you say to other young professionals about diversity and inclusion and how they can help make this a better place?
I think it’s important for everybody to value differences. It’s within those differences that you find a lot of really good, unique ideas, and unique outcomes. For the professionals specifically, I would say just throw yourself out there to uncomfortable experiences and conversations. Volunteer for an organization that works with people that are different than you. Work within a demographic that is different from who you hang out with on the weekends. Find a place to go and learn and interact with those who are not in that circle. I think that’s going to help them professionally in the long run.