CU Denver sophomore Cinamon Romero felt nervous and overwhelmed as she prepared to travel to Spain in summer 2007 — her first international trip alone. She hoped to make new friends while studying abroad in a foreign country, but still, “I was scared,” she remembered. “I didn’t know what to expect, what to pack, or how I would even study in Barcelona.”

Cinamon Romero and Carmen Vandal

Before she even stepped foot on the plane, however, Cinamon met a woman who would change her life—Carmen Vandal, a fellow student. The two met through TRiO, an innovative mentorship program at CU Denver. Their life-long friendship, which has continued long after both graduated, would not only allay Cinamon’s immediate concerns about international travel, but would change both of their futures well beyond her upcoming trip to Spain.

Intervention and inspiration

Cinamon enrolled in college because she “knew it was the right thing to do,” but didn’t know what the next steps were. “I felt totally lost and intimidated,” she said. “In high school, I worked hard, but I didn’t have a dream to be anything. I didn’t even know how to study. Graduating from college, even passing my classes, quickly seemed impossible.”

“We continue to benefit professionally from each other’s experience.”

Early on at CU Denver, Cinamon was invited to join TRiO, a program that helps first-generation students, low-income students, and students with disabilities achieve academic success. TRiO connects them with student mentors who have reached success by overcoming personal and family difficulties. The program also offers advising, tutoring, and social events to connect students with each other — resources that will help them reach their full potential.

“We have created this program to be like a big family,” said Teresa DeHerrera, director of TRiO Student Support Services. “We understand the importance of mentoring and making our office feel like home. This concern and commitment resonates with our students and helps to keep many of them on track in their academic lives.”

It was a former assistant director of TRiO who introduced Cinamon to Carmen because she had recently returned from a semester abroad. “We bonded over Cinamon’s upcoming trip,” Carmen said. “And I remembered my own fears and uncertainties during my first year. It’s easy to feel lost and alone.”

Cinamon and Carmen in Chicago

Making a mentor

In Cinamon, Carmen recognized her own struggle during her freshman year of college as a first-generation Hispanic student. Carmen, however, had always known she wanted to be a doctor, and she started her studies at CU Boulder. But after she transferred to CU Denver, Carmen found a smaller, yet more diverse, student population that she felt comfortable with.

Carmen joined the TRiO program, first as a mentee, then as a mentor, where she advocated for other non-traditional students. “Through the TRiO program, I made friends with students from around the world,” Carmen said. “Some of them had been in refugee camps. I could relate to their struggles, and we encouraged each other.”

As a mentor and an aspiring physician, Carmen saw TRiO as an opportunity to develop mentoring skills that would serve her well in the medical profession, and she was able put her passion for helping others to use by mentoring struggling students like Cinamon. “I realized that I could teach and bring students under my wing,” Carmen said. “I had learned how to manage time and prioritize, and how to navigate the academic system, so I wanted to impart that to other students.”

Shared struggles

As her mentor, Carmen helped Cinamon apply for scholarships and got her involved in activities on campus. She connected her with tutors and TRiO workshops on time management and on how to study. But as a friend, Carmen also spurred Cinamon toward success. “We were both on campus all day, every day,” Carmen said. “We weren’t living a ‘normal’ life, but we could support each other. We made deals like, ‘Okay, let’s commit to studying for the next six hours, and then we’ll go out to dinner.’”

For the two friends, even eating out was a result of the connections they made through TRiO. Although Carmen and Cinamon were “broke,” they frequented a sushi restaurant staffed by a fellow TRiO student where they could get discounts on dinner and hang out for hours. “CU Denver is a non-traditional campus,” Carmen said. “Many of the students work. Despite that, or maybe because of that, we worked to make friendships happen by finding small windows of time to study or hang out with friends. We developed these connections because they were worth it.”

A friendship for life

Carmen and Cinamon celebrating Cinamon’s graduation

Their close friendship continued as Carmen and Cinamon celebrated each other’s bachelor’s degrees. At Cinamon’s graduation party, as they stood outside discussing Carmen’s application to the School of Medicine at CU Anschutz, Cinamon remembers feeling inspired by her friend’s ambition, and she realized that she also “wanted to go to a ‘special’ school,” but that graduate school felt beyond her grasp.

Carmen, as always, was there to encourage Cinamon, help her with the applications, and advise her on her personal statement. Their joint efforts paid off, and when they found themselves in medical school and grad school at the same time, they continued to talk each other through difficulties. Carmen read Cinamon’s papers, and they discussed ways to balance work, school, and family. When Carmen was in Walsenburg, Colo., during her rural preceptorship in her third year of med school, Cinamon visited her on weekends. A few years later, they were again celebrating each other’s graduations, this time from medical school and grad school.

Since then, the friends have traveled together and Cinamon was a bridesmaid in Carmen’s wedding. Now, as a family medicine resident at Swedish Medical Center in Englewood, Carmen hopes to work with the urban and underserved populations in Denver, and Cinamon, an HIV case management specialist with Rocky Mountain Cares, is working towards her license as a clinical social worker. “We continue to benefit professionally from each other’s experience,” Carmen said. “I rely on Cinamon for advice about the social aspect of my work, and I share my medical experience with her.”

Their professional successes and enduring friendship serve as a testament to their hard work and the help they received from TRiO at CU Denver. “I would not have succeeded without Carmen and TRiO,” Cinamon said. “Both gave me the tools I needed and taught me how to use them.”

CU in the City logo