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Denver universities, community college expand scholarships for displaced Aurarians

Diana Freyta St. Cajetan's
Stephanie Daniel
Metropolitan State University of Denver senior Diana Freyta stands outside St. Cajetan’s on the Auraria campus. When it was operating as a church, St. Cajetan’s was an integral part of Freyta’s family.

Auraria Campus in downtown Denver has several historic landmarks, and one of them is St. Cajetan’s. The Spanish Colonial-style church was built in 1925 and was the first Hispanic parish in Denver. The church is now used as a multipurpose event center. But during its heyday, St. Cajetan’s was an integral part of Diana Freyta’s family.

“My great-great-grandmother, she used to run like cleaning the church and feeding everybody at the church,” said Freyta.

In the 1940s, Freyta’s great-grandparents, Maria Lucy and Anselmo Gallegos, lived a couple blocks from the church in Auraria, Denver’s oldest neighborhood. They raised 12 children in a two-story duplex.

They went to St. Cajetan's for school and they went to church here,” Freyta said.

Two decades later, her grandmother, Maria Delores Freyta, got married at St. Cajetan’s.

At that time, Auraria was home to mainly working-class Native American, Hispanic and Italian families. During the summer of 1965, a flood devastated the neighborhood and the damage motivated city and state leaders to act.

“Urban renewal was very much in the air in those days. And a number of cities, it was sort of the thing to do was to clear areas and then build anew,” said Stephen Leonard, a professor of history at Metropolitan State University of Denver. “There were discussions among a number of people, in a number of institutions, about finding a campus for that could serve them all.”

Much of the neighborhood was demolished to make way for the new, 150-acre Auraria Higher Education Center (AHEC). The campus houses Community College of Denver, University of Colorado Denver and MSU Denver. Businesses and hundreds of families, like Freyta’s, were forced to leave in the name of urban redevelopment.

“I think it's traumatic for anybody to be moved,” said Freyta. “Their whole life was really based on this land.”

The families were compensated for their homes and promised a free education at any of the three institutions. The Displaced Aurarian Scholarship was created for residents who lived there from 1955 to 1973 and their descendants.

“I believe that the city really wanted to honor and recognize those families that are giving up their homes,” said Thomas Hernandez, interim executive director of Financial Aid and Scholarships at MSU Denver. “We should be giving you opportunity for you and your children to be able to come here and pursue your education.”

While the scholarship was conceived decades ago, it was first awarded in the early 1990s. The schools finally made good on their promise, Hernandez said, after the displaced families advocated for themselves.

“It was this community involvement and families that said, ‘We know that we were promised this.’ And went and found documents and to really kind of come to the institution to say, how do we really access this funding?” he continued.

Through the Displaced Aurarian Scholarship, the three institutions have collectively awarded more than $5.5 million in financial aid.

Since 1995, MSU Denver has awarded 305 scholarships. Diana Freyta is one of these recipients. She earned a business degree from CCD and is currently a senior at MSU Denver majoring in organizational communication. She’ll graduate in May.

“Altogether, it's seven years. I've been attending school part-time because I work full-time,” she said. “But within that time, I've grown as a professional and as a student, and it's been really amazing to get bigger and better opportunities with education.”

Diana Freyta family
Courtesy Diana Freyta
Diana Freyta (seated, bottom row, right), Freyta's son (seated, bottom row, second from right), Freyta's grandmother, Maria Delores Gallegos Freyta (seated, center), and relatives pose for a picture outside a house in Ninth Street Historic Park on the Auraria Campus. They are eligible to receive the Displaced Aurarian Scholarship.

Originally, the scholarship only applied to three generations of descendants who were pursuing associate or bachelor’s degrees. It also just covered tuition and fees for eight semesters. This meant Freyta’s two sons weren’t eligible for the scholarship. This bothered her so much she discussed it in a debate class.

“I chose it as a debate topic because I wanted my kids to get the experience, to have free education here at the college,” she said.

Turns out, Freyta had the right idea.

This fall, the three institutions announced the scholarship was expanding. Starting next semester, all descendants are eligible, funds can be used for graduate programs and there is no cap on the number of semesters students can attend.

“Education is powerful and a pathway to social progression. But the reality is, is that it doesn't take just one generation to move a family to a new social status,” Hernandez said.

This is especially true for MSU Denver students, he said, more than half of whom are first-generation college-goers. They’re also a bit older, most work while in school, and they tend to stay in the metro area after graduating.

“So really, the more generations that we can contribute to this education process,” he said. “The more powerful we know our community is going to be.”

Ninth Street Historic Park is another landmark on the Auraria Campus. A green lawn runs the length of the block and Victorian-style homes built in the late 19th and early 20th centuries line both sides. They were preserved when the campus was built.

“My grandma used to walk this and play on the sidewalk,” said Freyta. “It's not changed.”

While her family’s homes are long gone, she still feels the presence of her Native American ancestors when she walks through the park.

“There's like this kind of bond when I come through here, like you can almost feel the connection of spirits,” she said. “I don't know if it's our belief system or our nativity that's around here. You've you feel like you belong here.”

Many of Freyta’s relatives have received the scholarship and with the expansion, she’s already eyeing the future: a master’s degree for herself and a free college education for her kids and their kids.

“This scholarship is just going to help all of our generations from moving forward. And it's pretty amazing.”

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