Photo by John Eisele/CSU Photography
When Kaydee Barker thinks about courage, the soon-to-be graduate of the Warner College of Natural Resources can’t help but think about her journey to Colorado State University and her family.
Barker came to CSU as a first-generation student and an adult learner who returned to school at the age of 28. Before even stepping foot on campus, her father-in-law was admitted to the hospital in a battle for his life with a rare autoimmune disease.
Torn between family and school, Barker persevered with the support of her family to earn her degree in ecosystem science and sustainability as well as be named a 2021 Goldwater Scholar, one of the country’s top scholarship programs in natural sciences, mathematics and engineering.
“I grew up self-reliant, and my successes and failures were all my own, but here I have others investing in my success too, and I can’t even express what that means to me,” she said. “I couldn’t be more grateful to my mentors, who wrote strong recommendations for me and encouraged and helped me every step of my journey so far.”
In their own words
Q. What experiences in your life or at CSU have required you to demonstrate courage?
The time that has required the most courage in my life began right about when I decided I wanted to go back to school. The “what ifs” were always there in the back of my mind: What if I could do more? What if I was wasting my time and talents? What if it was possible, after all, for me to become a scientist? When those “what ifs” finally became impossible to ignore, I applied to come to CSU and study Ecosystem Science and Sustainability.
“When those ‘what ifs’ finally became impossible to ignore, I applied to come to CSU and study Ecosystem Science and Sustainability.”
Days after I submitted my application though, my father-in-law was admitted to the hospital for the first of 11 admissions in an eight-month battle for his life with a rare autoimmune disease, EGPA vasculitis. Of course, it took the most courage for him to keep going through all of the pain and poking and prodding and tests and lost strength. I can’t fully convey what this time was for me — to say it was difficult falls utterly short.
My father-in-law didn’t give up, and he was finally stable right before I was due to start at CSU. The way the last eight months had gone, we were all hopeful but still waiting for the roof to cave in again, and my in-laws needed a lot of support to help take care of the house and such while they focused on getting him to his PT and specialist appointments. How could I go to school now, I thought. This dream I had loosely held for so long, and then begun to hold tightly as I thought it was in reach, seemed to be crumbling before my eyes. I couldn’t possibly leave my family in their time of need. After some difficult discussions though, my husband convinced me that I should go ahead with pursuing my degree while he stayed near his folks to help them for the first year.
With trepidation, I moved to Fort Collins by myself to start this new chapter. I was starting over in so many ways, and with half (or more) of my heart elsewhere. I was also learning how to be myself again – myself outside of crisis mode, and myself without my other half at my side. I felt immense pressure to make this worth it, and to not let my family down while I do it. Like with the crisis before though, I just put one foot in front of the other, kept moving forward. And somehow, with the support of both my old community and my new one here in Fort Collins, I made it through.
In their own words
Q. What was the most rewarding part of your CSU experience?
That’s kind of a hard one. I think the most rewarding has been feeling like I finally found my place, in research. Years ago, when I was living in Guatemala, I heard the saying, “En casa de herrero, cuchillo de palo” (in the blacksmith’s house, a wooden knife).
When first introduced to this metaphor for someone that doesn’t quite fit in their environment, I felt I had never heard something that felt more true to me. I was the wooden knife, not altogether uncomfortable but not truly suited to the tasks and situations in my life. When I began to dive into soil ecology research in the Cotrufo Lab at CSU, I felt that I had found my place for the first time. As I worked with my mentor Dr. Beth Avera to explore research questions and design an experiment, I knew that I had finally found the task that I am suited for.
The other really rewarding part of my CSU experience has been engaging with the community and connecting my fellow students to opportunities and resources as a TA, a club officer, and just as a friend. Being able to not only find my way forward, but help others find their way as well is incredibly fulfilling.
What is your advice to incoming students at CSU?
I would encourage you to be curious, both inside and outside the classroom. Check out the many things that are happening around campus every single day, and find out what you like, who you can connect with, who you can learn from. Having spent a lot of time outside of college before coming here, I can tell you that there’s nowhere else that you have access to so many opportunities, so many talks, and so many people both beginning and experts in their fields. Take advantage of that. Find out what gets you excited!