Western’s Dean of Graduate Studies, Associate Vice President for Academic Affairs and Associate Professor Abel Chavez, Ph.D., was named this year’s recipient of the Ohtli Award.
This distinction is one of the highest civil honors that the Mexican government bestows; recipients include the likes of activist Dolores Huerta, actress Eva Longoria and current Colorado Gov. Jared Polis. The term Ohtli refers to the Nahuatl word for path and acknowledges individuals outside of Mexico— specifically in the United States—who have helped pave the way for others.
It is a fitting honor for a professor who insists he would not be where he is in life if not for the work, encouragement and path-breaking of the people in his life.
Chavez was born and raised in Denver, the middle child of undocumented parents who immigrated to the United States from Mexico before he was born. Through Reagan administration amnesty policies, his parents achieved legal status. His childhood was modest; his family often repurposed discarded items to sell at the flea market to subsidize their income.
“We would take old, broken things that we found in the alleyway—trash to other people—and we would put the time in to fix them and…sell them,” Chavez said. “I think it gave me a sense of entrepreneurship and of really seeing the value in work.”
His father held a variety of jobs, including work in the automotive industry as a mechanic on low-rider cars. Occasionally, Chavez would go to work with his dad, but the visits came with a catch. He was only allowed to tag along on the days when temperatures were at their most extreme.
“You know, like on days when the sun is beating down and on days when it’s raining and cold and miserable,” Chavez recalled. “Later on, he confessed that he did it that way so that I could gain a strong appreciation for academics and not live the hard, laborious life that he and [my] mom did.”
Working alongside his father, Chavez was given the responsibility of fixing any of the mechanical pieces on the hydraulic lift when they fell into disrepair. The experience stoked a curiosity in engineering.
Chavez understood that taking his passion to the next level would require a college degree. He set his sights on the Colorado School of Mines, applied and was admitted. Ultimately, he wasn’t able to afford the tuition at the school and his parents were insistent that he not take out loans to cover his costs.
Instead, his first foray into higher education came at Front Range Community College where he earned his associate degree.
The experience stayed with Chavez and has helped to fuel his drive to ensure students aren’t denied an education because of financial constraint. He works closely with the Colorado Opportunity Scholarship Initiative (COSI), which helps students from underserved areas gain access to support services and scholarship funds. He also collaborates with IME Becas, a program implemented by the Mexican government to support low income Hispanic students living in the United States who are pursuing a college degree.
Certainly, his involvement and leadership within these groups helped him earn this recognition, though Chavez humbly admitted that he didn’t even know he had been nominated until after he’d been named the honoree.
“I’ve heard from students of mine who spoke highly of me being inviting in my classroom but also challenging them and these are all students of Mexican descent. That to me is just…it’s an honor,” he said.
Chavez plans to use the platform of the Ohtli Award to continue what he’s been doing all along—breaking new trail and acting as a guide, bringing as many along with him as he can. He has asked students with backgrounds similar to his to accompany him when he receives the award in Denver on Nov. 7.
“Neither of their parents have participated on a college campus for whatever reason. They’re like me. I think it’s an obligation to show them some of the same structure and kindness that I’ve been shown by others throughout my life,” Chavez said.
The undercurrent of authenticity that Chavez exudes tips his hand. He invests his time in helping others not for awards and recognition but because of the impact it will have on future generations of learners and leaders, at Western and beyond.
Story by Katie Mikesell, Marketing Communications.