By Cory Phare
The roads that MSU Denver students run are unique, each with triumphs and setbacks, mile markers and potholes. And although destinations differ, the transformational process of moving forward remains constant.
For communication theory and criminal justice student Zena Dyson, that journey to a better life began at a personal crossroads. Hers is a path winding from the streets through MSU Denver to Australia and now Washington, D.C., as an invitee to the 58th Presidential Inauguration.
And, akin to the adage from Lao Tzu, her thousand-mile trek began with a single step.
“If you put one foot in front of the other and believe in yourself, anything is attainable,” said Dyson.
For the Lambda Pi Eta communication studies honor society member, this is more than a mantra – it charted the course for climbing out of a shadowed valley.
Before coming to MSU Denver, Dyson found herself facing homelessness, drug addiction, incarceration and even being shot. Stuck in a self-described revolving door of depression and destruction, she felt lost, attempting to numb the pain that comes with being caught in a violent cycle.
Then, in 2012, she had a watershed moment: She decided to apply to MSU Denver and change that trajectory.
“I was done seeking validation from bad choices,” said Dyson. “It was time to take a leap of faith; I haven’t looked back since.”
For Dyson, success is not judged by the number of setbacks, but rather by the effort in continually pushing ahead to a greater horizon. Change may come from within, but finding the will to start that process has to originate somewhere. She credits her religious devotion for lighting the path forward, making a solemn vow to do everything possible to fulfill the promise of a second chance.
“It’s by the grace of God that I’m here, thriving today,” said Dyson. “I’ve been blessed in ways that are incomprehensible.”
Along with faith, she also attributes a strong network for her success as a Roadrunner. She thanks her mother along with the faculty, staff and scholars at MSU Denver as continued support and inspiration. And her grandmother Elnora “Punkin” Chapman, who recently passed away, instilled in Dyson her signature never-quit motivation to be the best she can be.
When it comes to her accomplishments, gratitude is a two-way street. According to Jacqueline Kirby, a program assistant in Communication Arts and Sciences who worked closely with Dyson, her attitude is admirable; it’s what made her achievements essentially inevitable.
“When others would dwell on negativity, Zena wouldn’t have any of it,” said Kirby. “She was going to be successful no matter what, even with every opportunity to give up. That was so impressive.”
That positive perseverance has paid off. In addition to the communication honors and graduating summa cum laude, Dyson is also member of the Golden Key International Honor Society as part of the top 15 percent of her class.
This membership recently afforded her the opportunity to travel to Australia and take part in workshops, lectures and colloquia with professors from universities in Sydney and Melbourne. And, as an International Scholar Laureate Program participant, she returned to Colorado more motivated than ever to operationalize local advocacy to have far-reaching implications.
“What they gave us was priceless to aid our rhetoric and communication,” said Dyson. “We were listening, observing and taking it all in. Now the door is open to continue the work.”
As a scholar laureate, Dyson was invited to the 58th Presidential Inauguration, taking place on Jan. 20 at the Capitol in Washington, D.C. Dyson was nominated to attend a summit of other honor society luminaries and will present her topic, “Pathways to Power: Women in Global Leadership.”
This topic, she said, is vitally important so that women continue to believe in themselves and are enabled to thrive in the face of modern political discourse. Ever the enabler for change, she intends to use her voice in a positive way to stand up for those who are unable to have a presence – or voice – at the inauguration.
“To serve and protect our communities, we must remain strong,” said Dyson. “We need reassurance that, together, we can get there. And we will!”
According to Kirby, it’s Dyson’s great kindness and heart that fuel an unparalleled determination – a positive grit that ensures her road ahead will be a prosperous one.
“It’s incredible how she grabs opportunities – and makes them – with such confidence,” said Kirby. “She works hard to get to the ‘yes’ and is incredibly driven to succeed.”
The call for service continues to lead Dyson forward to empower those looking for their own personal transformation. With more than six years of sobriety, she’s currently an advocate for the Denver Drug Court to help others become clean. Dyson plans to study law in graduate school; her goal is to help others contribute to a productive society instead of taking away from it.
“The realms of possibilities are endless, though you have to want to achieve transformation bad enough that you will never look back,” said Dyson. “It won’t be a cakewalk, but you will get there.”
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