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From homelessness to rocket science


An alumnus proves the sky is the limit with small steps and an eye toward helping others. 

By Doug McPherson

It’s no wonder Dan Strawn dreamed of rockets as a child. They could help him escape a stepdad who constantly berated him -- each word penetrating like a cold knife: “You’re worthless! You’ll never amount to anything!”

In 2000 and part of 2001, Strawn, who grew up in Parker, Colorado, was homeless – caught in an ugly cycle: sleep on a friend’s couch, then sleep in his car. Repeat.

“Eventually I realized it was warmer in Phoenix so I moved there for a couple of months and lived in a homeless shelter,” said Strawn. “Then I decided to move back to Colorado and that’s when I started to get my feet under me.”

He landed a job working on cellphone towers. “It was there I met engineers and I wanted to do their job – they were in charge – they got to plan everything."

In 2010, Strawn enrolled in MSU Denver. As he was standing in line on the first day, he was ready to declare electrical engineering as his major, but fate intervened. “I ran into this other student – I don’t even remember his name, anything much about him – but he told me about aerospace studies. I’d always loved rockets and wanted to work with them and decided right then that was what I was going to do.”

Indeed, he did study aerospace and ended up doing well in school – but not just academically. He also learned a life-long lesson outside of class. From the start of his time at MSU Denver, Strawn realized he was fortunate to be there; he knew education had the power to change his life. But he also understood he wasn’t the only one facing difficulties in life.

The next step for Strawn was obvious: “I wanted to find people who were in the same situation I had been in a few years ago.” The opportunity to do that came when he joined MSU Denver’s Urban Leadership Program, which helps students grow their leadership skills through community service.

Strawn soon learned some of his fellow students in Urban Leadership had also overcome obstacles, so they started brainstorming ways they might turn their pasts into something positive. They did that by creating Operation Youth Empowerment (OYE) to mentor Denver-area at-risk students. The idea was simple: go to schools and nonprofits that served homeless youth and share their own personal stories of how they came to beat the odds and ended up in college. 

“We wanted to show them they weren’t alone, that many people face hard times, but with some small steps, they can begin to make their way in the world,” said Strawn.

OYE ended up talking to over 100 students. “A lot of them would come up to us afterward and ask about how to get into to college and we’d give them our contact information and help them with the application process."

Gretta Mincer, associate director of Students Activities at MSU Denver who oversees the Urban Leadership Program, said Strawn loves MSU Denver. “He was lost and trying to figure things out, but he’s a smart guy. I think our program may have been a wake-up call for him.”

Strawn graduated in 2014 with a bachelor’s in aerospace systems engineering. Today he is an actual rocket scientist at United Launch Alliance, a Colorado-based firm that makes space missions a reality. And while he’s plenty busy in his job building rockets, Strawn said he often thinks about his time at MSU Denver helping others build a better life.

He readily admits he found his path in part by helping others find theirs. “MSU Denver really did change my life.”

Strawn’s advice to struggling students: “I know when you’re in an abusive or bad situation you might not see the light at the end, but the light is there. And no matter how dark it is, you can change your life and find a much better world, you can get a vision of something better in your mind, and then take the small steps to get there.”

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