Running the zigzag road
A single mom, a restaurant executive and a grieving son reinvent themselves through education.
By Matt Watson
Single mom-turned-international businesswoman
On the day of her interview for this story, Alejandra Borunda is running late to campus. The single mother of two has been called to her daughter’s school to sign some documents. It’s not the first time Borunda has taken a detour on her long and determined pursuit of a college degree.
After graduating from high school, Borunda had everything a student needs to go to a big-name university – a shiny GPA, scholarship offers and the work ethic she started developing as an 11-year-old selling clothes at her aunt’s business. She had everything except a Social Security number, a byproduct of her undocumented status after her parents moved the family to Colorado from Mexico when she was 16 years old.
Borunda enrolled in community college but dropped out a year later when Colorado enacted legislation preventing undocumented students from receiving in-state tuition, tripling the cost of her education. After she became a legal resident in 2010, she enrolled in school again and has been working her way toward a degree slowly but surely ever since.
Business certainly keeps Borunda busy – she’s worked at Icon Eyecare for nearly a decade, working her way up to director of Hispanic outreach, and she started a company three years ago called Borunda Media Solutions, which works to connect local businesses to Latino demographics. She also recently founded a nonprofit called Visión Pura to help people without insurance in need of surgical eye care, and she’s in the middle of starting a new business that imports salsa de chile colorado to the United States.
Now in her second go-round at Metropolitan State University of Denver, after a semester at the University of Denver and taking some time off, Borunda is taking a class or two at a time, carving out time for working, studying and parenting.
“Before anything, I’m a mother. I love my children, and they support me. They’re a blessing,” Borunda said. “The best thing is that they’re learning too. My daughter is taking French classes; she dances salsa; she’s learning piano and is in gymnastics.”
Borunda plans to graduate in two years and has her sights set on a master’s degree in nonprofit work after that, hoping to one day travel and help people all over the world.
“People say, ‘You’ve been in school forever,’ but that’s OK. Through those years, I’ve grown so much, built my business, and am getting to know all these people, so I keep going,” Borunda said. “It’s an example that your children will see, that education is important for success.”
Abandoning kitchens for classrooms
Mindy Bulmer enjoyed her life in the restaurant industry, where she was managing a half-dozen steakhouses across Colorado as an executive general manager in her early 30s. It wasn’t long hours or burnout that drove her to go back to school but a health inspector asking her about dirty drains in one of her restaurants that made her wonder if she’d rather be doing something else.
“My goal in life was to be a CEO in the restaurant industry. I was 30 before I was a general manager, and I was loving it, but it just wasn’t very meaningful,” Bulmer said. “I was working 70 hours a week, and I thought, ‘I can put that effort into something more meaningful to me.’ I made the decision to go back to school, even if I have to take one class at a time for the next 50 years. You have to start somewhere.”
Bulmer considered online classes but was intimidated because she graduated from high school before technology was an integral part of the classroom.
“Once you’re working and raising kids, and paying a mortgage, it’s hard. It’s hard for a lot of people to prioritize education over bills, kids, husbands and jobs. I hear all the time from other parents, ‘I can’t split time with my kids,’ but my kids see me going to school, and I think it makes me a better role model,” Bulmer said. “If you put yourself first, you’ll be better equipped to take care of those around you.”
After going to school every summer, Bulmer is on track to graduate from MSU Denver in just three years with a degree in special education with a concentration in culturally and linguistically diverse students. After so many years out of school, she’ll soon have a career in a classroom, starting with her upcoming student-teaching semester in January. After graduation, she plans to try out online classes after all – a master’s degree in leadership – so she can have an even bigger impact on students one day as a principal.
Making a difference like his mother
In the decade between his first and second years of college, Thomas Fish worked in landscaping and construction before making the choice to re-enroll in school and take up the passions his parents shared. They worked extensively with nonprofits throughout their careers, so Fish was gung-ho about getting back to school, studying business and dedicating himself to a nonprofit cause.
Six months after his return to school, he found out his mom, 1,500 miles away in West Virginia, had been diagnosed with cancer.
“People back home said, ‘Go home, and stay with your mom,’ but she said, ‘What are you going to do? Are you a doctor?’” Fish said. She died two years later, not long after her son had graduated from Community College of Aurora and started his first semester at MSU Denver. “My mom passed right before Christmas. The last thing I said to her was, ‘I’ve decided I’m going to go into nonprofit marketing.’ I know that she shaped her life from those goals.”
For his part, Fish has gone all in on that path. He landed a competitive internship with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and another with Headwater Cos., and he now works part-time doing grassroots promotion for Blackspy Marketing. He graduated cum laude from CCA, has been inducted into the Beta Gamma Sigma honor society for business excellence at MSU Denver and was awarded the Professor Emeritus Nancy Frontczak Endowed Scholarship for excellence in marketing by the Department of Marketing.
“Cost is the main reason I came here, but I’ve stayed because of the professors – the professors here, if you give them anything, they just shine like a solar panel. They pull it in and love it. That’s contagious,” said Fish, who is doing an independent study with the Marketing Department chair on social marketing. “I want to try to change the environment, the way we look at energy and sustainability from an economically viable place.”
Fish sits in the front of the class, takes the lead in group projects when he can and has advice for others considering going back to school at a place such as MSU Denver, where transfer students make up more than half the student body and the average age is 23.
“Don’t try to go too far back in your head, and don’t go too far forward. That stuff doesn’t matter. Your future can all change in a second. It can change because you took this class and met this person or this professor. You got this other job you didn’t even have a clue you’d have an interest in,” Fish said. “I’d love to be that student that could show another student that this is possible. Not just possible to go, but possible to do something amazing.”