Making the most out of what you’ve got
By her own admission, Amy Harris does not look a whole lot different from your typical CU student.
The 21-year-old blonde-hair, blue-eyed senior environmental studies major and sustainability director for UCSU would seem to fit in on any college campus. But Harris had to work hard to gain admission to CU, starting out in a trailer park in Gypsum, Colorado.
“We lived in the nicest trailer in the park, except for the landlord,” Harris said, only partially joking.
Harris’ family is the quintessential definition of working class. Her father, Charles never went to college. Instead he worked as a plumber and in construction. Her mother, Tracy had a many jobs varying from working at the post office to serving as lunch lady.
Harris waited in an old, hollowed-out post office for the bus every morning and her “playground” consisted of a decrepit teeter-tooter and some gravel.
Nevertheless, Harris said her parents did the best they could to provide for the family.
“My parents worked really, really hard,” Harris said. “They worked 12 to 16 hours a day to make sure we were fed.”
Harris does not see her upbringing as a sob story. She said she did not mind or even notice being poor when she was younger. She preferred the time she spent in the foothills, around her trailer and playing with her friends, none of whom spoke English.
“I didn’t notice any difference because I had a lot of fun,” Harris said. “I didn’t think we were poor until my Dad said we were.”
Harris had a wake-up call after her family decided to move into Gypsum itself when she was about 10 years old. Overnight everything got more expensive, making things even tighter for the family.
The stress of living paycheck to paycheck took its toll on them all. Her father developed an extreme case of gout that eventually forced him to stop working and her mother had a seizure, leaving it up to Harris to take the reins of running the family. She got a job, learned to budget, and kept the family afloat all the while getting straight A’s.
Harris said she knew she wanted to go to college early on because she loved learning and was good at it.
“I knew I was good, I knew I was smart, I knew I could get scholarships,” Harris said. “School was a great refuge, it made me feel like I was worth something.”
After graduating from Eagle Valley High School in 2004, Harris was accepted to CU and planned on being a theatre major.
“I wanted to be a director on Broadway,” Harris said.
That didn’t last long.
As part of her work study program, Harris quickly became involved with the Environmental Center, starting out as a recycling assistant. She said she switched to environmental studies after only a few weeks and never looked back.
“In theater everyone is stabbing each other in the back,” Harris said. “At the Environmental Center everyone is working together. That was really inspiring to me.”
In August of 2006, Harris applied to be the environmental director at UCSU. Even though she did not think she stood a chance, she received the position and she said she has continued to bring her passion and drive to it as she works for social and environmental justice.
“She’s truly somebody who’s moved the campus forward as a whole on environmental issues,” UCSU Tri-executive Charles Gilford, who joined the UCSU executive staff at the same time as Harris, said. “She’s very friendly, very passionate, and her passion is felt by those around her. She’s been a jewel to UCSU this year and last year as well.”
While Harris said CU is making significant strides in the area of environmental justice, she said there’s still some work to be done where social justice is concerned. Her concern is mostly for those who come from lower income communities, be they CU students or not.
“If you’re poor and white, it’s like you don’t count,” Harris said. “There’s no real pride associated with being poor.”
Harris has spent the last year working to raise awareness of social and environmental injustices. The Environmental Center held two forums on environmental justice in the fall of 2007 and a concert to raise climate change awareness for “Focus the Nation,” on Jan. 31.
Even though she does acknowledge there are social injustices at CU, Harris said it is important to create a space for healthy dialogue.
“What I prefer to see in response to negativity is positive messages,” Harris said. “If you constantly fight negative message you get worn out.”
Harris is graduating in May and said she’s grateful for her time at CU, even if she didn’t become the next Broadway sensation.
“I’m glad I came here, I’m not sure I would have discovered my real path otherwise,” she said.
Contact Campus Press Staff Writer Rob Ryan at email@example.com.
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