Leon Duran shares this message with the students he mentors: Going to college is about more than earning a degree.

After graduating from John F. Kennedy High School in Denver in 2006, Duran looked for a college that would accept him despite his low ACT score. “No university in the country wanted me except Metropolitan State University of Denver,” he said.

When Duran learned he needed to take remedial classes that wouldn’t count toward a degree, he enlisted in the Navy instead. In 2011, after being deployed on active duty for four years, he transitioned to the Reserve and returned to MSU Denver, using the Post-9/11 GI Bill to pay for his education.

“I sat at the front of every classroom for four years because I appreciated the opportunity so much,” said the 2015 Criminal Justice and Criminology graduate.

After graduation, the oil company where Duran worked laid everyone off. Later that year, his mother died. And despite strong qualifications, he was coming up empty-handed in his job search.

It was a turning point.

“I decided, going forward, I was going to live life on my terms,” he said. “I would stop wasting time, stop being fearful and just go for it.”

The following year, Duran founded his first company, U.S. Veterans Landscape Design. A successful inaugural year gave him the confidence to launch HoneyCutz, a supplemental business, in 2017.

Duran said things really took off in 2019 when a former professor and fellow alumnus encouraged him to join the MSU Denver Alumni Board of Directors; he currently serves as vice president. The engaged Roadrunner has since won a 10 Under 10 Award, given to outstanding graduates who are less than 10 years past graduation; become a mentor; and delivered the Alumni Charge at Commencement at his alma mater. This fall, he will graduate from the University’s MBA program.

Which brings Duran back to his perspective on the value of higher education. “The return on investment you get from going to college isn’t the degree,” he said. “It’s the community and relationships you build to help you start a business or find your dream job.”

Learn more about Leon Duran and other Roadrunners Rising at msudenver.edu/roadrunners-rising.