Spring 2024 Student Award Winners

Valeria Pernas, Provost’s Award Recipient

When Valeria Pernas first enrolled at Metropolitan State University of Denver, she was unsure about the academic path she would take. As a child, she had thought a career in medicine would be fulfilling, but self-doubt prevented her from pursuing it.

However, her life’s path took a radical turn during that first year at MSU Denver after Pernas received devastating news: a diagnosis of Stage 3 angiosarcoma, an extremely rare form of cancer. She had just turned 20 and needed immediate chemotherapy, followed by surgery and radiation.

“Through this challenge, I experienced great loss, but I also gained something meaningful: a spark in a dream I had tucked away,” Pernas said.

Pernas’ treatment sparked her curiosity for the complexities of health care systems and disease management. Meanwhile, her radiation oncologist suggested acupuncture, medical massages and visits with a nutritionist — an approach Pernas found refreshingly humanizing.

“He made me see medicine in a different way,” said Pernas, a native of Costa Rica who moved to Denver in 2012. “When it was time for me to return to school, I knew I had to pursue this new passion.”

She reenrolled at MSU Denver in the Integrative Health Care Program, which gives students a wide perspective on how to approach health care in a holistic way, Pernas said.

She served as a teaching assistant in the program for three years. Pernas also pushed for change in the local health care landscape. She testified before the Colorado House and Senate, sharing her experiences with systemic health barriers in support of the Colorado Building Families Act. The bill became law, ensuring access to fertility services under private insurance in Colorado — something she had been denied during her cancer treatment.

“One of the biggest lessons I received was resilience,” Pernas said. “There is immense power in using your perceived barriers as a catalyst for change.”


Gabriel Trujillo

Gabriel Trujillo, President’s Award Winner

At MSU Denver, Gabriel Trujillo has found community and leadership as a queer, undocumented, low-income Latino student.

“MSU Denver truly elevates diversity on campus,” said Trujillo. “We’re supported and celebrated here.”

That support has enabled Trujillo to acquire a world-class education, majoring in Psychology and writing an honors thesis on sex education and the LGBTQ+ population.

Trujillo credits the University’s Immigrant Services Program with helping him access his education despite the challenges he faced. Characteristically, he gave back, leading workshops for high-schoolers and helping train faculty and staff members on the needs of undocumented students.

Also active in student government, Trujillo has participated in the University’s Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Committee, the Hispanic-Serving Institution subcommittee and a variety of other leadership roles. And he threw himself wholeheartedly into his studies, even when they took him far afield.

Psychology Professor Randi Smith, Ph.D., recalled traveling with Trujillo to present research at two of the field’s most prestigious conferences. “Prior to these trips, Gabe had never flown on a plane,” said Smith. “I was so impressed by his bravery and enthusiasm for the kinds of adventures these conferences afforded him.”

Trujillo stays grounded with the help of his brothers. When he was a sophomore in college, Trujillo’s mother died, and he took over as his younger brothers’ guardian. “Even though we came through a tragic experience, I still feel really grateful to be their guardian,” he said. “They’re my biggest motivation.”

That motivation will carry him through his next journey: a two-year fellowship with the El Pomar Foundation, an institution that specializes in grantmaking, leadership and community engagement.

“I truly do think that everybody has the potential to be a leader,” said Trujillo. “They just need to be given that opportunity.”

Outstanding Student Awards

Exemplary students that have fulfilled the criteria to apply for one or more of the Outstanding Student Awards, can do so on the Dean of Students site.

The award categories are:

  • President’s Award (Winner will be a student Commencement speaker!)
  • Provost’s Award (Winner will be a student Commencement speaker!)
  • Outstanding Service- Student Affairs
  • Outstanding Student in the College of Business
  • Outstanding Student in the College of Letters, Arts, and Sciences
  • Outstanding Student in the College of Professional Studies
  • Outstanding Student in the School of Education
  • Outstanding Student in the School of Hospitality

The winners of the President’s and Provost’s Awards will be the featured student speakers during the Commencement ceremonies.

For more information about the awards, visit the Dean of Students.

Past Student Award Winners