Each Friday this summer, the Daniels Newsroom is telling the stories of the behind-the-scenes staff who empower students, faculty and the College at large. Read past stories on our blog.

The assistant director of Graduate Student Services has always been interested in why people do the things they do

Joy Melgarejo punching a bag Peering out from under her headgear, 16-ounce boxing gloves on her hands, Joy Melgarejo had trained hard for this—her first sparring session.

But she also knew that the person across the ring was there to try and hurt her.

The adrenaline kicked in and Melgarejo blacked out.

This had to be one of the scariest moments of her life.

The next thing she remembers is standing victorious—over her opponent, yes, but also over her lack of confidence, her insecurity in her body and her discomfort in predominantly male spaces.

“It was kind of like a rebirth to a degree,” said Melgarejo, reflecting more than a decade later, as an assistant director in Daniels College of Business’ Graduate Student Services. “I think that’s when I started to blossom more and gain a belief in myself that I could do anything I put my mind into.”

Melgarejo, right, and her parents in the Philippines

Rolling with the punches

New beginnings are becoming old hat for Melgarejo.

She left her home in the Philippines at age 16—the day after she graduated high school—and moved with her parents to Aurora, Colorado.

Adjustment wasn’t always easy. Some people spoke quickly, and others teased her for her accent. The American individualistic culture took a lot of getting used to.

“It’s liberating, [on one hand],” Melgarejo said. “I had the freedom to do a lot more things than I did when I was in the Philippines. But at the same time, I missed the community aspect of it. I felt alone a lot of the time.”

Melgarejo dreamed of being a psychologist—specifically someone who worked with people in the prison system.

“Really my interest is trying to figure out people, why they do things the way they do,” she said. “I spent a lot of time with the guidance counselor in high school—not because I was in trouble, just seeing the work they were doing and helping students with their emotional issues.”

But college wasn’t in the cards at first. The priority was quickly securing a stable job and earning income. After a stint with CISCO Networking, Melgarejo began work as a dental assistant.

The job was enjoyable for her. For 13 years, Melgarejo created and presented treatment plans for patients, helped surgeons with their work and trained others in her office. But she began to realize that she could only rise so high without a bachelor’s degree.

“I was wanting more in life, even though dentistry was really rewarding,” she said. “I felt like I wasn’t living up to my full potential.”

Joy Melgarejo sitting in her office, beneath signs that say "Grind" "Hustle" and "Execute." A punching bag is to her left.Running toward fear

In some ways, Metropolitan State University of Denver was everything Melgarejo wanted: It symbolized her dream of higher education; it featured a diverse community of people of color; it attracted plenty of nontraditional students.

But MSU was also many things Melgarejo feared. She dreaded driving to downtown Denver—feared the city in general. Plus, she was in her 30s; it had been seven years since she earned her associate’s degree and she was nervous about returning to a traditional educational environment. She would have to take out a student loan too.

“I tend to face fear or any challenge or insecurity head on by doing exactly what I don’t want to do,” she said.

With that approach in mind, in 2017, Melgarejo matriculated and soon found the job that would change her trajectory. She became a peer mentor, an on-campus job in which she provided academic and social support for her fellow students. Internships made it clear that counseling and mental health work weren’t for her, but this job clicked.

“Working with students had aspects of psychology,” she said. “I still got to work with people and build relationships. I still got to help in a way that didn’t require therapy. There’s this coaching/counseling aspect of it that didn’t involve the DSM-5 model. It wasn’t heavy.

“I knew then that when I graduated I wanted to be in an advising role.”

‘How can I impact someone’s life today?’

Melgarejo graduated from MSU in 2020 and started at Daniels a few weeks later, taking a job in the Department of Management. Two years later, she switched into the role she had been striving for.

“I enjoy every bit of it,” she said. “I think the most rewarding part of it, is meeting [students] from the moment they matriculate and watching them go through the academic journey, growing until the culmination of everything at Academic Hood. It’s bittersweet but I’ve enjoyed that entire journey, getting to know them other than just being my student or a student of Daniels—getting to see what their aspirations are, what their life has been.”

In particular, Melgarejo enjoys connecting with international students, with whom she finds some common ground. She knows what it’s like to be in an unfamiliar country and she knows what it’s like being a person of color in a predominantly white space. It’s why she is also an active member of DU’s Staff of Color Association.

Her success and many accolades can be attributed to passion, she said.

“I believe in really putting 100% into everything I do,” she said. “I want to help people as much as I can in my own ways. I wake up each morning and that is my goal: How can I impact someone’s life today?”