Photo: Ryan Wade, an automotive technology graduate at Arapahoe Community College, accepts the Phi Theta Kappa All-Colorado Academic Team award from Joe Garcia, chancellor of the Colorado Community College System.
When Ryan Wade looks back on his life two years ago, he hardly recognizes himself.
Though he would drive by Arapahoe Community College (ACC) on his way to work each day, he never thought college was possible. Now, the 31-year-old is gearing up to cross the graduation stage with honors.
“Deciding to go to school has been the most important decision that I’ve ever made,” he said. “Sometimes I think, ‘What if I didn’t start—what if I put it all off?’ I’m just grateful that I don’t ever have to face that reality.”
Although Wade excelled in school growing up, instability threw him off course. His father was mostly out of the picture, and his mother struggled with substance use. By age 15, Wade and his family moved constantly across Southern California, sometimes living out of motels, cars, and tents.
To get by, Wade picked up under-the-table construction jobs and taught himself basic car mechanics, using a manual he bought with emergency funds. That’s when a friend from childhood offered to drive him to Colorado for a fresh start.
“I always knew I could do really well for myself if I just got a chance,” he said. “I was nervous about the future, but I was more nervous to stay. I packed up the tools I had, a couple bags of clothes, and I set out for Colorado.”
After arriving in 2018, Wade found work in construction, specializing in drywall and fire protection. Then, the pandemic hit.
“Most of us were getting laid off left and right,” he said. “I was one of the people who had been at the company the shortest amount of time. I drew the short straw.”
Through the state’s unemployment office, Wade applied to a five-day “bootcamp” at ACC for displaced workers but was put on a waitlist. As he continued his job hunt, Wade received a call from an unknown number.
“It was someone from ACC saying, ‘We have an opening. Do you want to come in?’” he said. “I tried my best not to scream. I was like, ‘Yes, absolutely. I’d love to.'”
Once I got in and started getting more acclimated with ACC, it just lit a fire in my belly.” – Ryan Wade, ACC graduate
At the bootcamp, Wade met with ACC advisors and talked through his options. He wanted to get certified in a field he had learned informally—mechanics—and planned to enroll in the college’s automotive technology program.
To qualify for financial aid, however, he would first need to earn his GED. Undeterred, Wade registered for online courses.
“I just started studying, working around the clock,” he recalled. “At 1:30 in the morning, I finally got my GED finished and sent it over to the school.”
In his first semester Wade surprised himself, earning three B’s and an A. He began to take on leadership roles, stepping up to be a shop foreman who helps organize class and answer questions from peers. He also joined the college’s robotics team, soldering a rover that navigated the harsh landscape of the Great Sand Dunes National Park as part of a state competition.
The experiences opened Wade’s eyes to his full potential.
“Once I got in and started getting more acclimated with ACC—working in more clubs and associations—it just lit a fire in my belly,” Wade said. “I really wanted to do more and take it to the next level.”
True to his word, Wade continued to reach new heights in academic journey. His stellar grades landed him on the President’s List for four consecutive semesters and earned him a spot on Colorado’s Phi Theta Kappa All-Academic team. He won several scholarships from Lockheed Martin, the Colorado Opportunity Scholarship Initiative, and the Stone Family Foundation, among other organizations.
Given all this momentum, Wade isn’t stopping with an associate degree. This fall, he plans to transfer to Regis University to work toward a bachelor’s degree in psychology.
“There are lot more possibilities for me out there taking a management route,” he explained. “I like working with people—I like talking to them and connecting. I’m really hoping to use aspects of that for leadership management, improving employee life and workplace environments.”
Before he leaves ACC, though, Wade has one more challenge to tackle: delivering the college’s sole student commencement address. Writing his remarks has made him eager to close out this chapter in his life and start the next one.
“I want to make my speech more about turning a page,” he said. “If you have patience, and if you stay calm and think things through, you can really do anything that you want to do. You can learn to be anything you want to be.”