All of the obstacles to fail were neatly lined up for Bita Ashouri upon her entrance into Community College of Aurora in 1999. A virtual slalom course of excuses, some self-imposed, were aligned to potentially impede or stop her progress.
She had been kicked out of two different local high schools, perfecting the art of skipping class along the way but somehow managing to graduate anyway. Her home life was equally chaotic. Born in Denver to Iranian immigrants, her first language was Farsi. She learned English by necessity starting at about age 3, building her language skills in American classrooms until she became fluent.
Ashouri never did know her biological father and, until she was eight years old, lived in cramped quarters with grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins while her mom worked extensively. Mom's long hours prompted Bita to equate a 9-to-5 work existence to abandonment and vowed to avoid that kind of future.
Within that same family dynamic, Rivas directly or indirectly experienced trauma, abuse and alcoholism.
Her life became further complicated at age 19 when she bore an infant with profound hearing loss, meaning resentment and anger could no longer only be her sole companions.
But at CCA, she sought out a support system and found it.
She moved forward in her life and sought paths far removed from the ones she desperately wanted to avoid and took them.
And when she eventually became a licensed professional counselor just last year, under her married name Bita Ashouri Rivas, she found what she had sought for so long – her calling, and a sense of peace in a profession in which she has an unabashed passion.
"I don't think I knew what I wanted to do," Rivas said, reflecting back on her the jumping-off point that led her to CCA essentially kicking and screaming 15 years ago. "I knew I needed to go to school and pick something so I could support myself, but I just didn't know what that looked like. Part of that is developmental. Part of it is having the guidance around what your goals are. But I was kind of unstable at that time, too.
"I was 19. I had a kid. I had to support my daughter. I had to work. I had to find babysitting. Those things get in the way of someone who's 19 and doesn't have those responsibilities and can figure out what they want to do."
Rivas would in some respects considered an atypical student but her background only made her a typical CCA student, given the college's wide-ranging demographics.
"That's the beautiful thing about adolescence is you don't see past your nose," she said with a laugh. "I didn't."
What she did know clearly back then was she didn't particularly like school. Also, she was determined to stay in college only two years then bolt. Sticking it out just wasn't in her DNA at the time. The plan was to figure out a path and pursue it.
What that would ultimately resemble when she reached the finish line of her personal and professional search was completely unclear way back when.
"Statistically, I should have dropped out and been the typical teenage mom with lots of kids that didn't finish," Rivas maintained. "Statistically I shouldn't have even finished high school. I did barely finish high school. I shouldn't have finished college. I'm a statistical anomaly."
In 2014, she potentially stands as an inspiration to what is likely a considerable group of students at CentreTech and Lowry searching for answers in their own academic lives and attempting to envision futures paved with attainable possibilities.
If Rivas proved anything emphatically during her journey is that success doesn't have to occur overnight. There's a victory in itself that comes with slogging through to the very end.
Her search just to find a career that suited her would take nearly nine years.
That teenager who once vowed to stick and move academically instead stuck around and continued to move forward. She went through majors like mints after heading to Metropolitan State University in Denver in 2001. English. Speech Pathology and Audiology. Biology. Psychology. Rivas looked into pharmacy school and teaching. She waited tables and worked at Wal-Mart, cementing her hatred of the retail trade as a possible profession.
"I just didn't want to be a worker bee," she said.
But, in a sense, she was just that – just in the classroom and at home.
Rivas had two more children, a husband, and had maxed out her undergraduate credits and student loans by 2007, her last semester at Metro. And even though she ended up earning a bachelor's degree in Biology with a minor in Chemistry, her future direction was no clearer with that piece of paper in hand.
She opted to continue plugging away, doing the family thing, studying, searching.
Once Rivas discovered her passion – offering professional counseling to individuals and families with backgrounds that had tinges of her own life embedded within – look out.
Her bachelor of arts occurred right around the time she made that career epiphany and spurred a flurry of academic activity her 19-year-old self would have snickered at.
She earned a Masters in Clinical Mental Health Counseling in two years and finished her doctorate in just 38 months, both at Argosy University. She went on to teach both as an adjunct at CCA and at the University of Colorado-Colorado Springs, as well as share a clinical practice with her husband.
"All it takes is perseverance," Rivas surmised. "It doesn't take any great intelligence. It's not a mass feat. It's not huge. It's just jumping through hoops, breaking it down and taking it one step at a time."
John Young was just beginning his second year at CCA as a counselor in Financial Aid when he hired Rivas as work-study in the late 1990s. Little did he know he'd also be playing matchmaker, too, having also hired Rivas' groom-to-be, Anthony, in the department.
"I knew they would do well because when they were here they had pretty good work ethics overall," Young, now the college's director of Financial Aid, said. "They would always show up on time and when they were working they were hard workers. She was a very hard worker."
Young was an early influence especially on Bita, helping her with mundane tasks such as comparing credit cards for interest rates and fees. More than that, Young and the work-study program helped her feel a connection to, and investment in, CCA that had been missing in previous academic arenas.
Having Anthony around as a sounding board helped the maturation process, too.
"It would be apropos to say we were in the same place at the same time: cognitively, developmentally and physically – location-wise," Anthony recalled.
CCA was a place where the couple got their bearings as well as that buy-in academically.
"The one thing that we really have in common is just that belief that we can do something," Anthony explained. "And knowing students that do go to community college and start out there, I think that just having someone to believe in them or the ability to believe in themselves is probably going to be their greatest asset, because if you believe you can or can't do something, you're right either way.
"Both Bita and I believed we could do it," he added. "What it would look like, maybe she wasn't sure. I had a little clearer vision, though not 100 percent. But we both believed we could do it."
Anthony's academic path began with his own failed trial at Metro before switching to CCA.
He and Bita then transferred back to Metro and in Dec. 2003, Anthony earned his bachelors in Psychology. He would go on to serve as director of advising at Art Institute of Colorado while concurrently enrolling in the counseling program at Regis University. By '07, he had his Masters in Psychology in hand along with certificates in professional advising and ethical and cultural perspective.
It was right around that time that Bita finally would begin to figure out her path. A case study in an anatomy lab was the tinder to what would become an emotional flame.
"I found that my way of thinking about the case looked different than everyone else," she recalled. "Someone had fallen off a horse and I started thinking about the other conditions that might have led to it. I thought about his mental health. No one else was thinking that."
Her thought process changed in another important way, after that experience. The Biology emphasis was a fait accompli by that point. But her career pathway wasn't set in stone.
"I think it's the ultimate challenge for undergraduates, and it was my thinking, that you have to know what you want to do and that your degree is going to work for you," she said. "Sometimes that degree doesn't work for you. You need that degree and you have to keep going but you can change. It's OK to change careers with that Masters."
A class on Maladaptive Behaviors in Psychopathology turned her world on its axis and led her to enroll in grad school. A job at an adolescent girls residential treatment facility in Aurora in conjunction with the mental-health curriculum finally washed away the indecisiveness that had enveloped her for years.
"I was so scared. I thought, 'I'm going to get stabbed in the eye with a pencil from these girls.' I heard horror stories, and there were some really traumatic things that happened to these girls. And I think, to a degree, I related to that because I had a chaotic home life – not that I was sexually abused – but it's through those challenges we grow the most. It's the struggles that help us realize our strengths.
"So that was my turning point."
This past December, Bita and Anthony Rivas each walked through the graduation ceremony at Argosy as they received their doctorate degrees. The two couldn't help but laugh as professors approached them. "Dr. Rivas," they'd say, looking into Bita's eyes. "Dr. Rivas," they'd add, turning their attention to Anthony.
It's a scenario made all the more amazing considering that the couple's three children – Cydney, 15; Brennan, 12; and Charlotte, 8 – had one or both of their parents at their school and extracurricular activities, despite all the school work and full-time jobs that accompanied raising a family.
Bita Rivas looks almost the age of one of her children in an old photo with Anthony taken at the zoo right around the time of their joint CCA experience. Little could they have known at the time that their path to success would be a whole different animal.
Anthony smiled as he examined himself – scruffy beard, hat and all – in the old photo. Were these the same two people who now co-own their own practice, Alchemy of Healing Counseling, in a small office in Lone Tree? Did their academic and personal journey really date back that long?
All the framed diplomas on the walls of their practice prove it reality and a dream, combined.
"It's surreal," Anthony said. "I'll joke with Bita sometimes because it is so surreal. How did these kids with all these things in their lives do this? Bita was a single mom when we met. And these two kids just made it happen. Looking back then, I think I thought it could happen, but even looking at it today, I'm still amazed it did happen."
When Bita taught Psychology at CCA from 2010-13, she made sure to tell her students that this was the place where her academic journey really started. One of her biggest takeaways was hearing her students' stories about struggle, cultural assimilation, and yes, indecision about their future paths.
She couldn't help but see herself in them in what amounted to a dizzying full circle of life.
"There was a lot of fumbling, and it was hard, and it was tedious. And sometimes I would make excuses up why I wasn't in class," said Rivas, who recently became a full-time faculty member at CU-Colorado Springs in its department of counseling and human services. "But, for the most part, I was in class. I rarely missed a class. I may have jacked up my homework assignments or didn't do well on tests but I was there in class. And I say this to students all the time: Being there is just half the battle."