Ex-roofer sets sights on PhD, wants to help others

Lost, drinking heavily, and living on unemployment and Social Security disability checks, Gabriel Gates decided he needed to make a change in his life.

“I remember thinking ‘well, my eyes aren’t going to get any better,’” Gates, now 30, said recently. “I decided I’d better find a job where I can work with my brain.”

On May 22, Gates, who is legally blind as a result of a degenerative eye disease, will join 1,090 spring 2009 graduates of the university. More than 800 are expected to participate in ceremonies scheduled to begin at 11 a.m. at the World Arena.

Gates will earn a bachelor’s degree in psychology, a step in his goal to earn an advanced degree and to work either as a psychologist or as a special education teacher for the visually impaired.

“I want to give back so that the next generation can be successful,” Gates said.

Though he is earning a 3.5 (A-) grade point average and is completing an honors thesis, school was far from easy for the graduate of the Colorado School for the Deaf and the Blind. Gates spent his youth in Trinidad, Colo., and returned there by bus on weekends following his week at CSDB.

“I spent a long time getting ready to make the transition from my old life to a new one,” Gates said. “It was a huge adjustment. Hard, physical work doesn’t even compare to the exhaustion that a dedicated college student feels.”

After working as a roofer, flat concrete worker, and spending three years as a machine mechanic for Sealy Mattress, Gates began his college career at Pikes Peak Community College in fall 2004. He transferred to UCCS in spring 2007 and quickly earned the respect of peers and professors alike as he balanced academic life with family responsibilities and volunteer work at PPCC and CSDB. Gates also worked as a research assistant investigating college student retention for UCCS and is the project coordinator of the adult blind and visually impaired role model team directed by CSDB.

He and long-time girlfriend, Gina, care for five children. The children, Angelo, Andres, Nina, Zelene and Daniel will be cheering for Gates from their seats at the World Arena.

While Gates gives his gratitude to his family, professors, and the Office of Disability Services for their support, he credits his grandmother for inspiring him to become the first in the family to earn a college degree and his desire to be a role model for his own children.

“I only ever wanted the best for my children and that is what keeps me going today,” he said. “As a father, it is my responsibility to build an empire for my children. I don’t want them to have to deal with the same adversities I experienced. I want my children to have a secure foundation, so they only have to focus on their schooling and not have to worry about outside tribulations.”

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