Thousands of Coloradans have college credit but no degree. It took 52 years and a lifetime of experience for Travis Broxton to walk a graduation stage.

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Travis Broxton, 72, spent five decades more or less in and out of school before finally earning his degree in photography. He graduates Dec. 17 with a bachelor’s degree in Art from Metropolitan State University in Denver.

Travis Broxton took his first college course in 1969.

Sometimes though, life gets in the way.

In 2020, he decided he wanted to get that degree.

 “My wife had kept bugging me … I said I don’t like not finishing something I’ve started, so I think after 52 years it’s probably time to finish it,” he laughed.

Broxton, 72, enrolled in Metropolitan State University of Denver in one of his passions: art.

His experience in higher education, leaving college early, is not uncommon.

About 680,000 people in Colorado have left college without earning a degree.

There’s an effort underway to get Colorado residents who have some credits under their belt across the finish line in order to meet the state’s workforce needs. The state launched the Finish What You Started program in 2021 to help people go back to school and earn their degree or credential.

MSU Denver has the state’s largest grant this year —  $5.7 million – to recruit and support adults with some college credit who have been out of school for at least two semesters. The goal is to support 900 students over the next five years. Students start with a $1,000 scholarship in the first semester and get more money in the following years, along with emergency support.

“Historically when a student hits that roadblock, it’s like I’m going to throw my hands in the air, take a semester off, and five years later I haven’t gone back to school yet. We’ll have funds to help support when students hit those obstacles to say ‘hey, I lost a job, hey I need child care, how can you support me?’” said Megan Scherzberg, director of MSU Denver’s Orientation, Transfer and Retention Office.

The university is hiring five people who are called “reengagement navigators.” They will each oversee a small cohort of students. Scherzberg met with a group of students last week who re-enrolled, and they said “this is exactly what I needed when I was in college. I didn’t know who to go to,” she said.

The university also hopes to enroll thousands of Coloradans who are looking to learn more or train for more lucrative jobs. (More information at [email protected].) 

Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
Travis Broxton, 72, at right, spent five decades more or less in and out of school before finally earning his degree in photography. He graduates Dec. 17 with a bachelor’s degree in Art from Metropolitan State University in Denver.

While Broxton may not be headed back into the workforce, he says there are numerous personal and life enriching benefits to completing something he started more than 50 years ago.

His path to the graduation stage was marked by a lifetime of experiences. 

Broxton began his college journey in 1969 at Lincoln University, the nation’s first degree-granting Historically Black College and University. It began with a pre-med class — it “ lasted one semester.” Broxton switched to major in history. But there were other interests lurking. His roommate was into photography so taught Broxton how to develop film in the darkroom.

“I was hooked,” he said.

Broxton bought a 35-millimeter camera that he took with him everywhere.

Three years as a staff photographer at his college paper transfixed him even more.

“I got to meet so many people from (civil rights activist and politician) Julian Bond, to Stevie Wonder, to (singer-songwriter) Curtis Mayfield, (poet) Nikki Giovanni… It was just amazing what having a camera could do for you and the people you could meet.”

But money was tight and in the fall of his junior year, Broxton got a letter to join Sears’ management training program.

“I said, whoa, I got a job, I’m good to go.”

He left college just one semester shy of graduating. He loved Sears and moved up the ranks. A new job took him to Denver where Broxton rode the wave of the advent of personal computers and then cell phones. Along the way he took the odd photography class at MSU Denver. Eventually, on the weekends, he began shooting distinctive and striking wedding photographs.

After 31 years in retail management, Broxton became a full-time photographer in 2002. He shot weddings in Europe and across the country, including those of sports celebrities and their families. But his real love was street photography.

“Capturing the happenstance of life. There’s sort of like a poetry to the whole thing when you capture that decisive moment.”

Courtesy Travis Broxton
A photo taken at Broadway and Colfax.

One of his black and white photos is a beautiful, spontaneous shot reflecting the toll and tenderness of life.  He took it from his car at a red light at Colfax and Broadway in downtown Denver. A man is leaning back, asleep, his head resting on a bus stop bench. A woman next to him. She has her hand resting on his leg.

“I shoot a lot with a long lens, if I’m driving around I got my camera in my passenger seat and if I see something I’ll snap it outside the passenger side window.”

Broxton also shot photographs for charity that took him around the world —  to Bedouin villages in the deserts of Israel. He visited the Roma people in Romania the Kurdish people in Armenia, who he said were the warmest people he’s ever met.

“I would assume that I was probably the first person of color they’ve seen in their life. They look at you and they stare and they come up and just hug you,” he said.

Courtesy Travis Broxton
Travis Broxton traveled in Romania taking pictures.

Broxton shares his artwork online. His main page includes photographs from the streets, travels around the world, observations and photographs of musicians. His wedding, engagement and family photographs are colorful and creative with an artistic and imaginative flair. A third website is Broxton’s “creative” photographs and designs of skyscrapers, industrial plants, urban walkways and more.

“I create these images that call attention to things we see but don't see by selective duplication and reconstruction, creating unique new designs,” he said.  “The challenge is to see beyond the distraction of the conspicuous, and to find a new way to reassemble the subject.  Once I find that unifying element, I use it to create the final image.” 

Courtesy Travis Broxton
Creative work by Travis Broxton.

Despite his accomplishments, Broxton knew there was always more to learn. And he never got that degree he always wanted.

“I said, go back and let’s get it done and I want to get it in art, something I love to do.”

At MSU Denver, he knew he’d be in classrooms with students 50 years younger than him.

“I love being around young people. I love what’s going through their minds. I love seeing how they express themselves. And nobody ever looked at me like I was this old guy in the class. Maybe that’s part of being in the art world. There’s a lot more openness in art.”

Even around his much younger professors, “I always mentioned I went to Woodstock, and they’re always like, wow, you went to Woodstock!”

He said his professors were fabulous.

“I couldn’t ask for a better group of people leading classes.”

Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
Travis Broxton, in the back row with a ball cap and blue mask, listens as a classmate delivers are presentation at the Center for Visual Art in Denver.

'I am everyday people'

Watching one of his final photography projects, a five-minute video, reinforces one of Broxton’s core beliefs —  the commonality of all people. It’s got Sly and the Family Stone’s “Everyday People” as one of the background music selections.

“When I first heard that song back in 1969, it was like, ‘we are all everyday people!’…that has stuck with me 52 years since it was released!” 

The video presentation has photographs spanning Broxton’s career, alongside historical photographs. The gay pride parade in Denver. Street scenes in Paris. Obama’s nomination.  Gun violence. Images of his nephew who was shot and killed in Newark, New Jersey. Broxton says he’ll never understand violence and hate.

“The hate and dislike of the gay community, I just don’t understand that either. Let people be people.”

But the resounding feeling after watching the video is Broxton’s profound love of people. Last month, Travis Broxton earned his bachelor’s degree in art from MSU Denver. His advice (though he credits his wife) for others who have some college credits under their belts:

“Time is going to pass so why not? What are you waiting for? Just do it. Go back and finish what you started. Learn something, keep your brain active, you never know who you’re going to meet, you never know what opportunities are going to present themselves to you. It’s a new world. Just do it. Just do it.”