High school is prime time for questioning—who we are, what we want in life and for most students, how is what I am learning going to apply to the real world?
For one class at CEC, that question was answered last week by Firefighter Joe Cordova, a CEC alum, who stopped by to speak to current Fire Science students about his experiences following graduation and the struggles and victories of establishing a career.
Cordova came to the CEC Middle College of Denver as a sophomore and immediately chose fire science as his career course of choice. He knew early on what he wanted to do when he grew up, but what he didn’t know was what the path would look like to get there.
Fortunately, there was instructor Gil Lettig an established fire fighter who taught the class at that time, who encouraged Cordova and taught him many of the foundational skills he would need to enter the field. Learning didn’t come easy for Cordova—in most of his classes he earned Cs and Ds, but the hands-on aspect of the fire science class appealed to him and kept him striving to do well and stay focused on his education. Having a learning disability didn’t help either he said, “I struggled in high school. Learning was difficult for me, but Mr. Lettig told me not to give up on my goals.” He said, “there are people just like you with your disabilities and struggles and they are fire fighters, so don’t give up on your dreams,” Cordova said of his conversations with Lettig.
Come graduation, Cordova’s persistence and dedication paid off because he was rewarded a full-ride scholarship to Red Rocks Community College; the first scholarship of its kind rewarded to a CEC student. “I’m not sure how I got it. My grades weren’t great, but I think it was my SAT scores that I scored really high on,” he said.
Taking full advantage of the opportunity set in front of him, Cordova attended Red Rocks and continued on his path, taking Fire Science at the community college. And it was there that his CEC training truly paid off. “My CEC class was right on cue because when you leave here and go do the training, you are one up on everyone else. What they do at CEC is right on target and when you get to college you have one up on someone who hasn’t had this training,” said Cordova.
Cordova went on to get all of his certifications—“I got Fire Fighter one and two, EMT Training one, two and three and then I went to the fire academy to get hands-on training and passed that,” he said. But the tricky part was actually landing a job. “I was going to different locations throughout Colorado—Westminster, Broomfield, Longmont, Castle Rock, Golden, Denver Littleton—and tested for all of them and failed. Six months later I tested again and it’s me against 5000 people each time, so it’s pretty intimidating and I failed again. It took me six times to take the test and on the sixth time I passed the written.”
Once Joe finally made it through the written, his career began to move forward—he finished the academy and became an honorary fire fighter, working his way through his first year as a “probie” (probationary fire fighter) and was finally hired full-time with the Littleton Fire Department.
Joe is a testament to the work being done at CEC and a true role model to the students with which he spoke while visiting at the school. He not only gave the students advice on how to navigate the field of fire fighting, but gave them practical advice too. Joe explained the need to be flexible and patient, as fire fighting is a challenging and competitive career to enter. “I had to learn to lay carpet to have a job and make money during the process,” he told the students. He also prepared them for the difficulties of the career, as he came close to quitting after his first call as a fire fighter, which involved an infant mortality. “I almost couldn’t handle it, but I thought I made it this far, why quit now?”
Joe made a visible impact on the students he visited with at CEC, sharing his perspective on his career. “Firefighting isn’t about the pay or recognition or to be a hero. I do it to save lives and to help people,” he said. It can be a tough road, but don’t ever give up on your dreams.”