Jesús Trujillo’s Expansive Journey

There was a time when Jesús Trujillo found comfort only in the familiar and couldn’t imagine leaving his hometown of Soso, Mississippi. That all changed when he saw the Pacific Ocean. It was the summer before his senior year at West Jones High School when Jesús traveled to Japan with the Mississippi All State Lions Club Band. It was a journey of firsts: his first time on an airplane, his first time outside the United States, his first time seeing the Pacific Ocean. Yet, what resonated most for Jesús was seeing the Pacific “from Japan’s point of view,” a transformational experience he carries with him to this day. “I just kind of had this sense that woke up in me that I need more—more—but there's so much more and we only live so long…”

It’s the type of old-soul sentiment that one might expect from a person well beyond Jesús's years, but those who have spent even a short amount of time with him can sense that he is uniquely thoughtful (and thought-filled), as if inhabiting an irrepressible tendency toward existential reflection.

It was not long after that experience that Jesús attended a leadership summit at the University of Mississippi. There he met people his age from throughout the state and was inspired by the diversity, identities, and stories they so easily shared with one another. He says: “I learned to be more accepting of myself, and this was a major turning point for me.”

A first-generation college student, Jesús recently graduated from the College of Continuing and Professional Studies (CCAPS) with an Inter-College Program (ICP) bachelor of science degree. His areas of study: Life Sciences and Gender, Women, and Sexuality Studies. At the heart of these studies was the opportunity for Jesús to satisfy his interest in science, particularly chemistry and biochemistry, as well as his love for the humanities, including intersectional feminist studies, which defines people’s identities beyond gender.

But there’s a lot that took place between Mississippi and Minnesota. “Growing up, I never thought I would be able to do science,” Jesús wrote in his ICP final proposal. “I was a little brown boy living in the middle of nowhere in Mississippi. Where was I to go?”

Swimming Upstream

Jesús remembers the pile of mail that poured in from colleges and universities around the country, and that the piece that caught his attention was the smallest: “Gustavus Adolphus,” he reveals. “The name itself stuck out and it was just like a little postcard from a tiny town in Minnesota that I never heard of.” It was enough to pique his interest and the following fall, Jesús was in St. Peter, Minnesota, where he spent his freshman year.

Jesús Trujillo stands amongst the greenery of the U of M Conservatory

A “refinement of interests” and desire to attend a larger school prompted Jesús to enroll at the University of Minnesota after completing his sophomore year. As Jesús adjusted to his Twin Cities surroundings and a new academic landscape, he found that both his interests and his skills continued to evolve. This made it difficult, at times, to settle on a major for his undergraduate degree. Call it happenstance, call it serendipity, but just as Jesús had been enchanted by the postcard, so, too, was he drawn to an ICP brochure his roommate brought home from a college fair.

Looking back he says, “The Inter-College Program immediately grabbed my attention. I loved the flexibility that the ICP had to offer throughout my interest changes.”

Jesús also credits the program with allowing him to “combine the sciences that I love—natural and social—and describe the connections I see between them. I wanted to do more science. I didn't want to give up the mystery. But I wanted and knew that I couldn't keep going with only chemistry.”

His ICP adviser, Karen Moon, describes Jesus as someone with an active and accurate internal compass. "However Jesús might be exploring, it was toward new objectives. Instead of self-limiting, he's been on an expansive journey throughout his undergraduate degree."

Diving In

One would be hard pressed to not recognize Jesús's passion for and growing expertise in the sciences. One year into his major, he began advanced studies in chemistry and added a biochemistry minor. But what surprised even him was how much he would come to appreciate sharing that passion with others. “I really enjoyed it,” he says of his work as an undergraduate teaching assistant for an introductory biochemistry course. “It didn’t feel like work.” The experience also brought about a sense of certainty, “One thing that I am certain about is that I want to be able to work with people and for people.”

“To me, self-acceptance can help foster understanding of others. I do not want to live my life only aware of my experiences.”

The more Jesús dove into his studies, the more aware he became of the opportunities to support his academic growth, such as the Multicultural Summer Research Opportunities Program (MSROP), an intensive ten-week summer program in which undergraduate students of color work full-time with a faculty mentor on a research project while also taking graduate school preparation seminars.

His participation in the 2021 cohort culminated in a showcase during which Jesús presented his project, Phenotypic Analysis of the Actbcg/Actg1-/-Cell Model, to the University community. In the audience was Karen Moon, who notes: "It was a joy to witness recognition of Jesus's contributions of self and scientific sophistication through the MSROP cohort and mentor comments."

Oceans, Large and Small

With just under a month between the end of MSROP and the start of his final semester, Jesús needed a break. “Sometimes my body stays up late for no reason and I just come up with ideas—but this one hit me like an exclamation mark,” he says of his impulse to drive the Great Lakes. “I've always wanted to go on a road trip and I've always wanted to go to more parts of the country. Being land-locked, I miss the ocean, and so I thought: I'll take the Great Lakes. There’s not that salty seawater or that salty sea air to the lakes, but there's still a vastness that I really appreciate.”

Jesús Trujillo next to large fern

Over the course of the next 29 days, he drove the Great Lakes alone, camping in parking lots and National Parks, meeting fellow travelers, taking time to immerse himself in nature, and true to his own nature, taking time to reflect.

Jesús thought about the semester ahead and his impending graduation, as well as his post-graduation plans. For starters, he hopes to secure a job in a research lab, and at some point—when he senses the time is right—pursue a graduate degree. Wherever he lands, Jesús wants to impart a sense of diversity and human understanding through his work. “To me, self-acceptance can help foster understanding of others. I do not want to live my life only aware of my experiences.”

Once uncomfortable with the journey beyond the familiar, Jesús seems to have embraced just that. When asked how he sees himself now he says, “I’m a big conglomeration of all my lived experiences, which is like, so immense… I think in the simplest terms, I feel like myself.”

Pro Tip for Future Students

“Give yourself options. I considered at least four different degrees before finding and choosing my degree. It takes time if you are going through a period of change or transition, so giving yourself more options and some time will help you find your right fit.”

Jesús is a recipient of the Karin L. Larson Scholarship and the College of Continuing and Professional Studies Scholarship.

Photos: Anastasia Faunce