CHADRON – Cristian Yanes-Salazar made a life-changing pivot at Chadron State College. With guidance from caring faculty, he rebounded from dropping out of high school and couch surfing to being named the Outstanding Biology student at his graduation in 2015.
“For those who also have disadvantages, your personal drive to succeed will deliver over time. The key is to find your passion, punch through the muck, and see the best of what you’re capable of,” said Yanes-Salazar whose disadvantages included learning English as a second language and being the first member of his family to graduate from college.
Currently an Air Defense Officer 14A, Yanes-Salazar is a tactical director managing four Patriot Air and Missile Defense systems deployed in Southwest Asia. He is also an operations officer helping assure the battalion is trained, proficient and combat ready.
Yanes-Salazar, who was born in California and grew up in both the U.S. and Guatemala, plans to pursue a medical career through an Army program called Interservice Physician’s Assistant, accredited by the University of Nebraska Medical Center, where service members obtain a degree and practice in the Army. He is awaiting authorization to postpone his promotion to commander to enter the program.
While Yanes-Salazar is enjoying success now, that wasn’t always the case. He wanted to improve his situation, though, so he enrolled at Pine Ridge Job Corps in 2008 and graduated with a GED and a certificate in Health Occupations Training in elder care nine months later.
His Health Occupations instructor, Bonnie Blunt, sparked his interest in education and science. Blunt said she could immediately see how bright and personable Yanes-Salazar was. When she asked him where he was going to college, he responded that he hadn’t considered that idea before.
Tammy Calamari, Yanes-Salazar’s Job Corps counselor at the time and a CSC graduate, also took a special interest in his post-secondary education. She drove him down the snowy January hills to Chadron State College.
“That day, I felt as if had won the lottery. Never in my life would I have seen myself enrolled on a college campus, but thanks to the kindness of a complete stranger, I was,” said Yanes-Salazar who was invited back to Job Corps as a graduation speaker in 2015.
Once he was settled in at CSC, Yanes-Salazar began to thrive. He said almost every faculty member he met had an influential role in his education and overall success.
Yanes-Salazar had a glimpse of the health professions while caring for his grandfather in Grand Island, Nebraska. He also served as a translator between his grandfather and medical professionals.
“I was hungry for more. My appetite for knowledge, understanding scientific intricacies, learning the rules of physics, visualizing the chemical reactions that occur at the physiological level and, in turn, drive our anatomical functions, led me to pursue a health related education,” Yanes-Salazar said. “I like to think of a health care provider as an ambassador or liaison to a patient’s body.”
Faculty members in the life sciences recall his eagerness to gain knowledge.
Dr. Joyce Hardy said Yanes-Salazar knew where he wanted to go, what to do to get there, and worked to make his goals a reality. But his willingness to help others set him apart.
“Cristian was committed to helping others achieve their goals, as well. He was a solid team leader in laboratory investigations, a good study partner with his colleagues, and a consistently positive influence. His presence and interactions enriched the learning of his peers and enhanced the quality of our program, serving as a quiet, yet effective, role model,” Hardy said.
Dr. Wendy Jamison said nearly every week, Yanes-Salazar and two friends stayed after her lab to further discuss the concepts of the week and he typically led the conversations.
“Cristian's overall success in our program is meaningful to me. His growth academically was incredible. It was fantastic to watch him achieve success, knowing how hard he was working while balancing a busy schedule. He pursued knowledge for the purpose of understanding, not just for a good grade, which is what allowed him to achieve success. His passion to pursue a future in medicine motivated him to push forward and work hard,” Jamison said.
“I am extremely proud of Cristian and his accomplishments. He is a hard working young man who has given back to both other students, trying to help them achieve success, and our country through his military service.”
While Yanes-Salazar was reaping rewards for his diligent academic work, the puzzle of how to finance his education also started to come together. On a chilly morning walk to the Math and Science building, he saw a banner on the National Guard building advertising free tuition so he stopped to learn more.
He eventually met with Capt. Ray Phillips, who presented a convincing case for Yanes-Salazar to become an Army ROTC cadet.
“Captain Phillips sold me on the package of leading, responsibility and making a positive impact on numerous soldiers. ROTC filled a gap in my life with discipline and motivation,” he said.
Through ROTC, Yanes-Salazar traveled to Lille, France, to participate in the Cultural Language Proficiency Program, an initiative to immerse future Army leaders in the cultures of other countries, learn from foreign militaries and cultivate partnerships. He also attended Leadership Development Assessment Camp, a culminating evaluation of senior cadets.
Yanes-Salazar is thankful for the support system he discovered at CSC.
“The one-to-one time with genuine professors made my experience at CSC unforgettable. The environment was competitive but every student was allowed to compete equally, especially those who sought out extra help. My professors understood my background and dedicated those extra precious minutes to assure I was keeping up. I would say attending CSC was my best judgement call in life,” Yanes-Salazar said.
—Tena L. Cook, Marketing Coordinator