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CU Nursing Student Gabriel Toepel

Adoptee. Reservist. Scholar. Student.

minute read

Written by Dana Brandorff on September 30, 2021

This two-part video showcases how University of Colorado College of Nursing student Gabriel Toepel’s life has been a series of unfortunate/fortunate events. But despite setback and “what ifs”, Gabriel’s positivity shines through.  

Part 1: Adoptee. Reservist. Scholar. Student.

Narrator: Adopted as a toddler from Japan, CU Nursing student Gabriel Toepel’s life has been a series of unfortunate/fortunate events. But despite setbacks and “what ifs”, Gabriel’s positivity shines through.

Gabriel Toepel: “My mom always tells me this story. She says, I knew from the moment you walked out that you were the one.”

Narrator: After his adoption, the family moved back to the U.S. where Gabriel became a track star, placing fifth in the state.

Gabriel Toepel: “I started receiving letters from a lot of people, uh, west point being the main recruitment and then UNC, CU, MIT… I think for west point specifically, their caveat is you have to be a U.S. citizen in order to go to any military academy.”

Narrator: Because his paperwork had been destroyed in a fire, he could not prove citizenship and was still considered a Japanese citizen. West Point took back their offer.

Gabriel Toepel: “I was disappointed. I was very angry. I was very sad. .. Everything was out of my control at the time.”

Narrator: Instead, Gabriel went to Adams State University and his mom worked to pay for tuition. Then one day she was laid off. Gabriel had to drop out.

Gabriel Toepel: “It was probably one of the hardest decisions I’ve ever made in my life. Leaving my teammates, my training, my coaches, my education, just kind of pausing everything just to make it easier. And I feel like I made the right decision at the time.”

Narrator: Unable to afford school and work without documentation, Gabriel focused on gaining citizenship. He applied three times and each time was rejected. That’s when his dad suggested he join the military, which was offering citizenship in exchange for service. Gabriel enlisted in the U.S. Air Force.  

Gabriel Toepel: “When I graduated from basic training, they had the citizenship ceremony… It was a huge moment for me. Almost, I felt like all that weight I was carrying most of my life up till that point to get there finally drifted off.”

Narrator: The military made it possible for Gabriel to go back to school and pursue a nursing career at CU.

Gabriel Toepel: “The military has been a real big blessing for me.”

Narrator: Even though Gabriel has had his share of challenges, he hasn’t let them control his life.

Gabriel Toepel: “Looking back it’s one of those things where I’m supposed to be right now. That was an opportunity and a moment, however I’m making new opportunities. I’m making new moments and it’s just kind of moving forward and not letting those roadblocks keep you down and kind of keep me in that negative mindset.”

Part 2: Discovering his roots

Narrator: Adopted as a toddler, CU Nursing student Gabriel Toepel has been on a quest to find out more about his roots.

Gabriel Toepel: “…knowing your backstory and where you came from and what defines you and grounds you I feel like that is what grounds me is my past history of struggle.”

Narrator: So he reached out to the adoption agency.

Gabriel Toepel: “For me, it’s always been one of those things where I was always nervous of being rejected or told no or dismissed. . .the reluctancy I had was do they still want to communicate with me? And that’s been something burdensome I’ve been holding for most of my life.”

Narrator: He discovered that while his mother was doing a work-abroad study in Kenya, she met his father and fell in love. She returned to Japan unmarried and pregnant. 

Gabriel Toepel: “Having a child, being single, unmarried, especially having a mixed interracial child at the time was looked at very negatively.”

Narrator: At the time, her actions were considered dishonorable.

Gabriel Toepel: She did the best she could. And she provided for me as best she could. It just got really difficult.

Narrator: One day when his mother was at work, his uncle took him and dropped him off at the closest orphanage.

Gabriel Toepel: “She didn’t know about it at the time. And when she had to sign me off to be released to this new family. It was probably the hardest decision she’s ever made. I don’t think any mother wants to lose their child and I feel like in this story, at least, it was what was best.”

Narrator: Today, Gabriel has been in touch with his birth mother. She’s shared documents about his family. And a local Buddhist monk has agreed to help translate them.

Gabriel Toepel: “So it was a pleasant surprise hearing that she was very excited to reach out and have communication with me…. Knowing that she was super happy of where I was, what I was doing and how far I’ve come.”

Narrator: He’s flown sky high – in the U.S. Air Force. He’s also earning a Bachelor of Science degree in nursing from the University of Colorado College of Nursing.

Gabriel Toepel: “… nursing has always been something on the front of my mind. I’ve wanted to do this since 2008.”

Narrator: Why CU?

Gabriel Toepel: “CU represents more than just a name. It’s a culture. And I wanted to be a part of a culture that’s inclusive. I wanted to be a part of a culture that took care of its people but also a culture that allowed everyone an opportunity to succeed. I feel like CU is a school that best represents all those attributes that not only make you good healthcare professional but make you a good person.”

Narrator: For Gabriel it’s about his journey. From his early years in a Japanese orphanage to today as a staff sergeant in the Air Force and CU Nursing student, Gabriel has shown grit and determination and that he has the right stuff.

Gabriel Toepel: “I’m glad I’m here, where I’m at now. And I’m glad that I was able to make it this far. And not give up.”

Topics: Students