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CU Nursing undergrad student Tesa Cocchiara

Following Her Passion: Undergrad Finds Home in Colorado, CU Nursing

BSN undergrad Tessa Cocchiara recounts her journey from South Carolina to Denver

Written by Bob Mook on January 27, 2023

When you identify as a queer while growing up in a small, socially conservative town, you are highly motivated to live where you fit in. Fortunately, Tessa Cocchiara found herself, and her people, in other parts of the world – eventually landing in Colorado.

Now married, Cocchiara is enrolled in the Traditional Nursing Bachelor’s program at the University of Colorado College of Nursing and is scheduled to graduate in May, 2023. With a special passion for serving marginalized people, she works as a “floater” at Denver Health assisting different departments in the hospital system.

Cocchiara’s serendipitous approach to life, education, and career has led her to interesting places and experiences that should serve patients and her colleagues well moving forward.

From South Carolina to Chicago


Tessa Cocchiara receiving the Gender Studies Award 2014

Born and raised in Bluffton, S.C., Cocchiara says that both of her parents were hard workers. Overall, she describes her upbringing as “pretty great.”

“We weren’t necessarily wealthy, but I had a lot of opportunities,” she says.

Still, being gay in a small, southern town can be uncomfortable. She says she “kind of knew” that she was “different” around the time she was 12.

“I wasn’t sure what to do, and I was pretty sure that talking about it with anyone outside of my family would be fraught,” she says. “Sure, there are lots of gay people in rural areas, but they’re not very open about it. Often, queer people congregate in cities. I was born in a small town, so I went to Chicago to find myself.”

She wasted no time in getting a sense of the world outside of the South upon arriving in Northwestern University, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in gender and sexuality studies. After graduating, she was hired as a research assistant at what is now known as the Institute of Sexual and Gender Minority Health and Wellbeing at Northwestern University.

Detour to Peru


Tessa Cocchiara with the Peace Corps in Peru

When one of Cocchiara’s brothers served in the Peace Corps in Panama, Cocchiara became inspired to join the organization herself. She was assigned to Peru and served as a community health volunteer.

“My role was to help at a little health post,” she says. “There’s a health post in each small town in Peru with one nurse and a traveling doctor who lives in the city and visits once a week. My job was to hang out at the health post. My focus was prevention of teen pregnancy and early-childhood development.”

Her service at the Peace Corps was cut short when an El Nino storm system triggered a 50-year flood on the coast of Peru, leading to the evacuation of Peace Corps volunteers. She opted to return to Chicago rather than start again at a different community.

“One year at a shelter is like five years at any other job because the people who are living there are traumatized, and they’re traumatizing each other,” she says. “But I also think people in those situations can be very resourceful and resilient.”
– CU Nursing BSN Undergraduate Tessa Cocchiara

The path to CU Nursing

After returning to the Windy City, Cocchiara realized she had no family in the area and many of her college friends had moved on.

“At the time, my dad lived in South Carolina, and I didn’t want to go there, but my mom had moved to Denver, so I got a ticket, moved here and have been here ever since,” she says.

Initially, she took a summer off and “regrouped” before taking a job at a restaurant in Fort Collins. She eventually became a housing advocate for a domestic violence shelter in Boulder where she worked for about a year and a half.

“One year at a shelter is like five years at any other job because the people who are living there are traumatized, and they’re traumatizing each other,” she says. “But I also think people in those situations can be very resourceful and resilient.”

Next, she worked two years at a community-based organization which tests for HIV and other lifelong chronic diseases like hepatitis C and found herself gravitating to nursing.

“During that time, I was a contracted tester for Denver Health (hospital),” she says. “They do testing all over the city. When the contract ended, I realized that I wanted to go back to that. So, I started taking prerequisites (for nursing school) in 2020.”

CON_TCocchiara RN Student

Current CU Nursing BSN student Tessa Cocchiara

She chose CU College of Nursing because of word of mouth among her colleagues as well as the college’s reputation.

“Academically, it’s a rigorous program,” she says. “I also knew there were future opportunities for graduate degrees – especially for nurse practitioners. Being familiar with the campus and knowing a little bit about the specialties of different professors and the departments we have access to is really great.”

Cocchiara says the diverse backgrounds of her cohort and the college’s emphasis on diversity, equity and inclusion regarding gender and sexual orientation, also make her feel at home.

What’s next?

While she’s keeping her options open for her healthcare career, she says she had a good experience working at a correctional care medical facility, a collaboration between the Denver Sheriff’s Department and Denver Health.

“That’s a population that is historically very neglected, so the really small things make even more of a difference,” she says. “From what I can tell, most of these folks are struggling with addiction and being unhoused. Our systems aren’t necessarily set up to help people who chronically struggle with mental health and substance use – so they generally end up in jail or on the streets. Working with these people builds your compassion.”

Having zigzagged all over the Americas, Cocchiara has found a home in Colorado with her partner, two cats, and her mother. In addition, her brother also moved to Boulder with his wife.

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