Leah Porter at CU Denver

First-generation student shares inspirational story

Campus Conversation highlights CU Denver's momentum, strategies to bolster student success

August 23, 2017

As we launch into a new academic year, CU Denver’s upward momentum is undeniable: growing enrollment, positive budget numbers, a strategic roadmap guiding long-term sustainability and, most importantly, increased student success. All of these elements – plus a concentrated effort to create a campus culture of respect, equity and inclusion – were celebrated at Tuesday’s Campus Conversation in the Terrace Room.

Taking center stage, fittingly, was a student. Leah Porter, a business-management major who embodies the drive, diversity and enthusiasm of CU Denver students, shared her story of overcoming huge obstacles with an audience of about 100.

Porter grew up poor in Malaysia and is the first member of her family to attend college. Chancellor Dorothy Horrell learned through a colleague in the state community college system that Porter had enrolled at CU Denver and was a “superstar.” After meeting with Porter, a recent transfer from Arapahoe Community College (ACC), Horrell invited her to speak at the Campus Conversation.

‘I want to help people’

CU Denver student Leah Porter
CU Denver student Leah Porter shares her story of overcoming many obstacles to reach her dream of attending college.

Porter explained that if you are a girl in Malaysia “you have two things to do in life – find a husband and take care of your family.” Porter was the middle child of five girls, and the first of her siblings to finish high school. She set her sights on college and worked multiple jobs to save money for tuition.

Porter’s goal got shelved, however, when she met an American while living in Singapore. The couple eventually moved to the United States, married and set about raising two daughters. “Deep down in my heart my desire of going back to school never went away,” Porter said.

That desire grew stronger when her mother, her role model and inspiration, fell ill and ended up penniless, despite a life of tireless work as a restaurant owner. Her mother died in 2011 – a year that Porter describes as the hardest of her life. In 2014, she enrolled at ACC, landed a scholarship, excelled in her classes and became a student leader.

Starting as a junior this fall at CU Denver, Porter is likewise already making a strong impact: she earned a prestigious Reisher Scholarship, became a TRiO member, and joined the Business Student Advisory Council. Her goal is to earn a master’s degree and work in higher education.

“I want to help other people like me,” said Porter, who divorced in 2016 and is now a single mother. “I wanted to be a student here at CU Denver because of the great CU reputation, the great Business School and its internship program. I know that once I graduate from here I’ll have a great school backing my degree.”

Going the extra mile

After Porter’s talk, Chancellor Horrell said that CU Denver has “hundreds if not thousands of students” with similarly compelling stories. “We have people like Leah who remind us that they put their hopes and dreams in our hands, and we are in a position to be responsive to them,” she said. “CU Denver is a place that goes the extra mile in so many ways.”

The rest of the Campus Conversation was devoted to updates in the many areas in which the university is pushing forward, especially in its five strategic priorities: student success, scholarly preeminence, community impact, inclusive excellence and financial sustainability.

Brenda J. Allen of CU Denver
Brenda J. Allen, vice chancellor for Diversity and Inclusion, explains efforts to create a stronger campus culture of respect, equity and inclusion at the Aug. 22 Campus Conversation.

The university leadership team, as it works toward developing a roadmap that will detail five years of specific actions and measurable goals, has appointed leaders for each strategic priority. The “drivers” of the roadmap are:

  • Student Success – Raul Cardenas, vice chancellor for Student Affairs
  • Scholarly Preeminence – Roderick Nairn, provost and executive vice chancellor for Academic and Student Affairs
  • Community Impact – Paul Teske, dean of the School of Public Affairs
  • Inclusive Excellence – Brenda J. Allen, vice chancellor for Diversity and Inclusion
  • Financial Sustainability – Jennifer Sobanet, chief financial officer and vice chancellor for Administration and Finance.

Enrollment increases, strategic planning

In other updates, Cardenas said it is looking like CU Denver posted another record year in first-year student enrollment. While official enrollment numbers won’t be available until after the census count in September, preliminary numbers show that the class of 1,528 students represents a 3 percent increase over last fall and is our most diverse class ever, with almost 60 percent of the group identifying as students of color. Overall, undergraduate enrollment appears to be up 3 percent, while graduate enrollment is down about 3 percent. Transfer student numbers are up 1 percent and international student numbers “came back really strong,” Cardenas said.

Numerous steering committees are launching into action-oriented work this fall, all aimed toward achieving the overarching university priorities. Horrell said Allen is putting together a campus task force “to look at what we can do to assure that our campus is a safer and more inclusive place to learn and work.”

The chancellor noted that the Student Senate and Faculty Assembly both passed resolutions on culturally responsive teaching and our commitment to equity and inclusion. The Office of Diversity and Inclusion and the Center for Faculty Development are collaborating to honor these requests. “The work is ongoing,” Horrell said, “and I encourage you to share ideas and suggestions on how we can do this in a way that’s helpful to us as a campus community.”

Be sure to mark Sept. 20 on your calendar. The State of the Campus Address will take place at 8:30 a.m. and 3:30 p.m. in the Terrace Room.