Five Takeaways from Chancellor Marks’ Conversation with the Mandela Washington Fellowship Leaders

Five Takeaways from Chancellor Marks’ Conversation with the Mandela Washington Fellowship Leaders

The conversation, moderated by Dean Teske, explored a variety of topics, including women in leadership, international education, and overcoming adversity

July 12, 2022

On July 8, Chancellor Michelle Marks joined 23 bright leaders from Africa for a Q&A-style conversation about leadership, higher education, and international partnerships. The event was held in the Student Commons Building and moderated by School of Public Affairs Dean Paul Teske.   

The professionals, who are excelling in careers in public health, government, and nonprofit industries, are wrapping up a six-week stay on CU Denver’s campus as part of the 2022 Mandela Washington Fellowship for Young African Leaders, which is sponsored by the U.S. Department of State and hosted by CU Denver’s School of Public Affairs. This year marked CU Denver’s first time being selected as an institute partner and the first higher education institute in Colorado to participate in the 12-year-old program.


Some of the 2022 Mandela Washington Fellowship participants stand in front of campus’ Lynx statue following the conversation with Chancellor Marks.

Here are some key highlights from the discussion.  

You can look any way and be a chancellor or a president or a doctor or a healthcare worker.”

– Chancellor Marks  

One of the fellows candidly expressed that at the start of the event, she was expecting someone else to walk through the door. She explained that Marks doesn’t resemble what an education leader typically looks like in her home country, and she asked what challenges Marks had experienced leading a university as a woman.   

Marks shared that 20 years ago, as a business school professor at George Mason University in Virginia, she was one of few female faculty members in her department and the only person with a young child. The workplace culture made it difficult to talk about her needs as a parent. “Now, we have policies for women and men to take time off for parental leave,” she said.   

But she added that the work must continue so that all people can see themselves succeeding in a profession. “People have their ideas because of what has happened in the past,” she said. “And that is why we need to work so hard to diversify our profession.”

Meet Fellow Sophia Wabosha

Sophia Wabosha is the co-founder of Give for Good Kenya, a nonprofit organization that focuses on improving the quality of life for underserved communities through education and gender equity.  

What does education mean to you?  

Education means empowerment. I believe once a person has knowledge, they are able to make sound decisions.    

What stands out to you about CU Denver and its academic operations?  

The focus on diversity, equity, and inclusivity, and the inclusion of women and people with disabilities. Where I come from, if I go to an institution, out of a table of 10, there are two women. Being here at CU Denver, I can see that it’s all about knowledge and inclusivity and bringing communities together.  

What is something you’d like our campus community to know about you?  

I’m an education champion, and I stand for equity in education, specifically. I’m passionate about the spirit of volunteerism. I love to walk with my community and make sure my community is able to break cultural backgrounds and focus on development.   

I love to travel and do physical activity—I already used the climbing wall in the wellness center on campus.   

Having classrooms full of students from different cultures and countries is critical. We need to be providing graduates who understand how to think, collaborate, and function in a global world.”  

– Chancellor Marks 

When asked why there weren’t more African students on CU Denver’s campus, Marks and Teske spoke about the university’s makeup: More than half of CU Denver’s undergraduate students are students of color and half are first-generation students. One of the university’s most longstanding international partnerships is the International College Beijing (ICB), a first-of-its-kind joint education program formed nearly 30 years ago with China Agricultural University in Beijing.   

Teske emphasized that CU Denver has a commitment to international education, but there is more work to be done. “One reason we wanted to host the Mandela Washington Fellowship was to build connections,” he said.   

“Our community sees equity as part of our identity.”

– Chancellor Marks 

Marks discussed joining CU Denver in the midst of a global pandemic, social justice movement, and a tumultuous presidential election. When she arrived at the university, nine letters pleading for change from faculty, staff, and campus organizations were waiting on her desk. She decided to start with a listening tour, during which she heard from more than 1,000 campus constituents in 100 days. The feedback helped form CU Denver’s 2030 Strategic Plan, including its leading goal of becoming the nation’s first equity-serving institution.   

“Many people said we felt like we belong at CU Denver, and I knew that one of the core values was equity,” Marks said. “The characteristics of your life and yourself don’t predetermine your right and ability to succeed.”  

CU Denver’s leadership team understands our mission, and they relate to the journey we are on.”

– Chancellor Marks 

When asked about her leadership team, Marks responded that when she joined CU Denver two years ago, her cabinet had little diversity. She referenced business management researcher and author Jim Collins’ book Good to Great, saying that the first principle for a strong company is to get the right people on the bus. When her predecessor left the role, CU Denver’s cabinet experienced turnover and Marks had the opportunity to rebuild her team.   

“I knew that with our aspirations and our student body, we needed more racial diversity,” Marks said. “So we did national searches and talked about the vision of the institution.”   

Today, several of CU Denver’s cabinet members are people of color and first-generation college graduates, including Provost Constancio Nakuma, who, like some of the fellows, is from Ghana, Africa; and half of the cabinet members are women. Now, the cabinet members are working with deans to help diversify faculty and staff.  

Whether the future of college is degrees or competencies and credentials that you stack, higher education needs to change.” 

– Chancellor Marks 

Marks acknowledged that the past two years have been extremely difficult for the world. In the face of adversity, CU Denver leapt forward and started thinking differently. While there is still much work to do, the university is gaining momentum in reimagining the delivery of education to be in line with student and employer needs—even as the world continues to evolve.