Organization of Chinese Americans group photo

Honoring Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage, and a Beloved Member of the CU Denver Family 

March 23, 2022

On March 6, 2020, the Lynx community lost a guiding light in the Department of Civil Engineering when Professor Jonathan T. H. Wu passed away following 40 years of service to CU Denver. In the wake of his passing, Jonathan’s wife Mary wished to honor her husband’s legacy and their shared passion for higher education.

In that spirit, Mary partnered with the Organization of Chinese Americans (OCA) to establish an endowed scholarship at CU Denver. The “OCA Colorado Endowed Scholarship Fund” supports first-generation undergraduates of primarily Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) descent who plan to use their education to benefit the Colorado community.

With Mary as the lead donor, the new scholarship opens doors to opportunity for CU Denver students while advancing OCA’s mission to embrace the hopes and aspirations of the AAPI community. The OCA Colorado Scholarship is currently open for applications, and the first awardees will be named in fall 2022.

Education Takes a Front Seat

Education was always at the center of Mary and Jonathan’s lives. They met as college students at National Taiwan University. They married on the Virginia Tech campus in 1975. They moved on to Purdue University and supported each other in pursuing graduate degrees—Mary, a master’s in environmental engineering; Jonathan, a PhD in civil engineering—all while raising their young son Ivan. 

The Wu family: Mary and Jonathan with their son Ivan.
The Wu family: Mary and Jonathan with their son Ivan.

“He was very supportive,” Mary recalled of her husband. “I remember he always babysat and took Ivan out of our apartment so I could concentrate on studying.” In turn, Mary supported her husband’s educational and professional growth: “Jonathan told me that I was his anchor.”

When the young family moved across the country to pursue new academic opportunities, they could fit nearly everything they owned in their Volkswagen Rabbit. “However, we still needed a moving company because Jonathan had so many books,” Mary teased. “The only furniture the moving company packed was Ivan’s crib!” As always, education took a front seat.

Reinvesting in Communities of Opportunity

When Jonathan and Mary arrived in Colorado after completing their graduate degrees, they received a warm welcome. “CU Denver took very good care of Jonathan and provided him ample opportunities to develop,” Mary said.

One memory stuck out in her mind, a prime example of the type of support they found in the CU Denver community: “I remember during a particularly tight budget year, when Jonathan was a young assistant professor, he still got a very decent raise because some senior, full-time professors gave their quotas to Jonathan for that year.”

Mary viewed this embrace from the CU Denver community as a continuation of the support she and Jonathan had received as students throughout their time in higher education. “Both of us were fortunate to always have financial assistance, either by scholarships or research assistantships,” she said. “I had a good life because our family benefitted from the ‘paying it forward’ of some good and kind people. It is time for me to pay it back and help younger generations to achieve their goals.”

Partnering to Expand Their Impact

In Mary’s effort to make the biggest impact for CU Denver students, she connected with OCA Colorado, a like-minded community who shared her mission of investing in the hopes and aspirations of future generations. 

OCA was founded in 1973 with a purpose of creating a unified voice for Chinese Americans in the civil rights movement. The Colorado chapter was founded in 1974 by Woon Ki Lau, an immigration lawyer who received his J.D. from the University of Colorado Law School. In the decades that followed, the organization has expanded to advocate on behalf of the wider AAPI community, with over 80 chapters and affiliates across the country.

Founder Woon Ki Lau with fellow members of OCA Colorado at the CU Denver Donor Celebration in Oct. 2021.
Members of OCA Colorado, including founder Woon Ki Lau, at the CU Denver Donor Celebration in Oct. 2021. 

Together, Mary and OCA Colorado established the OCA Colorado Scholarship in Jonathan’s memory. With the creation of this endowed scholarship fund, CU Denver joins its peer institutions on the Auraria campus, Metropolitan State University and the Community College of Denver, which both partnered with OCA Colorado in recent years to offer scholarships promoting AAPI heritage.

A Life’s Work and a Family’s Legacy

“Jonathan and I have been with the CU Denver community for more than 40 years,” Mary said with pride. She highlighted the impact Jonathan made as a faculty member in the Department of Civil Engineering, which he helped build into a leading research center on the topic of “geosynthetic reenforced soil.” GRS is an advanced method of constructing walls and other structures from soil for use in infrastructure projects like roadways and retaining walls.

Jonathan Wu
Jonathan Wu, a professor in the Department of Civil Engineering for over 40 years.

“Jonathan achieved his goal of being an internationally renowned pioneer in geosynthetic reinforced soil technology,” Mary reflected. “He completed several design manuals on this subject for the Federal Highway Administration. He published a book with Wiley publishing company in this field in June 2019, several months before his passing.”

Jonathan also took great pride in his role as an educator. A statement from his colleagues at the College of Engineering, Design and Computing said:

He taught many civil engineering undergraduate and graduate classes during his tenure and continuously mentored graduate students. He positively impacted the education, careers, and lives of thousands of CU Denver students. In [Jonathan] Wu’s words, “Teaching adds great joy to my life and expands my mind.” 

To build on the impact Jonathan made through his work as a researcher, educator, and mentor, Mary wished to expand her and her husband’s legacy with a scholarship that would support CU Denver students in perpetuity. “I am very pleased and feel so blessed that I can do this now. CU Denver is my community,” Mary said, “and my first choice to set up a scholarship endowment in the memory of Jonathan.”