University of Colorado Denver senior Nadeen Ibrahim radiates the confidence and charisma of a natural leader, and she knows how to inspire people. She proved that during her time at CU Denver. She proved that again at the Denver Metro Chamber Leadership Foundation’s annual Leading Colorado awards, where she was recognized as the Colorado Leadership Alliance Student Leader of the Year.
The Leadership Foundation and the Boettcher Foundation selected Ibrahim for the honor, which they give each year to a single student who makes an exceptional impact on the community and shows the ability to inspire others.
Ibrahim’s acceptance speech earned a standing ovation from the audience of more than 700, which included luminaries in the business and nonprofit world. She thanked her mentors including CU Denver’s professors, advisors and students for their support. She said they encouraged personal growth and success.
“Thank you for molding me into the leader I am today by providing an academically challenging environment, opportunities to complete biomedical research, and opportunities to be engaged in the Denver and global community,” she said.
The self-described “small-town girl” said she couldn’t have imagined all she would do at CU Denver.
“I had the opportunity to flourish at CU Denver,” Ibrahim said. “We have the opportunity to be student leaders from the second we get here.”
After earning a Bachelor of Science in Public Health degree from CU Denver, Nadeen is headed to the University of Oxford in England to complete a Master of Public Policy degree.
A long journey to Denver
Ibrahim is used to standing out. Her family immigrated to the U.S. from Jerusalem when Nadeen was 7 months old, and she became a citizen in 2001. The Ibrahims eventually moved to Wiggins, a small town on Colorado’s Eastern Plains with fewer than 1,000 people. The family owned a convenience store, where Nadeen and her five siblings worked. Her family was the only Muslim-American family in town.
Nadeen said that she and her family are proud of their religious and cultural heritage, but growing up she could tell it made some people uneasy, especially after Sept. 11. But the family thrived, and the Ibrahims were able to build bridges in the community. Nadeen learned that once people got to know the family and learned more about Islam and Muslims, attitudes changed.
“I saw how it really made a difference when people got the opportunity to know you,” Ibrahim said.
Growing at CU Denver
At CU Denver, Ibrahim majored in public health and earned minors in chemistry and leadership studies. She also grew to be a powerful advocate for respecting diversity and helping people overcome differences. She’s eager to take on causes, including homelessness in Denver, and she organized an awareness and outreach event around the topic.
She said the University Honors and Leadership program made her think about what leadership means and helped her discover strategies that could create societal change. Ibrahim’s advocacy earned her the university’s Community Builder of the Year award in 2016.
One important lesson, Ibrahim said, was realizing that while she faced challenges, she had advantages not all of her CU Denver classmates did, like U.S. citizenship.
“There are students at CU Denver who don’t have those privileges. So I asked, what does it mean to utilize the experiences I’ve had to be more of an advocate and an ally on campus,” Ibrahim said.
Leading beyond the classroom
Ibrahim’s activism increased as graduation neared and the political climate changed. She is a member of the Denver Immigrant and Refugee Commission, and she spoke at the Women’s March on Denver in January, which drew more than 100,000 people.
Those commitments haven’t taken away from Ibrahim’s successful academic career. She has taken advantage of student research opportunities at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus. Highlights of her work include presenting a paper on multiple sclerosis at a medical conference in Germany and research on prostate cancer at Johns Hopkins University.
Activism helped Ibrahim discover her interest in public health. It also led to another big achievement—in 2015, Gov. John Hickenlooper appointed her to the board that oversees the state Department of Public Health and Environment. She is the youngest Coloradan to serve on such a state board. What she’s learned in her courses has helped her be an effective member of the board, she said.
“I want to create sustainable change through policy,” Ibrahim said. “Improved public policy is needed, and I hope to contribute.”
Ibrahim’s educational journey is unlikely to end there. After getting her master’s degree at Oxford, she plans to apply to medical school or law school.