'The best of both worlds'

Why students love the University Honors and Leadership program

February 11, 2016
UHL students on the CU Denver campus

Steven Medema, PhD, smiles when you mention High-Impact Practices (HIP), the techniques for teaching and learning that have proven to be beneficial for student engagement and success and are now a point of emphasis at CU Denver.

“When it comes to HIPs, we check every box,” Medema says, referring to CU Denver’s University Honors and Leadership program which he helped create and directs. “Our students benefit from an exceptional curriculum taught by passionate professors, a collaborative learning environment, a social network, service projects, cutting-edge research opportunities, leadership training, internships and study abroad experiences.”

In May of 2016, UHL will graduate its fifth cohort of students, bringing the number of graduates to approximately 150 since the program’s inception in the fall of 2008. Each UHL cohort is limited to 40 intellectually curious freshmen, drawn from every school and college at CU Denver. The students engage in multidisciplinary learning, integrating and synthesizing complex ideas from a wide range of academic disciplines in small seminar-style classes. UHL courses encompass 27 hours spread over four years and replace most of the university’s core curriculum requirements. Students receive a $2,500 scholarship each year.

Medema likes to say that UHL students “get the best of both worlds—a small liberal arts college education at a large public research university.” Here’s what some UHL students say about their experiences with the University Honors and Leadership Program.


Nadeen Ibrahim, third year with senior standing

Backstory: Born in Jerusalem, Nadeen grew up in the only Muslim family in rural Wiggins, Colo. Her father runs the local gas station; she still works there occasionally.

Nadeen150x200Major: Public Health

Why UHL? “I wanted an academic environment that was challenging. UHL allowed me to join a community on campus with small classes where I felt so valued and supported by faculty and my peers. Students come from many different interests and disciplines, and it’s great to have that mix of perspectives.”

UHL opportunities? “I did research at the Anschutz Medical Campus on multiple sclerosis, and UHL sponsored me with a travel scholarship so that I could present my research at an international conference in Germany. In March of 2015, Gov. Hickenlooper appointed me to the board of the Board of Health at the Colorado Department of Public Health & Environment.  We’re responsible for enacting rules and regulations that pertain to public health in the state. I feel privileged to sit on the board as the youngest member.”

How has UHL changed you personally? “Being part of UHL is so enriching and empowering. It has helped me understand the importance of diversity and inclusion. The program is about excellence, and with the opportunities I have had, I am ready to continue my personal journey with so much confidence.”


David Burns, third year

Backstory: Born and raised in Colorado, David is the son of a mother from South Korea and an African-American father. He likes being able to immerse himself in both cultures and act as a bridge between the two.

David150x200Major: Biology

Why UHL? “I was shopping around for an honors program in college and a Google search led me to CU Denver. I liked what I saw, so I decided to apply.”

UHL opportunities? “UHL has taught me how to be a genuine learner, and that is huge. Even though I am a biology major, the courses I take incorporate philosophy, politics and history. Incorporating all those fields with science helps you think about what is going on in the world today and asks you how you can enhance the world we live in. Thanks to UHL, I have a joy for learning beyond the scope of my major.”

How has UHL changed you personally? “Because of UHL, I now have different interests, and I’m willing to take risks. Even if I am not really good at something, I pursue it anyway, seeing it as a learning opportunity. I’ve become more curious, and I’ve become more active in the community doing new things.”


Jazmin Beltran, first year with associates degree earned in high school


Backstory: Born in El Paso, Texas, Jazmin is the first in her family to attend a four-year college. Her parents were born in Mexico and neither finished school.

Jazmin150x200Major: Public Health

Why UHL? “This is a big university, and being in a small program allowed me to make so many connections and gave me many networking opportunities. I feel like I am part of a community with UHL.”

UHL opportunities? “Through the UHL community service requirement, I was connected to Project Cure where we send hospital supplies that are not needed in the United States to developing countries. This gave me a sense of my place in a global community and helped me see that there is a purpose to my education. Someday, I hope to work for Doctors Without Borders.”

How has UHL changed you personally? “The professors have helped me to learn how to think on my own; they are wonderful. I have always struggled with chemistry. But the professor at CU Denver has a unique approach to teaching, so I have done a complete turnaround. Instead of hating chemistry, I love it.”


Kate O’Connell, senior graduating in May 2016 

Backstory: Kate grew up in Monument, Colo., where she participated in the Poms Dance team and Science Olympiad at Palmer Ridge High School. She discovered UHL at a CU Denver Open House.

Kate150x200Major: International Studies

Why UHL? “I was amazed at the interdisciplinary offerings emphasizing collaborative engagement with people in different fields. It’s really a high level of learning in a small intentional community.”

UHL opportunities? “Dr. Medema is very committed to giving students the opportunity to do international study, and I was able to help plan a study abroad trip to Ireland with a faculty member from the College of Arts & Media. I also serve as a student employee for the University of Colorado administration, working in the office of President Bruce Benson. That has been a phenomenal experience and a lot of fun. Also, I received a UHL scholarship to pursue a research project focusing on child migration for refugees from South America and the Middle East.”

How has UHL changed you personally? “UHL has been a catalyst for helping me become a fuller and better version of who I am by allowing me to chase after all sorts of ideas, including the migration research I’m doing.”


Connor McCloskey, third year

 Backstory: Connor grew up in Littleton, Colo.; he is a fourth-generation Coloradan whose family homestead is still standing on the plains of eastern Colorado.

Connor150x200Major: Creative Writing

 Why UHL? “I am a first-generation college student, and the UHL scholarship definitely helped my family pay for my education. So I came for the scholarship, but I stayed for the program and everything that is part of it.”

UHL opportunities? “I am a student worker in the program, which has developed my leadership abilities. I manage and track UHL students’ community outreach, and I set up community service events, which has helped me network with community leaders and university administrators. The people I have met and the intellectual opportunities I have had are astounding.”

How has UHL changed you personally? “Naturally, I am kind of a hermit, but thanks to the program, I have lots of friends and I feel confident taking on any challenge. UHL focuses on creating leaders of tomorrow, but in my opinion, even if you aren’t a leader, you need the skills UHL teaches: formal logic, a thirst for the lifelong pursuit of knowledge and learning, and a multidisciplinary world view.”


Jenny Park, second year

Backstory: Born and raised in Parker, Colo., Jenny describes herself as a “fashionista.” Both of her parents immigrated to the United States from South Korea.

Jenny-150x200Major:  Economics and math

 Why UHL? “I like challenges and thought UHL would be a great way to challenge myself. I’m an introvert and never thought of myself as a leader, so I wanted to challenge myself to become one.”

UHL opportunities? “After I took the course ‘Leadership and Ethics,’ I realized that I never had considered the role of ethics in our lives. I became so interested in the field that I am now minoring in ethics. UHL gives students the opportunity to explore areas outside of their major, allowing us to form new interests, which is always exciting.”

How has UHL changed you personally? “UHL has made me more creative and innovative in the way I think. I’ve become a lot more open-minded and comfortable with myself as well as others. The program has given me so much confidence both academically and outside academics that I will carry with me when I start my career.”