If you ask someone what it takes to be a leader, they might tell you it takes natural drive or the ambition to make a difference. But ask any veteran of the University of Denver Pioneer Leadership Program (PLP), and you are sure to hear that it’s much more than that. Leadership, they’ll tell you, is about understanding ethics and power, adapting to changing situations and working through differences as a team. As longtime director Linda Olson puts it, focusing on these elements is “the richest way to learn” if you want to make an impact.
One alumna, Erin Robinson, captures it this way:
“It’s the idea of the ripples, right? It starts in PLP in terms of your leadership foundation and those ripples go really far out,” Robinson explains. “With the leadership development that you start to build and gain at PLP, you have the opportunity to influence the world in pretty significant ways.”
Twenty-five years and more than 1,200 leaders later, PLP is celebrating a solid tradition of equipping students with the knowledge, skills and experience to tackle the world’s big challenges.
The Pioneer Leadership Program started in 1995 when DU faculty were conducting research on what it means to be a leader. It soon became apparent that students were interested in developing those skills with a specialized program. The minor program was founded on the idea that being an exceptional leader requires more than just a natural ability to take initiative; it also demands a deep understanding of leadership theory, social responsibility and global understanding.
It’s impossible to discuss the success of PLP without mentioning its executive director, Linda Olson. For nearly 20 years, she has guided and shaped the program, building a close bond with each new class—all while keeping in touch with many program graduates and remembering them by name.
“Seeing students from their first year to their final year in an immersive academic and co-curricular program is amazing. I just can’t imagine teaching any other way,” Olson says. “We have the opportunity to be a part of their growth over the four years and often see them as engaged alumni. It is very satisfying to know them through several stages of their lives and see them lead impactful lives in their communities. They are all so inspiring.”
That close bond begins forming when PLP students first arrive on the DU campus. Each year, the program selects 88 first-year students to pursue the leadership minor. Participating students live on the same floor of a residence hall and, for the first year at least, take many of the same classes. The second year is all about service in the community, allowing students to get to know an organization that is focusing on an issue that taps into their passions. They wrap up their leadership training in a capstone course on ethics taught by Olson.
“Certainly, you can learn leadership by trial and error, but I really believe that if you think about it more carefully, with structure, feedback and practice, you can become much better at it,” Olson says. “Many of our students come in with a traditional, transactional and hierarchical view of leadership, but most of what we call [the] ‘wicked problems’ or challenging issues of the day require a completely different style of leadership: people who can practice a radical and inclusive style of collaboration.”
A radical style of collaboration is indeed needed for what may well be the wickedest of wicked problems. The pandemic is completely shifting day-to-day life, and as a result, PLP alumni are going the extra mile to deploy their leadership knowledge for the benefit of their communities and professions.
Meet three of those alumni, each of whom is putting their PLP training to good use.
(BA ’00, MA ’02, PHD ’12)
More than 9,000 miles from DU, Erin Robinson works on the front lines as a leader in education. A middle school principal at United World College Southeast Asia in Singapore, she is guiding her community through the coronavirus pandemic, tackling everything from online learning to returning safely back to campus to start the school year.
Robinson has long valued the leadership skills she learned during her time at DU, but she recognizes how those skills are even more essential when leading during a global health crisis.
“You have to apply compassionate leadership and model what that looks like,” she says. In her setting, compassionate leadership means taking care of people and fostering a sense of community—“even when people are apart.”
It was PLP that drew Robinson to study at DU. She was excited about the opportunity to live and study with a group of students who shared her interest in leadership, but who brought diverse perspectives to dinnertime conversations and classroom discussions.
“You make such strong connections within the cohort because you are learning and living with incredibly talented students and professors,” she says. “You’re also meeting influential community leaders, and without even realizing it, you end up building a leadership network that really pays dividends later on.”
After majoring in biological sciences as an undergraduate, Robinson went on to earn her master’s degree in curriculum and instruction and her PhD in educational leadership and policy studies from the Morgridge College of Education—all while also working in leadership positions for Denver Public Schools and the Boulder Valley School District. With her degrees in hand and with professional experience on her resume, she decided to pursue a long-cherished dream of going abroad to pursue a career at an international school, one not so different from the school where she earned her high school diploma. She worked at schools in Hong Kong and Tokyo before landing her current position in Singapore.
United World College Southeast Asia reportedly is the largest nonprofit school in the world, and it emphasizes the importance of children developing the skills, tools and understanding to promote a peaceful and sustainable future. It’s a mission Robinson could have authored herself, as it aligns closely with her own philosophy.
More than five years into her journey with the school and 20 years into her career, Robinson still finds herself referring back to the leadership foundation she built at DU.
“What you get out of the program at DU is such an amazing learning experience,” Robinson says. “It’s a lifetime’s worth of experiences that will be relevant in many years to come.”
In California’s Bay Area, PLP alumnus Kelan Stoy is busy tackling some of the problems facing his community and state. He is the head of solutions engineering at a company called UrbanFootprint, which uses data and tools to help cities and businesses address everything from climate change and housing affordability to, most recently, COVID-19.
The pandemic has created a need for Stoy and his company to step into an important leadership role to navigate the accompanying issues.
“We are helping different jurisdictions or state officials understand where need is concentrated,” Stoy says about his current work. “We are identifying things like where food insecurity is particularly high, where unemployment may be concentrated as a result of this current crisis and targeting resources to help address the needs of these disadvantaged communities.”
Stoy found his passion for sustainability and addressing these problems not long after graduating from DU. Right after collecting his degree in international studies and geography, Stoy went to Uganda for a research project with the Global Livingston Institute, founded by Jamie Van Leeuwen, who taught and mentored PLP students when Stoy was in the program. Before he put roots down in Berkeley, Stoy took posts in Antigua, Guatemala and Cape Town, South Africa.
“One major takeaway that I got from [PLP] was the importance of ethics as foundation for all the components of leadership,” Stoy says. “That was something threaded through a lot of the classes at DU—differentiating between what ethical leadership is in contrast to just being a figurehead and [holding] power, for example. That’s something I’ve taken from the program and tried to apply moving forward.”
Of the many things he values from PLP, Stoy credits its structure with helping build community. It wasn’t unusual for classroom conversations to continue long past the proverbial bell.
“Joining the PLP program was a great decision and provided a lot of opportunity for growth outside of the classroom,” Stoy says. “It’s a great way to add depth to your experience.”
With a background in daily newspapers, Kristi Arellano was no stranger to keeping up with the big stories of the day. But little did she know, she would be stepping into her new leadership role at Colorado Health Institute right as the biggest story of the year—the coronavirus—started consuming headlines.
Arellano is managing director of marketing and communications at the institute, a nonprofit and nonpartisan health policy research group. As leader of the marketing and communications team, she draws upon the foundation of leadership she first learned in PLP.
“I would say [PLP] was probably one of the most meaningful parts of my DU experience,” Arellano says. “The curriculum was wonderful. The people that they bring together were phenomenal. When I think about the relationships, friends and connections that have been the most profound in my life, they are the ones from PLP.”
It was PLP that prepared Arellano for her career progression in journalism. She joined The Denver Post after graduating with a degree in journalism and mass communications. In her 13 years at The Post, Arellano rose through the ranks from reporter to business editor.
“I became an editor relatively young, which can be very intimidating, especially when you are leading teams of people who have been in their roles for so much longer than you have,” Arellano remembers. “There was something reassuring and helpful in knowing that leadership doesn’t come from age or status. Being able to bring that to the table was both reassuring and helped me form my persona as a leader. It gave me the confidence to be able to lead in that way.”
After leaving The Denver Post, Arellano shifted paths and started working in communications for the Boettcher Foundation, an organization that has a strong claim to her affections. (She’d come to DU as a Boettcher Scholar, after all.) In that job as well, she put her PLP experience to good use.
“It’s such a powerful experience, and the people you are going to meet will really shape your future,” Arellano says of the PLP. “It’s one of those things that you don’t realize at the time just how profound it is until you are really able to put it into practice in the real world and look back.”