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Alumna Cindy Courville was first ambassador to the African Union

Cindy Courville was this year’s recipient of the University of Denver Professional Achievement Award at the Founders Day ceremony in March. Photo: Stephen Voss

Cindy Courville (MA ’80, PhD ’88) says that sometimes she has to pinch herself as a reminder that it’s all real.

“I have this image of myself in my head, and I’m all grown up, still growing up, but I am this little girl from Opelousas, Louisiana, who made it to the White House and became ambassador to the African Union,” she says, pausing. “Wow!”

Courville has served as senior director of African affairs for the National Security Council, senior intelligence agent for the Defense Intelligence Agency, special assistant to the president of the United States and the first-ever (from any country) ambassador to the African Union. She was this year’s recipient of the University of Denver Professional Achievement Award at the Founders Day ceremony in March.

One might expect a person of Courville’s caliber to be ultra-serious and aloof. Instead, she’s warm, witty and quick with a story about her childhood.

Courville grew up in a “very loving family” during the days of Jim Crow law. Her father worked for International Harvester and her mother was an in-home seamstress and cook at Courville’s school. She also was a civil rights activist who toted her kids along to NAACP meetings, set them up on phone banks during elections and volunteered them as fraud watchdogs at the polls.

Courville was one of the first black students at an all-white school under the Freedom of Choice Act, and she served as secretary of her town’s NAACP chapter at the age of 15. Still, she says, it wasn’t until she enrolled at DU’s Josef Korbel School of International Studies that her perspective moved from local to international politics.

“DU was where I made the leap across the ocean,” she says, explaining that she discovered parallels between her childhood and the struggles that were ensuing in Zimbabwe, then known as Rhodesia.

“The segregation of Rhodesia mirrored Louisiana. It fascinated me to watch it unfold while I was in school.”

Good friend Joan Helpern, who met Courville several years ago at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, where Helpern is on the Women’s Leadership Board, says Courville “has a passion for making anything she comes into contact with a little bit better than the way she found it.

“She doesn’t waste a moment feeling sorry for herself or for anyone else in the world,” Helpern adds. “She demonstrates that each of us, by moving slowly forward, can ultimately make the world slightly better than it was when we found it.”

Courville, now a professor at the National Defense Intelligence College in Washington, D.C., credits many others with her career accomplishments, calling them her mentors, patrons and “extended family.” And she says this family has supported her as she continuously redefines herself.

“My parents gave me that gift, teaching me that I define who I am,” she says. “The civil rights movement taught me to always rise above. You can define yourself. It’s not easy, but you can do it.”

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