International students and alumni reflect on their DU experience
With more than 70% of undergraduates studying abroad, global learning is a signature DU experience. From once-in-a-lifetime interterm trips to quarter-long study abroad programs, there are countless opportunities for students to travel, experience and learn from people and places across the world.
But, for many students, DU is where they come to have global experiences and share their unique perspectives. The more than 650 members of the University’s diverse international student community hail from nearly 100 countries, bringing valuable and unique perspectives and talents onto campus and out into the world after graduation. From gymnast Jessica Lopez Gaveika (BA ’09), a three-time Olympian from Venezuela, and legendary Chinese opera singer Hao Jiang Tian (MA ’87) to Njabulo Ndebele (PhD ’83), chairman of the Nelson Mandela Foundation, and the late Nigerian novelist and scholar Isidore Okpewho (PhD ’76), DU’s international alumni have made their mark for decades.
More than ever, students’ ability to find global perspectives and experiences in the classroom and abroad is important. “We’re living in a global world now,” says Theresa Johnson, director of International Student and Scholar Services. “It would be very rare to go through life and not interact with someone from a different country or a different cultural background. Having international students on campus, as well as international faculty and staff teaching and working on campus, creates opportunities for interactions and learning across the entire DU community.” Chances to meet, connect and learn across borders and cultures, she says, are a key component of the DU experience, and play a major role in sending students on a path towards living lives of purpose and strengthening DU’s global community.
Each with their own unique educational journey and career path, four students and alumni offer their global perspectives on the DU experience.
Born and raised in Nanjing, China, senior Steven Gu began his international education in eighth grade. Drawn to the possibility of studying in the Josef Korbel School of International Studies while earning a degree from the Daniels College of Business at the same time, Gu transferred to DU after his freshman year at the University of Richmond.
In just two years on campus, Gu has already distinguished himself—working as a special population coordinator with Student Affairs and Inclusive Excellence, a 4D peer mentor and a research assistant in Korbel, where he’s contributed to and coauthored several peer-reviewed publications on global economic development.
Working and studying across numerous departments on campus has had an influence on Gu’s experience of DU. “Because of DU’s size, it’s just big enough where you have different populations within different colleges,” he says. “I think it’s been very interesting to see it that way rather than have the whole campus as one big group. For me, it’s also been an interesting journey, in the sense that you meet a more diverse group of people.”
For Gu, the diverse and interconnected nature of campus has provided unique opportunities to network.
From meeting and working with students to connecting with a trustee at the Founder’s Dinner, distinctly DU experiences have played a major role in his time here. “It was really amazing to have this unique, sort of more personal experience to just talk. That’s how I ended up with my major,” he says.
But, Gu says, networking and coursework have not been the only driving forces behind his DU experience. Finding time to reflect on and explore his own interests, he says, has been crucial. “I have found it fascinating to explore these topics outside of the traditional realm of accounting or international relations and to be able to dive into it. That’s what I love to do during my free time, I dive into topics of our times,” Gu says. “Like the question of, ‘How do you embrace uncertainty?’”
With less than a year left in his undergraduate studies, Gu says he is excited for what’s to come. “The thing I’m most looking forward to is the ability to turn what I’ve learned in the classroom into practical experience.” And beyond just turning knowledge into action, the prospect of diving out into the world and setting off on his own path is exciting. “I’m looking forward to this unique experience of being able to explore my own interests on my own feet,” he says.
Daphne Rajenthiram graduated in August 2023, having completed both a Master of Business Administration and a master’s in business analytics in just two years.
Raised in Rajapalayam, India, Rajenthiram earned a Bachelor of Technology from Anna University in her home state of Tamil Nadu before continuing on to a earn a master’s in environmental engineering from Oklahoma State University. Upon graduating, Rajenthiram dove straight into the industry as an environmental engineer in Texas before returning to India to pursue an interdisciplinary doctorate in engineering and management. But she quickly realized that her interests lay in the management realm. “That’s part of what caused me to apply for MBAs,” she says, “and to make a trajectory change.”
Diving into DU’s MBA program, Rajenthiram took analytics courses as electives during her first year, rediscovering a passion for combining management with a math-heavy discipline. After her first year wrapped up, she was accepted into the data analytics program, and a year later, she graduated with both degrees. For Rajenthiram, her path from engineer to manager and analyst makes sense. “I’ve always had an interest in numbers, and maybe that’s why the engineering and the analytics,” she says, “and what I realized was, a part of what I used to do in engineering was analytics, and I just didn’t know it.”
When she managed to find free time amidst her dual-degree course schedule and her role as a graduate assistant in the executive education program, Rajenthiram took advantage of DU’s central location to get out and explore Colorado.
“As international students,” she says, “it’s fun. You don’t have commitments like other students who are like, ‘Oh, I have to go visit family, or I have go do this or that.’ It’s just, ‘What do we do?’” And do, she has. From trips to Crested Butte and Gunnison to witnessing a pack burro race—one of Colorado’s most unique traditions—during Gold Rush Days in Buena Vista. “I’d never seen anything like that,” she says. “And then the same weekend, we saw people surfing on a river, which was pretty cool.”
While it enabled her thorough exploration of the state, freedom from commitments was not without its downsides. “I knew that not having a community would be harder,” she says. “So, I was looking to plug myself into places.” Rajenthiram says she found her community in Bridges International, an on-campus student group. “It’s a faith-based organization, but they provide a platform for all students to just come meet and hang out,” she says. “They are all from different countries and different programs, but we’re all essentially going through that same experience of being an international student at DU.”
Hailing from Waldbronn, Germany, graduate student Lilith Diringer came to the University to pursue a Master of Public Policy from the Josef Korbel School of International Studies and began pursuing a certificate in jazz studies along the way.
Diringer spent her undergraduate years applying an interdisciplinary approach to studying international relations in Dresden, where she learned how economics, politics and the law function across borders. Drawn to all three, Diringer says, “I picked this up because I was interested in too many things, and I thought that an interdisciplinary approach is great.”
When she was considering graduate schools, Diringer says, Korbel’s public policy program offered a way to apply an analytical mindset to her work in international relations. “I love that it’s skills based,” she says. “For me, it’s always important to base everything I do and all my strategy that I come up with on data and on quantitative analysis. It really gives me a great idea, specially, how to write policy briefs, how to structure my thoughts, how to really come up with a strategy that is working.”
The level of attention paid to individual passions and interests—and opportunities to explore and dive into them—has been an important part of her experience at DU so far. “I feel like over here, it’s much more individual.
I’m always asked, what are my interests, what topics do I want to take,” Diringer says. “[The faculty] really try to support you in making a career out of it. And not just writing one policy memo about it and that’s it.”
And Diringer is no stranger to delving into her passions. Involved in musical arts since she was three years old, she sought out a creative outlet once she began her master’s, auditioning and getting accepted into the Lamont Chorale, then adding a jazz certificate alongside her public policy degree. Off campus, Diringer has appeared in several performances with the Denver Center for Performing Arts, as well as performing rock ‘n’ roll acrobatics and circus routines. Her love for performing arts and her strategic approach to public policy, Diringer says, are intertwined, and she is keen on combining the two in her work.
“It’s mainly conferences, talks or books,” she says. “But I really want to pursue more of a cultural diplomacy field and cultural communication to reach people that may not normally read the news about it, and also to touch them on a different level. That’s a passion for me.”
A lifelong storyteller, Débora Rocha spent her time at the University honing her skills, earning a bachelor’s degree in film studies and production. Growing up in Brasília, the capital of Brazil, Rocha looked to American cinema for inspiration. “I grew up watching [Hollywood movies],” she says. “If I go there, I can learn how to do it from them. So, I always knew that I wanted to come here to study.”
Before she was set on filmmaking—in fact, before she could read or write, Rocha says, she has been coming up with stories. “Since I was a really young kid, I would tell my mom those stories that I made up. I’d be super excited,” she says, often telling her mother, “Please, you need to write it down!” And once she discovered film, she knew that was how she wanted to tell her stories.
Looking to learn the ins and outs of the film industry, Denver was not the first city to come to mind. “I was thinking about going either to New York or Los Angeles,” she says. “Those are places where people make movies.” But with family in Littleton, she visited DU and fell in love with the film production program.
Throughout her four years of film studies, Rocha explored all sides of production: scriptwriting, cinematography and editing. She directed a short narrative film, “Party Quest,” and edited and produced the short documentary, “Behind the Beat,” which explores Denver’s bass music scene, among other projects.
Minoring in marketing and theatre, Rocha says, helped to round out her education. “That was such a good combination for a film major,” she says. “From marketing your story and knowing how to advertise, how to sell your ideas and how to pitch it, to the construction of emotion and understanding how people make stories.”
Since graduating, Rocha landed an internship with PopShift, an organization that specializes in connecting storytellers throughout the film industry with experts and people with stories to tell. “I think it’s so exciting because you get to see, the background—how things work—and understanding how things come to be,” she says. Hoping to leverage her skills to work in the film industry, she’s looking forward to opportunities to produce and edit in the future.
Looking back, Rocha says, her four years on campus were full of unique experiences and opportunities. “Even though I’m 22, and I don’t feel like I’m exactly a complete grown up, I still feel like I’ve done so much growth after I moved here,” she says. “And it’s just such an amazing opportunity to come here and learn, [to] be able to work and apply all the knowledge that I’ve gotten.”