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Four years ago, a small group of women started their journey at the University of Denver as part of a brand-new leadership program designed specifically for women. The vision from the Colorado Women’s College was to create a scholarship and leadership minor program for first-generation college students and students from underrepresented backgrounds.

For so many involved, this journey was more than just the classes and leadership experience. Over the cohort’s time on campus, it grew into a sisterhood of scholars, with the program offering a safe space for challenging conversations. Now, that group is ready to graduate and use their voices to lead beyond the classroom.

“This particular cohort has really been leaders in the leadership program,” the Leadership Scholars Program coordinator Lauren Contreras explains. “They have made the program what it is today. They’ve been committed to it, dedicated to it and believed in it. They have left a lasting impact on the students that are coming in after them.”

The program was the brainchild of Linda Olson, the longtime director of DU’s Pioneer Leadership Program who was then serving as interim dean of the Colorado Women's College. Reflecting the college's 130-year commitment to transforming educational systems on behalf of women, the program offers a women-focused leadership curriculum that starts with required classes for the first two years to learn and grow with fellow scholars while achieving a leadership minor. Throughout the four years in the program, there is a focus on mentorship, workshops and community-based learning while taking weekend retreats and sharing in community dinners.

“It’s much more than just a minor,” Contreras says. “It’s a community the students can come to. It ends up becoming a place where they are able to come together and relate to one another. They are a very diverse group of students — they all represent a variety of different backgrounds and experiences. They all bring their unique strengths to the program, and [they] are able to benefit by getting to know each other and having support from one another.”

Blanche Ndoutou
Blanche Ndoutou

Blanche Ndoutou is one of the graduating seniors who helped launch the program when she started her DU experience four years ago.

“I’m so grateful to be a part of CWC,” Ndoutou says. “The friends I’ve gained in this program are forever friends — it’s not just a college thing. It’s because we all have some of the same shared values, and we just want to create positive change in our community.”

Ndoutou says the program encouraged her to use her voice and achieve her potential as a leader. During her first year, Ndoutou and some of the other scholars realized there was no African organization on campus. They worked to start African Students United to “create a space to celebrate, educate and participate in the understanding of the many rich, diverse cultures of Africa.”

“CWC was the main thing that helped us know we could do this,” Ndoutou says. “CWC helped us realize we should be the ones to start it, because if we don’t, who will?”

The program also inspired Ndoutou to take action in Denver. As a criminology major, her goal is to mentor youth and teach them about their rights and the realities of the criminal justice system. She recently launched a program called “Know Your Rights, Save Your Lives” in Sun Valley that she hopes to expand more after graduation.

“I would love to advocate for people who tend to be unheard, but not voiceless,” Ndoutou says.

As she wraps up her four years at DU, she is grateful for the mentorship and lifelong friendships she found at CWC.

“I really loved being a CWC scholar,” Ndoutou says. “That’s one part of my life that’s not ending right now. It’s an ongoing thing that I will never forget.”