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University of Colorado Denver

University of Colorado Denver

A small school experience at a big state school

Honors and leadership program gets rave reviews from students

Ashley Anderson and Tyler Svitak, Honors and Leadership Students

By Vicki Hildner

Tyler Svitak decided to come to University of Colorado Denver from his home in Medford, Oregon four years ago because he fell in love with Denver and he wanted to be close to world- class skiing. But as Svitak looks forward to graduating this spring, he confesses that what really made his college experience exceptional was his chance enrollment in the University Honors and Leadership (UHL) program.

“I almost didn’t go into the UHL program because I was afraid an honors program would just mean more time in the library and I would rather be skiing,“ recalls Svitak. “But it turned out to be the best decision I could have made because of the network of contacts with student and political leaders I developed across Colorado.”

In 2008, the university established the UHL program--the university’s undergraduate honors program--with the goals of better serving the needs of its best students and attracting additional high-caliber students. Professor Steve Medema, PhD, the program’s director since 2009, took on the challenge for personal reasons. “I wanted these students to have the same kind of college experience that I had attending a small liberal arts college,” Medema says, “even though they are attending a large state university.”

The four-year program draws students from the top 10 percent of their high school graduating classes. Students are required to have a personal interview to be considered. Admission to the program is becoming increasingly competitive. Currently, only one out of every two applicants is accepted to each annual cohort, and cohorts are limited to 40 students. All UHL courses are multi-disciplinary, with class size capped at 20. “We have designed the UHL curriculum to be an excellent complement to the students’ majors,” says Medema. 

Pre-med junior Ashley Anderson followed her older sister into the program. “I liked the idea that I could trade some of the standard undergraduate prerequisites for classes that combine the humanities with the sciences,” says Anderson. “Right now I am taking ‘Love and Death in the Greek Classics’ and ‘Biology and Politics.’”

Anderson says that teachers of the UHL courses approach academics in a different way. “There is less emphasis on memorizing and regurgitating, and instead you are asked to analyze what you read, discuss it, and develop critical thinking skills.”

Svitak can list at least half a dozen opportunities he has had through the UHL program to develop leadership connections, including the El Pomar scholarship for leadership students and the Colorado Leadership Alliance. Svitak has also done work with the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce, the Clean Cities Coalition, and he has received scholarships to do research on disaster management from the National Science Foundation and the Department of Defense.

“These are opportunities I would not have gotten if I weren’t in the UHL program,” Svitak points out, “but it’s also up to the individual to make the most out of the program.”

Anderson points to a different kind of networking as another plus of the UHL program. “CU Denver is a big commuter school, and it could be hard to meet people,” she says. “But with such small classes through UHL, I have made really close friends and I have found a small community within the bigger university community.”

Anderson and Svitak credit close relationships with their UHL program teachers as a key element to their academic success. “Prof. Medema just seems to like it when I stop by to talk,” laughs Anderson.  “In addition to counseling me about classes, he wants to know what I am up to.” 

Svitak adds, “Prof. Medema has already done four recommendations for me, and I haven’t even applied to graduate school yet!”

Both students also point with pride to the fact that they have been able to earn scholarships through the UHL program.  Both plan to graduate from CU Denver without any debt.

Medema says the university has given “tremendous support” to the UHL program. “The administration clearly believes that UHL’s unique integration of honors and leadership education provides enormous benefits for well-prepared, highly-motivated students.”

The UHL program will graduate its first four-year class this spring. Many of the students will head directly to medical school or graduate school, while others will be pursuing career opportunities in fields including business, science, and the arts.

To learn more about the UHL program, contact Prof. Steve Medema at or 303-556-8121.


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