The Women's College

By: Chase Squires Issue: Education & Workforce Development Section: Inspiration

College of Collaboration

Womens College

With roots stretching back to the 1800s, The Women’s College of the University of Denver could be set in its ways by now, with ivy-covered walls and traditions dug deep into the prairie against the winds that barrel down from the snow-capped Rocky Mountains to the west.

But a decade into its newest incarnation, the ever-evolving institution finds itself again at a crossroads, clinging fiercely to its all-women tradition yet poised to shake up any old-fashioned notions about single-sex education as leaders tackle new challenges facing women in society and business.

“When I got here, the Women’s College had been conceptualized in a particular way,” explained Dean Lynn Gangone, who took the helm in the spring of 2007. “We’ve been repositioning the college ever since.”

One key to its evolution lies in a commitment to collaboration. The women who most often choose the college aren’t typical college students, fresh out of high school and expecting lectures delivered from on high. They are career women, earners as well as learners, some supporting families. They know how the world works, they want to make it work better. Students are expected to take an active role in not only their own education, but also the education of their fellow students. They work together, to learn in an environment that values their experiences and ideas as much as lectures and textbooks. As Gangone noted, these women are teaching and supporting each other as they learn, and professors act in many ways as facilitators, outside the traditional role of lecturers. That spirit is championed not only by instructors, administrators and students, but also by the college’s many benefactors.

“The Chambers Center for the Advancement of Women, with its collaborative and inspirational spaces, imaginative art and hands-on work areas, fosters synergy and collaboration and provides the inspiration for women to build their knowledge and improve their communities,” said Merle Chambers, president of Chambers Family Fund, which provided the lead gift to create the college’s state-of-the-art home. Inside the center, The Women’s College and The Women’s Foundation of Colorado work together, uniquely modeling best practices in women’s education and philanthropy.”

The Women’s College traces its heritage back to 1888 when the Colorado Women’s College was established, but the modern era begins in 1982 when the institution merged with the University of Denver (DU). The college became a separate academic unit in 1997 and moved into its signature facility and current home, the Merle Catherine Chambers Center for the Advancement of Women, in 2004.

With an identity and presence now so firmly lodged in the fabric of DU, it would be easy to settle into a comfortable rut.

But Gangone is far from a settler, The Women’s College is far from a rut, and single-sex education is far from old-fashioned.

Instead, students, administrators and supporters of the College embarked in 2008 on a rebirth of sorts for the institution, challenging preconceived notions of women’s education and non-traditional college programs.

Focusing on night and weekend classes with academic offerings tailored for working students, programs are designed to encourage women to bring leadership into the classroom and share life-experiences in a collaborative manner more in tune with a graduate program of study than the old undergraduate model of lectures and tests.

Courses focus on face-to-face exchanges, and mutual support replaces competition. Efforts are made to work with women dealing with adult demands on their time and to help women use education to move ahead in their careers.

“Our job is to educate and empower these women,” Gangone said. “It’s not to feel sorry for them. It’s not to coddle them. It’s to say, ‘We understand the complexity of your life, and you can be that complex person here. We understand you have multiple demands. We understand there are times when you are predominantly a learner. We understand there are times when you are predominantly a mom. And there are times when you are predominantly taking care of a parent. And you shift in and out of those roles. You’re not like an 18-year-old who has the luxury of predominantly always being a learner. That’s the difference here, we get it.’”

By gathering as women, by seeing women around them in leadership roles, students develop the confidence to lead, while learning from those around them and those who have gone before them.

“So when you’re walking out of class and you finish the conversation about an assignment you have and you turn to your classmate and say, ‘You know, I’m really having a tough time getting things done because my granddaughter is coming to visit,’ or something, there is someone there to say, ‘I understand what you’re talking about. Here’s how I did it,” Gangone said.

Nestled into a graceful brick building, adorned inside with an ever-changing gallery of art, on the western edge of the urban DU campus, the college is the academic launching pad for about 300 students at any given time. Women ranging from their late teens to their mid 60s (average age is 37) come in from all walks of life, pursuing degrees as time, career, family and life allow. The building itself is a vibrant hub of activity as the college shares space with bustling organizations that have set up shop inside, including HERS (Higher Education Resource Services) – an educational non-profit supporting leadership and management development for women in higher education globally – and The Women’s Foundation of Colorado, pursuing equal opportunity and self-sufficiency for women.

In the classroom, the college sees mothers taking classes alongside daughters and sisters taking courses with their sisters. And administrators are proud of the diversity, with more than a third of students describing themselves as women of color.

“Students might be able to take one course one quarter, or sometimes bump it up to three courses, or take one during an interterm,” Gangone explained. “We’ve got to be able to accommodate their lives. It sometimes takes them a lot of years to get their bachelor’s degree, but they are proud when they walk across that stage, they’ve earned it.”

Second-year student Mikayla Houser has already found success in the business world. At 31, she owns her own business, party planning company 5280 Events, and works at brewing giant MillerCoors as an investigations analyst. But she says she’s preparing herself for her next step, pursuing a degree in law and society, with a minor in communications, at The Women’s College.

“The environment in the classroom is extremely collaborative, and working with the staff is as well,” she said. “I am employed at MillerCoors where there is lots of change and plenty of women feeling insecure in their positions. We have brought in The Women’s College to participate at the ‘Women At Coors’ events to let our employees know that there are options for them and opportunities that can help them further or finish their education, even if they are employed. Working together with The Women’s College is delightful, diverse and always done right.”

Students at the college pursue undergraduate degrees in business administration, communication, information technology or law and society. In addition, the college offers certificates in conflict management, gender and women’s studies, information technology, leadership and writing.

First-year student Theresa Solano’s resume reads more like that of an instructor than a college freshman, testament to the program’s vibrant diversity. At 40, Solano is the community relations manager for Centennial, Colorado-based Hope Online Learning Academy Co-Op, a public charter school that operates at learning centers across the state and online. The Learning Academy is aimed at reaching out to at-risk Colorado students in kindergarten through 12th grade. She’s also on the board of the Denver Latino Commission, president of the board of Mi Casa Resource Center, and holds a number of positions at area non-profits.

But she’s made time for school (and earned straight A’s in her first quarter) to finally earn a degree she’s long wanted while bringing her own networking skills to the college’s ongoing collaborative outreach projects.

“Enrolling at The Women’s College has had tremendous rewards,” Solano said. “Not only does The Women’s College maintain an academic community that fosters a positive and challenging educational experience, allowing me to enthusiastically pursue my long-desired degree, but it’s given me the chance to connect three fantastic organizations. Together, The Women’s College, Public Service Credit Union and Mi Casa Resource Center will establish financial and educational opportunities for women. I am honored and humbled to have made the introductions between these organizations whose collaboration, I know, will generate outstanding benefits for women in the Denver community.”

Like Solano, programs at the college are in constant motion.

Visioning sessions coupled with community outreach are continually sparking new ideas, uncovering new areas that need attention and delivering new opportunities for students and the community. “All our strategic planning is done in terms of collaboration, both with the other units of our campus and with the community around us,” Gangone said. “We know we can’t do this alone.”

As the college expands its vision, Gangone sees a renewed focus on helping women not only help themselves and achieve independence and success, but also by studying how women can impact society through their roles in entrepreneurship, philanthropy and social justice. The Rocky Mountain West, with its tradition of small-businesses and entrepreneurship makes the region a perfect laboratory.

“We’re looking on and off campus to engage women who have been successful, see what they’ve done,” Gangone said. “We can’t do this by ourselves. We have to look at the community. What makes Denver special? What makes our region special? Let’s talk about that.”

While women continue to make strides, Gangone said inequities persist, and the gap is closing too slowly. As the only all-women’s higher education program in the region, the college is uniquely positioned to gather research and to share findings with women who will return to their communities to make a difference.

“Our students, their lives extend everywhere,” Gangone said. “All of these women are deeply engaged in their community. They’re engaged in their churches, they’re engaged in civic organizations. We are creating centers of engagement, and these are the women who will bring what they’ve learned and their leadership back to the community.”

And she stresses, the work doesn’t end with graduation. That’s just the beginning. Whether it’s back to school for an advanced degree in social work or business or law, or back into the career world, Gangone says she expects her graduates to get busy making a difference. Because The Women’s College places such an emphasis on face-to-face classroom collaboration, and because it’s dedicated to creating programs for working women, the school attracts largely women already living in Colorado. Educating women who are already grounded in the Centennial State helps combat that “Colorado Paradox,” where the state reflects a statistically high level of educated residents, but an overwhelming number are transplants who came to the Rocky Mountains for the quality of life, leaving many native Coloradans behind educationally.

“We are educating the people who live here,” Gangone said. “We are educating the women who live in this area, we help them earn that degree, and they are homegrown, committed to life here in the Rocky Mountain West. This is a great college. We hear over and over that it’s the ‘best kept secret.’ We are determined that we are not going to be a secret anymore.”