As a Saunders Scholar, Valyntine Lonergan cultivates her leadership potential.

As a Saunders Scholar, Valyntine Lonergan cultivates her leadership potential.

It gave me a good sense of community, reassuring me that this is where I belong.

If Valyntine Lonergan could meet Joseph and Sharon Saunders, she would want to tell them her story. She would tell them about growing up in a separated, high-conflict household devoid of college graduates. She would tell them how school was her escape and how she always dreamed of continuing her education.

And she would thank Joseph (Hon. PhD ’09, MBA ’68, BSBA ’67) and his wife, Sharon, for making it all possible.

“Their contribution to my education has been an amazing thing that I couldn’t have asked for,” said Lonergan, a first-year student at the Daniels College of Business. “I think that being a student at DU is such a great honor, especially for someone like me that’s a first-generation college student.”

Lonergan and four of her classmates represent the inaugural group of students in the Saunders Leadership Academy, established in May 2018 with a $5 million gift—the largest endowed contribution in support of scholarships in University of Denver history.

Saunders Scholars come from across the country, from diverse backgrounds and experiences. Many are the first in their families to pursue a college degree. The new academy not only funds their education, but also underwrites personal and pre-professional leadership and growth training, family engagement and support, and structured mentorship and internship opportunities.

Throughout their time on campus, the scholars will benefit from a network of students, faculty and staff who can nurture, mentor and support their journey at DU and beyond.

“It really adds that special significance to know I’m part of that community of peers that are supported all throughout college, not just during our first year,” Lonergan said. “I get to meet these students who are just like me and have a real drive to go to college and pursue their education. It gave me a good sense of community, reassuring me that this is where I belong.”

A former DU trustee and former chairman and CEO of Visa Inc., Joseph Saunders considers his years at DU instrumental to his many achievements. In gratitude for his own success, he and Sharon wanted “to open this door and offer young motivated students this wonderful opportunity to receive the leadership training and experience they need to build their future careers.”

Chancellor Rebecca Chopp hailed the Saunders Leadership Academy as an innovative initiative supporting DU IMPACT 2025’s emphasis on creating an opportunity-rich environment for students. “It is not enough to just get [students] in the door,” she explained. “We must see them through and provide them with the support they need to become the next generation of leaders.”

Saunders Scholars praise the mentorship and academic coaching they have received. The opportunity has given them a chance to succeed, they say, and they are determined to pass on the kindness the program’s namesakes have given them.

Lonergan wants to express that to her sponsors personally. But until then, she tells the story of Thanksgiving dinner, when her proud parents showed off her first-quarter Dean’s List letter to the rest of the family.