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Challenging Preconceptions

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Tamara Chapman

Senior Managing Editor

Senior Managing Editor"

Throwing out biases shaped Morgan Smith’s experiences at DU

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Morgan Smith
Morgan Smith (Photo: Wayne Armstrong)

When senior Morgan Smith comes to a fork in the road, he doesn’t choose either the path least or most traveled.

Instead, he zigzags among the options, stitching together his own route to personal and professional development. It’s a great way to ward off regret and to optimize opportunity.

The opportunity to straddle paths is, in large part, why Smith — a graduate of Air Academy High School in Colorado Springs and a Boettcher Scholar — came to DU in the first place.

“I had wide liberty in deciding where to choose,” he explains. After all, as winners of the state’s most prestigious scholarship, Boettcher Scholars get tuition and nearly all expenses paid to any university in the state. And Smith was looking closely at Colorado’s many offerings.

A single trip to DU clinched the deal. With its stunning views and handsome architecture, the campus made a great impression. But most important, Smith recalls, it was “the total vibe” that captured his attention. “Everyone running around doing their own stuff,” he explains. “I really wanted to be a part of that.”

Mission accomplished. At the Commencement ceremony in June, Smith will close four jam-packed years at DU, collecting degrees in economics and public policy, two bedfellows that immersed him in intensive scholarship and that align with the way his brain works.

“I think fundamentally, [they are] about systems, and I like systems thinking. Economics is the study of economic systems, looking not only at how markets work but at how societies work, how institutions work. Policies are about interventions into those systems,” he explains, adding that he relishes the interplay of competing ideas around how economic systems function, locally and internationally.

“How do you intervene in that system to make it more efficient or to make it more practical or make it better serve people? That is really the main focus for me,” he adds.

From his first days on campus, Smith was all about making things better. His first year, he dwelled among go-getters in a living and learning environment for members of the Pioneer Leadership Program. He used that year to sample an array of courses, figuring out what his majors should be. That done, he embarked on a series of internships — including one with a state representative and one with an interfaith nonprofit — that propelled him into the heart of public and private approaches to problem solving.

Inside the classroom, where his professors were intent on challenging orthodoxy, he learned that he wanted to throw out assumptions and see where the evidence — and not his preconceptions — took him. In one instance, he ventured to Denmark for an independent study project that allowed him to investigate a curious news item. “I had just read a report that Denmark had been ranked by Forbes as the best country in the world to do business. And I was like, ‘I wonder why?’ Denmark is a country that is better known here for breakfast pastries and socialism. What is up with this?”

With constant questioning his constant M.O., Smith co-founded Roosevelt@DU, a student-run chapter of a national policy think tank. In spring of his junior year, he ran for president of Undergraduate Student Government and, upon winning, devoted his term to “building capacity to address problems, to bring students to the table, to create decision-making processes.”

Smith’s fall 2014 arrival on campus coincided with Chancellor Rebecca Chopp’s inaugural year at the helm of DU. Watching her in action offered a tutorial in changemaking, with a foundational chapter on listening.

“Students who are of my year will always remember Chancellor Chopp running around in a golf cart during the Imagine DU process,” he says, referring to the initiative to shape a strategic plan. “Just seeing the chancellor of our university running around in a golf cart, handing out things, talking to the students — those were really exciting times.

“I remember initially seeing the first draft of IMPACT 2025 released. And then eventually the final draft. And I remember thinking, ‘Oh, this is super cool.’ And me being me, me being the reader and policy guy, I was like, ‘ooh, ooh, ooh.’ Here are the objectives, here’s the strategy, all the way through … I can only imagine what, in seven years’ time, our university will actually be.”

Smith’s own plan, complete with objectives and strategy, is still in the making. But wherever he lands — whether in public administration, urban planning or applied economics — he’s planning to ask key questions he first learned to pose at DU:

“What happens if we drop the assumptions? How does the world actually work?”

To learn more about Commencement at the University of Denver, please visit the Commencement website.