DU’s Pioneer Leadership Program Celebrates 25 Years
The University of Denver’s groundbreaking Pioneer Leadership Program (PLP) is celebrating a quarter century of educating exceptional students to tackle some of the world’s biggest challenges as leaders in their field.
PLP started in 1995 when DU faculty were conducting research on what it means to be a leader. It soon became apparent that students were interested in developing those skills with a specialized program. The minor program was founded on the idea that being an exceptional leader requires more than just a natural ability to take initiative; it also demands a deep understanding of leadership theory, social responsibility and global understanding.
More than 9,000 miles from DU, PLP alumna Erin Robinson is putting that education into practice as a middle school principal at United World College Southeast Asia in Singapore. She is guiding her community through the coronavirus pandemic, tackling everything from online learning to returning safely back to campus to start the school year. More than five years into her journey with the school and 20 years into her career, Robinson still finds herself referring back to the leadership foundation she built at DU.
“It’s the idea of the ripples, right? It starts in PLP in terms of your leadership foundation and the impact of your leadership learning ripples forward in ways you don’t yet understand as an undergraduate,” Robinson explains. “Through the leadership development that you start to build and gain at PLP, you have the opportunity and responsibility to influence the world in pretty significant ways.”
For nearly 20 years, Linda Olson, PLP executive director, has guided and shaped the program, building a close bond with each new class — all while keeping in touch with many program graduates and remembering them by name.
“Seeing students from their first year to their final year in an immersive academic and co-curricular program is amazing — I just can’t imagine teaching any other way,” she says. “We have the opportunity to be a part of their growth over the four years and often see them as engaged alumni. It is very satisfying to know them through several stages of their lives and see them lead impactful lives in their communities. They are all so inspiring.”
That close bond begins forming when PLP students first arrive on the DU campus. Each year, the program selects 88 first-year students to pursue the leadership studies minor. Participating students live on the same floor of a residence hall and, for the first year at least, take many of the same classes.
Robinson, who chose DU because of the PLP program, was excited about the opportunity to live and study with a group of students who shared her interest in leadership, but who brought diverse perspectives to dinnertime conversations and classroom discussions.
“You make such strong connections within the cohort because you are learning and living with incredibly talented students and professors,” she says. “You're also meeting influential community leaders and without even realizing it, you end up building a leadership network that really pays dividends later on.”
The second year of the PLP program is all about service in the community, allowing students to get to know an organization that is focusing on an issue that taps into their passions. They wrap up their leadership training in Olson’s capstone course on ethics.
“Certainly, you can learn leadership by trial and error, but I really believe that if you think about it more carefully, with structure, feedback and practice, you can become much better at it,” Olson says. “Many of our students come in with a traditional, transactional and hierarchical view of leadership, but most of what we call [the] ‘wicked problems’ or challenging issues of the day require a completely different style of leadership: people that can practice a radical and inclusive style of collaboration.”
That radical style of collaboration and theory set up Robinson and other alumni to excel as leaders in their fields.
“What you get out of the program at DU is such an amazing learning experience,” Robinson says. “It’s a lifetime’s worth of experiences that will be relevant in many years to come.”