Three Honored With Distinguished Alumni Awards
Michelle Kwan, Patricio Serna and Joseph Saunders highlight second annual Alumni Weekend
She had two Olympic medals, five world championships and the adoration of an entire generation. But in May 2009, Michelle Kwan did not have a job — or any idea of how she was going to find one.
The most decorated American figure skater in history, Kwan (BA ’09) had, to this point, dedicated her life to salchows and axels. Now, she had an international relations degree from DU and a quagmire that put the celebrity in a position students then and now could relate to.
“No door was opening — no door!” she recalled during a conversation with Chancellor Rebecca Chopp during Alumni Weekend. “Of course it’s not in my biography: ‘She had a few months where she couldn’t find a job.’ But that perseverance, that grit kept me strong. It took a lot of belief in myself.”
Back on campus for the first time since she graduated, Kwan returned as one of three distinguished alumni honorees during DU’s Alumni Weekend. Kwan, Joseph Saunders and Patricio Serna engaged the community with specialty lectures and conversations, sharing stories of their career triumphs and tribulations.
Kwan called her time at DU a turning point in her life. Her classes, classmates and professors gave her a sense of identity she was afraid she would never find after retiring from professional skating years prior. Notably, she said, it taught her the importance of lifelong learning and following a passion.
“It [hasn’t been] rainbows and butterflies,” she said. “It’s challenging. You need to follow your passion to a place where you can move the needle, being creative where you land and being fluid: if you don’t like the place that you land, just be flexible enough to adjust where you want to go and do good.”
They are the same values that Serna (JD ’70) has preached throughout his career, as the first-generation college student rose to become chief justice on the State of New Mexico Supreme Court.
“In your career, do what makes you happy, what will make your family happy, your children happy, your spouse happy,” Serna said. “It’s so important that everyone has a happy and meaningful life, and you can only achieve that when you’re doing something that you care about and love doing.”
Most meaningful to Serna, who also delivered this year’s Sturm College of Law commencement address, are the relationships he formed with his fellow students and former professors. In the nearly 50 years since he earned his degree, Serna has remained close to the campus he describes as caring, friendly and warm.
“Keep your ties to DU strong, because you loved it when you were here,” Serna said. “Continue to love it and continue that spirit of DU. That spirit of caring, that spirit of integrity, that spirit of loyalty, that spirit of creativity, that spirit of courage. Give that spirit renewed vigor. The school needs you.”
With modern technology, staying connected has never been easier, said distinguished alumni honoree Joseph Saunders (Hon. Ph.D. ’09, MBA ’68, BSBA ’67) — and it has never been more important.
“That makes your life so much more productive because you have a group of people you can go to and talk with and network with,” said Saunders, the former CEO of Visa.
Over the weekend, Saunders and his wife, Sharon, announced a $5 million gift to provide funding for need-based scholarships and undergraduate programming. The philanthropy illustrated the importance the Saunderses place on giving back. The resources available to future “Saunders Scholars,” as they will be known, will encourage students to sharpen their focus to achieve their goals.
“If you want to be successful, whatever you do — I don’t care if it’s cutting grass or coming up with the next miracle drug — you’ve got to decide that you want to do something and then you’ve got to do it,” he said. “You’ve got to pay attention to it and you can’t do it part time. You’ve got to do it fully.”