Alumni / Summer 2018

DU honors 2018 class of Distinguished Alumni

DU recruited an accomplished group of graduates for its 2018 Distinguished Alumni Awards: Olympic ice skater and U.S. diplomat Michelle Kwan (BA ’09), retired New Mexico Supreme Court Justice Patricio Serna (JD ’70), and Joseph Saunders (BSBA ’67, MBA ’68), former chairman and CEO of Visa. All three were on campus in May for Alumni Weekend festivities, including on-stage conversations about their lives and accomplishments and a Gold Dinner for students and alumni.


Michelle Kwan

The most decorated figure skater in U.S. history, Kwan boasts five world championships, nine U.S. national championships and two Olympic medals. She also has made significant contributions in diplomatic efforts, serving as the first public diplomacy envoy at the Department of State. She is now on the board of the Special Olympics.







Q: What was your DU experience like, coming off of a professional skating career?

A: My time [at DU] was spent trying to discover other passions in my life. That’s hard for anybody — you identify doing one particular thing, and suddenly it’s taken away from you. But I soon realized that I wasn’t starting from nothing. I had this amazing skill set that I learned through sports. I know what it takes. I know the grit, I know the discipline. I wasn’t starting from an empty gas tank. I was full. I just needed to apply myself. Everything I knew and how I found my love and passion in sports is how I embraced other passions in my life.


Q: When you need inspiration, where do you turn?

A: When I was a skater and I was in my mid-20s, I was like, “I’m world champion, Olympic medalist — what else do I need in my life?” For inspiration, I just need to turn to a little girl stepping out on the ice for the very first time. She can barely lace up her skates, but she’s getting onto the ice, so excited. When I’m in a tough spot, I often turn to the inspiration of someone who’s just starting, and how enthusiastic that person is. It really puts things in perspective.


Q: In your career, you’ve had the opportunity to be an influencer for people. What personal qualities do you think serve that role best?

A: A 6- or 7-year-old little girl came up to me with her mom. I was 13 years old, doing shows on this tour all over the country, and the mom came up to me and said, “My daughter wants to be just like you.” I was shocked. I was like, “I’m 13 years old; I’m only seven years older than your daughter.” But it made me think that I could play a positive role in this little girl’s life. And it inspired me to think, “I want to be the best daughter that I can be. I want to be the best sister, the best student, the best role model, the best skater I can be.” I don’t sit back and think about it, but hopefully it’s a path that inspires people.



Patricio Serna

Serna retired in 2012 after serving on the New Mexico Supreme Court for 12 years, including a year as chief justice. Along the way, he helped pioneer the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund and the Hispanic National Bar Association. He is now on the board of MATCH New Mexico, which matches college student mentors with third graders to help academically at-risk students with reading and math proficiency.


Q: What was your path to DU?

A: In 1967, the visionary [DU law] dean Robert Yegge applied for a Ford Foundation grant to create an intensive summer program for Hispanics at the University of Denver College of Law. This was because there were no Hispanic attorneys in the Southwest. It was a big gap. They took 21 students from New Mexico and Colorado, and 11 successfully completed the summer program and got a fellowship to DU for three years. I was one of the lucky 11, and it turns out that all 11 of us did well in law school and all passed bars in our respective states and are having wonderful careers in the legal profession. Some as judges, some as lawyers, some in government, some in the judiciary, too.


Q: What was it like to study at DU in the late ’60s?

A: One thing I’ll always remember, and why I love DU, is the closeness of the faculty, the students and the staff. The helpful attitude, it stayed with me all these years. I never encountered anything negative. I remember the law review [staff] used to go up to the dean’s cabin in the mountains every summer for a big picnic. They are wonderful memories that really make my heart happy.


Q: What is the best career or life advice you ever received?

A: My oldest sister, Isobel, was 14 when our mother died, and she was the matriarch of the family. She would tell me, “Pat, you can be whatever you want to be. Just picture yourself there. Don’t worry how you’re going to get there; always be positively focused; always be determined; and always believe in yourself.” I took that to heart, and that has been my philosophy of life. And look where it’s taken me.



Joseph Saunders


CEO of Visa from 2007 to 2013, Saunders is now chairman of the board of financial wellness company Payoff and is chair and general partner at venture capital firm Green Visor Capital.



Q: What aspects of your DU experience set you up for business success?

A: First was the observation that everybody in the fraternity that I was in went to graduate school. That was the first thing that kind of clicked in my brain, and I said, “There’s more to [college] than having a beer party.” It really is an opportunity to begin to define myself. Another thing that helped me a lot was going to Mexico for a quarter when I was a sophomore. All of a sudden, you’re in an environment where your teachers are teaching you something that is absolutely new to you. The history teacher at the National University of Mexico thought California and Texas ought to be part of Mexico. Whatever the truth of the matter is, what it said to me is there are different points of view, and there are different people all over the world. And if you’re going to be a part of a global economy, you’re going to have to appreciate that.


Q: What personal qualities do you feel make an effective leader?

A: You need to recognize other people. You need to work with people to get things done. There is nothing that is extraordinarily successful that is successful because of one person. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve seen people be afraid to hire somebody who may be as good or better than them because they’re afraid of losing their job. That means that progress just stops. It comes to a halt. That is a signal of failure.


Q: What advice would you give to DU students graduating in 2018?

A: Try to get involved in something that you like. You will be happier in the long run doing something that excites you, whether or not that means you’ll be the CEO of VISA or something entirely different. What isn’t OK anymore is to just do things. To go to class and get a degree and not think about it. Luck will only take you so far.


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