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A Place to Learn, A Place to Grow

Michele “Mike” Bloom, dean of the Women’s College, emerges from her car in a University of Denver parking lot near the corner of Asbury and High streets. She opens the back door and sits down on the seat to take her shoes off. Placing her sandals on the floor of the car, she takes out a pair of grubby, steel-toed work boots and pulls them onto her stockinged feet. Then she retrieves a hard hat and protective goggles.

Fitting the gear on her head and face like an old pro, Bloom walks boldly across the parking lot, across Asbury Avenue and past a chain link fence into a full-fledged construction site. Men in humongous tractors stop their work to greet her—“Hey, Mike!”—and to let her pass unhindered. She waves a salute and keeps walking.

As her boots land in the chalk-like dirt, puffs billow onto her linen pants. But Bloom couldn’t care less. Her eyes are cast above at the future home of the Women’s College. As the building nears completion, this trek has become almost a daily venture for Bloom, who saw this dream in her mind’s eye more than a decade ago.

Vision and persistence are woven into the college’s history. The roots of today’s Women’s College go back to 1888 when Baptist minister Robert Cameron envisioned a place where Colorado women could receive a high-quality education. He kept his dream alive through a long fundraising process, garnering startup money from Baptist leaders and congregations and from novel fundraisers, such as the “March of the Women.”

Finally in 1909, more than 20 years later, Treat Hall opened on a campus in Denver’s Park Hill neighborhood. It was the first home of Colorado Woman’s College (CWC).

Just as women’s lives have changed dramatically since the early 1900s, so has the college.

“The college has responded to the changing lives of American women,” explains Bloom, MA ’69. “Originally, they were to be wives, mothers and leaders in their churches. With World War II, they had to enter the workforce and the college expanded to meet their needs. Then, in the late ’60s and ’70s, women weren’t sure they wanted to learn in an all-woman setting.”

In 1970, CWC created the Re-engagement Program to enable older women to return to college for an undergraduate degree. It was just one program of CWC, and, Bloom says, “It was a tremendous innovation.”

In the early 1980s, the oil and mining industries were booming and needed more workers. Women with a business degree were in demand. Again, CWC responded, creating the Weekend College. Yet, despite a spike in enrollment, CWC faced unrelenting financial burdens. So, in 1982, the University of Denver acquired CWC; the only program DU maintained was the Weekend College, which it ran through the Daniels College of Business.

Ten years later, in 1992, Bloom was hired to run the college.

“When I came in, the first thing I did was to change the name,” she remembers. “We made a strategic decision that we would give up half of the adult market and position ourselves as the only all-women college in the region.”

The DU Board of Trustees approved, and the Women’s College was born in June 1993. In 1997, it became one of the University’s 11 distinct colleges.

Today, the college is fiercely loved by all who encounter it. Faculty, staff and students speak of the school in terms normally reserved for religious icons or pop stars.

“You know how you can walk into a place and it just feels right? That’s the feeling I got at the Women’s College,” says current student Kathy Hoover, a business major. “The first person I spoke with truly cared about me. They asked, ‘What can we do for you?’ At other places, they say, ‘Here’s our schedule and our degrees,’ and they expect you to accommodate them.”

The Women’s College curriculum is constructed to provide students with a traditional undergraduate degree in a nontraditional format. Many of the University’s core classes have been adapted for the college, with fundamental courses offered in communication, mathematics and languages.

The college offers majors in business, communication and applied computing. Minors are offered in those three areas, as well as in gender and women’s studies. Students attend classes primarily on Friday nights and weekends in four-hour blocks. The college even provides lunch on Saturdays and Sundays so that students and faculty can gather before afternoon classes begin.

Many believe the feeling of community is unique to the college and that it actually strengthens the quality of the education.

Communication Assist. Prof. Carol Zak-Dance has taught at the college since 1984. She says that the women form a support structure early in their education, and those relationships empower many students to complete their degrees.

“It’s like the students link arms and say, ‘Let’s get through this together,’” says Zak-Dance, who directs the college’s Communication Center. “They don’t want anybody left behind.”

Ray Boersema agrees. He is the mathematics curriculum coordinator and was named the University’s 2004 Adjunct Professor of the Year. He has been teaching at the Women’s College since 1998, but he also has taught at Front Range Community College, University of Colorado at Denver and Metropolitan State College.

“I have always believed that it is easier to teach women because they are most honest about what they know and don’t know,” he explains. “It’s a lot easier to make progress because there are no pretensions. Teaching at the Women’s College is like being at the most perfect place; I have a whole class of open, honest students.”

However, Boersema also believes that there is an intangible quality at the Women’s College that isn’t related to gender.

“I’ve thought about it a lot over the years, but I’m not sure I fully understand it,” he confesses. “I’ve taught classes all over and I have never, ever seen students who have such a passion for learning. Why are they so driven to succeed?”

Mary Claire Friesema-Tucker may know the answer. She graduated from the Women’s College in 1999 with a bachelor’s degree in communication. “I had put my first husband through undergraduate and graduate school and it was always going to be my turn,” she says. “When I became single, I decided it was my turn.”

Friesema-Tucker is an entrepreneur and self-employed, so she didn’t need the degree to climb a corporate ladder. “But I always hated when business conversation turned to—as it always does—‘Where did you go to school?’ I would backpedal or go silent. It played on my self-esteem that I never did what I had promised myself I would do.”

After graduating, Friesema-Tucker launched a new business venture, the Bridge Centers, which offer services to people who work from home or out of the trunk of their car. At the two centers, people can rent an office or conference room by the hour, day, week or month-to-month. Last year, Friesema-Tucker received the Trailblazer Award from the Association for Women in Communications.

Peggy Pangersis, who graduated in 2001, thinks the drive to succeed comes from every student’s unique reason to earn her degree. “A lot of the women who go there have already made the decision, ‘I need to change my life and, by God, this is how I’m going to do it!’”

Pangersis earned a degree in applied computing and now is an IT project manager at First Data.

What happens once students get to the college is, Pangersis thinks, just natural.

“Supporting one another is natural to women,” she says. “In the first class of every quarter, everyone greets each other. If you say it’s your first class, they applaud you. Immediately, you know these people are your friends.”

Nurturing they may be, but the students also are demanding.

“We go in there and we expect the professor to teach us,” Hoover says. “Don’t let us out early. Don’t slight us. Don’t underestimate us. Don’t hold back on me!”

Katia Campbell, PhD ’04, teaches communication courses for the college and says she must be more flexible to accommodate her students’ lives.

“Many of the students have families and children. They’re working full-time. We have to be flexible to each individual student’s needs,” she explains. Yet, Campbell says she thrives on the intense expectations. “For me, it takes more effort to teach in a traditional setting because, in general, the students are not as engaged. Their minds are elsewhere. It’s totally different at the Women’s College. They keep me on my toes.”

Further, an all-women’s education requires inherently different teaching tactics, Boersema says. He recently revamped the mathematics curriculum to better address the needs of women returning to the classroom.

“Some women have grave concerns about reentering math classrooms,” he explains. “At the same time, these are working, mature adult women, and they should not re-experience math the way they experienced it before.”

The new math mission is to make students “comfortable with the world of numbers, their ability to think critically and their ability to problem-solve.”

While the college will perform standard evaluations on this model to assure its viability, Boersema says he is seeking a less tangible benchmark to determine if the new curriculum works.

“Women talk about things that are impacting their lives,” he says, a gleam in his eyes. “I want them to talk to their friends about math!”

The Women’s College mission seeks “the transformation of women’s lives through education.” Most of the 350 women earning degrees at the college are experiencing tremendous transformation. Their ages range from 20 to 72, averaging 38 years old.

Minorities make up 37 percent of the student body, and 99 percent of the women are employed full-time. Most notably, 60 percent of the students are the first women in their family to earn a college degree.

Serving that population is an ever-shifting journey, and Bloom believes the new building—and its inhabitants— will help the college take giant leaps in service to women. But the building itself has been quite a journey.

Back in the 1990s, Bloom and the Women’s College were housed in Huchingson Hall, next door to Treat Hall on the Park Hill campus. Bloom began dreaming about a grander home that could lend itself to the legacy and the future of the college. She wanted to refurbish Treat Hall and return the college to its roots.

Then, one day in 1999, she got a call from Chancellor Dan Ritchie, who told her that the University was selling the Park Hill campus. The Women’s College, he told her, would be moved to the University Park campus and classes would be held in existing buildings.

Bloom responded, “Give me 100 days and I will come back to you with a bigger idea.”

Just 21 days later, Bloom sat in Ritchie’s office with “a major donor, a partner and a plan.” She proposed that the University participate in a capital campaign to build a center where women’s education and advancement could thrive. Their partner in the campaign would be the Women’s Foundation of Colorado, and they brought with them a major donor—Merle Catherine Chambers—whose $3-million gift launched the dream.

Later, a third women’s organization joined the campaign, Higher Education Resource Services (HERS), which sponsors professional development activities for women in higher education. The triumvirate—Women’s College, Women’s Foundation and HERS—is the only association of its kind in the nation.

Thus began the long journey to the construction site that Bloom surveys today. Five years, nearly 600 donors and almost $10 million later, the 32,000-square-foot building is a reality.

Built into the very mission of the Merle Catherine Chambers Center for the Advancement of Women is the concept of shared resources and improved service to Colorado’s women and girls. It is designed so that people in the three organizations can see each other at work and collaborate toward common goals.

The building’s signature artwork—a window depicting the golden mean and suggesting the elegant curve of a nautilus shell—perfectly captures the center’s spirit.

During the design phase, Bloom showed University Architectural Consultant Jane Loefgren a slice of a shell that she keeps on her desk. From the very center of the swirl, one can see the increasingly large chambers that the “little creature,” as Bloom calls it, built for itself. Each time the creature outgrew its chamber, it took a risk and built the foundation for the next chamber of the swirl. The window symbolizes that risk and growth.

When unveiling a new building, people often boast that they have scrutinized every detail. For Bloom, that statement is true. She actually gushes over the ceiling tile.

When she doesn’t get the desired response, Bloom says, “I defy you to find prettier ceiling tile.” End of discussion.

As for the Women’s College, it’s hard for Bloom to see beyond opening day of the building. But, she’s a woman with ideas constantly percolating: how to continue shifting the college to meet the needs of her ever-changing audience?

“Women’s careers are defined by very different realities today than even a decade ago,” she says. “Women are making the choice to leave high-level careers to stay home with their children, and they want to return to high-level careers. Even a woman who leaves for just three months and returns—her life has changed. We want to help them succeed.”

“What’s next?” she asks with a quiet smile. “It’s interesting to think about, isn’t it?”

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