Dorothy Horrell is Chancellor of the University of Colorado Denver.
Full list of 2018 Colorado Women's Hall of Fame inductees
The following is a transcript of a conversation she had with a representative of the Colorado Women’s Hall of Fame shortly after learning of her induction.
QUESTION: Your rural upbringing on your grandfather’s farm is a big part of what defines you, your values and work ethic. Tell us about how your childhood shaped who you are today.
DOROTHY: I had a wonderful childhood growing up on a farm just outside of Holyoke. The farm was started by my paternal grandfather and is where my dad was raised. My grandfather was an immigrant from Austria; my mom’s parents came from Ireland, and she grew up in Denver. I was number three of eight siblings—three sisters and four brothers.
The farm taught us that it was important to step up and do whatever it took to make things possible—for ourselves and others. We all had chores and because there was lots to do, we each found those things we enjoyed and were good at. I believe it was at that time I began to discover my life purpose.
I was somebody who was curious and eager to be in the middle of the action. We raised sheep and I recall a day in elementary school when our lesson was about wool and shearing sheep. I went home after school and said to my dad, “Let's take a sheep to school tomorrow for show and tell.” Dad replied jokingly, “Are you ever going to sit on your hands and not always be the first to volunteer?”
We didn’t have great financial wealth, but we had an abundance of love and support. I was raised with an attitude of gratitude, and was taught to appreciate what we had. It was enough, and my parents would say, “To whom much is given, much is expected.”
My parents set high expectations, and always emphasized the importance of education. They instilled in us the desire to learn, and we understood that education was our pathway to the future. All eight of us went to college. I graduated from high school in 1969 in a class of 51 students. I was very active in 4-H since age 8, along with other student organizations, and my church youth group. I focused on home economics projects and those early choices proved formative in my life and career path.
I knew I wanted to go to CSU as I had visited there often with my 4-H activities. I majored in home economics and it’s funny but true that my grandmother’s lemon meringue pie recipe played a role in me helping me earn a scholarship that was important in my being able to go to college.
The environment I grew up in gave me everything I ever needed to be successful, to know what it means to be a contributing member of society, and to live a life of meaning and purpose.
QUESTION: At an early age from working with developmentally disabled children in Holyoke to your college experience at CSU, you believed in healthy families and healthy communities. How important is that to you today, and have you found this to be true both in the U.S. and globally - harkening back specifically to when you spent six months in China as a farm youth exchange delegate?
DOROTHY: I believe that women are pre-dispositioned to think about the whole and how the parts come together. A home economics education prepares you to think about family, neighborhoods, communities, and organizations in terms of how they bring people together. I believe that if we can figure things out first in the context of a family, that can apply to organizations, neighborhoods, communities and the world.
I truly believe that together we are better and the answers we need are within us. The key is to create the kind of environment and culture that enables people to see that they are part of something bigger than themselves. Each of us has something special to offer and honoring that makes a lot of things possible. This is at the root of my belief system, and it’s how I try to operate as a leader.
I had a remarkable experience in Taiwan, as a recent college graduate just 10 days out of CSU. The farm youth exchange program was sponsored through 4-H, and two individuals from each state were selected to go abroad. You could indicate your preferences of where you wanted to go and I listed European countries since that was my grandparents’ heritage. The day I got the acceptance letter, I recall standing in line to phone my parents (on the land line in my college house) and told them I was going to the Republic of China. My mom said, “I don’t think you go can there.” Keep in mind it was 1973. When I went home that weekend, she had the Encyclopedia Britannica open on the dining room table, and had learned it was Formosa (now Taiwan). Since is wasn’t ‘Red China’, she felt better about it.
For my part, I didn’t know whether to be elated or worried. When you’re young, you are so self-absorbed. And up until then, I had only been to a couple other U.S cities, Phoenix and Chicago. It was a true test of resilience, and an intense experience trying to learn the Mandarin language. It’s a difficult language with all the intonations, and thankfully the families I stayed with as I moved around to different provinces spoke some English.
It was eye-opening, and the first situation in my life where I experienced being very different from everyone else. It instilled in me the idea that none of us has “the right way” of doing things, and we shouldn’t judge those who are different as better, worse or wrong. It taught me how we all make choices about what matters, and we can get too focused on stuff. Many of my Taiwanese host families didn't have a lot of material possessions, but were happy, resilient, and productive people. I was there during a typhoon, and watched how they waited for it to pass and immediately started rebuilding terraces to replant rice crops.
I still have my journals from that time, which I reread every so often. It reminds me how it wasn’t easy, and how I learned to suspend judgment and be open. I learned to avoid coming into new situations asking, "Why are they doing this?” or thinking to myself, “They shouldn't do it this way.” I realized the fact that these people have survived so much longer than many other civilizations. People often remark that I am resilient, well…it was just expected. I grew up learning to deal with whatever comes your way, assessing your options, making a decision, and moving forward.
During the last two years here at CU Denver, I’ve traveled to Brazil, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Germany, and Beijing. Whenever I return, I share what my experience meant and how much I want to extend the same opportunities to our students, who don’t always have access to traveling abroad. Such experiences truly open your eyes to the world.
QUESTION: You are known to ask the question "What more is possible?" and to say that "education is the instrument of hope for today and future generations." How have you been able to drive change and inspire others to follow and lead on their own?
DOROTHY: It goes back to my early upbringing and the experiences I had to realize that we each have a role here, in whatever setting we’re in, to do good on behalf of something bigger than ourselves. Whether it’s been in my career in education or in the non-profit sector at the Bonfils-Stanton Foundation, I know we can all do more and be more. It’s especially important now as our world is changing rapidly, and there are so many inequities keeping folks from realizing their potential. The question becomes, how do we make it better for everyone? I ask a lot of questions, which are not intended to put people on the spot. Rather, I'm trying to open up the dialogue and probe whether we are looking at the whole picture What are we aspiring to accomplish? Most people want to be part of something that is impactful and successful. Leaders should create the framework and the structure to make that possible.
I’m always evaluating the ultimate goal or aim, gathering lots of input, aligning people, and connecting the dots so everyone can do their best work. Leaders should be open to what's not working, asking how can they can reduce barriers for their teams, and then get out the way.
People do their best when they are part of something, invited to the table, and own the solution they help create. In this final chapter of my professional career, I value and respect the diversity we have. Our student body mirrors the community, and we're building that in our staff and faculty. An authentic richness comes from that diversity.
I’m mindful to create an environment that people want to be a part of, and are excited by. I want to help people live from a perspective of abundance rather than scarcity. It comes down to asking the question, “How do we use what we have already, rather than thinking we always need something more to succeed?”
I expect many people would say that I'm really determined (perhaps even stubborn!), unrelenting, and that I don't get dissuaded easily. Here at CU Denver, we have the privilege of serving so many first-generation college students. They are taking a huge risk, and it takes everything in terms of their courage, tenacity, resourcefulness and self-confidence for them to succeed. We have a precious opportunity and a profound obligation to help them achieve their goals in coming here. We have the honor of helping them figure it out along the way. It’s definitely a sense of higher purpose and a calling that I'm proud to be a part of.
We always have work to do, and are focused on aligning resources, engaging everyone, and celebrating early wins along the way. We are in this together, each with a part to play. My role as Chancellor is no more important that anyone else’s. I try to go out of my way to go engage and recognize others, from the professor to the electrician to the janitor. People want to be valued and know they are needed and wanted. Leaders should create the kind of culture that allows people to step up, and know that what they do matters and is part of the greater good.
QUESTION: Education is in a state of great flux, with many constituencies advocating for changes, and defining what type of educational offerings make sense in different environments. Having spent so much of your life in education, with a focus on "learner-centered" approaches, what do you think is needed to help the students of today and tomorrow succeed in a 21st century economy. And, in particular, do you think there are specific needs for female students?
DOROTHY: Some things have not changed over time. A sense of helping students to develop a sense of confidence and self-worth is a constant. The same can be said of the skills we need to work together, including strong communication skills like listening, writing, speaking, and working in teams. Critical thinking and problem solving continue to be very important. Sometimes we get caught up in the newer skills, and lose sight of the timeless core competencies. People don’t usually get fired for a lack of technical skills, it’s the other areas like communication and teamwork.
People learn by doing. I’m not an expert in learning theory, but I believe that many of us are visual and kinetic learners. When you create something, you see how you are part of it. At CU Denver, we have a program called InWorks, an approach that engages learners from different disciplines in exploring challenging societal issues and working creatively to identify solutions. Leveraging knowledge from areas such as art, media, and engineering accesses a broader mindset and perspective, and provides a cross-discipline approach that is needed in society.
In terms of women specifically, we tend to be more relationship-based and communicative. It's just part of what comes naturally. That should be celebrated and nurtured. But, honestly, I'm concerned about young men. We have more female than male college students today. I think about how we make sure not to leave anyone behind. I’ve enjoyed learning about European apprenticeship models in Switzerland and Germany, which have at their base cooperative learning and partnerships between education and industry. We seem to be coming full circle as I’m reminded of my days in career and technical education when I started teaching in the early 1970s.
QUESTION: What’s the #1 piece of advice you would give to young people?
DOROTHY: I was 37 when I became president at Red Rocks Community College. I didn't know what I didn't know… and that’s okay. No one else does either, so don’t think you need to have it all figured out. Pay attention and learn from those around you. Lots of people, particularly young women, ask me what my grand plan was growing up. I must admit I really didn’t have one!
My biggest piece of advice is to know yourself. Know what makes you uniquely you. Look at the situation in which you find yourself, and figure out your place to contribute. Don’t wait to be asked. When you see something that needs to be done, jump in and do it. Step into it and say yes to yourself and say yes to the opportunities others offer you. None of us know or have the skills for each new step in life, so trust you will figure it out with others helping and supporting you along the way. It took me a long time to realize how important it is to ask others for help in reaching a collective goal.
QUESTION: Is there a message you want to make sure we are sharing with others?
DOROTHY: As I live a life that honors who I am, I hope I encourage others to make the same journey for themselves. There is an incredible opportunity for each one of us to live life fully, and to appreciate and celebrate who we are and what we have to offer.
What brings me my deepest bliss is when I find those remarkable intersections of who I am and what I can do to make things better for others. Magic happens when we are able to align our own values and strengths with opportunities to make a positive difference in our world, and it is extraordinarily gratifying.
How did I come to this realization? I was probably in elementary school when this drive to be part of the greater good came into my life. I can’t explain it, other than to say that I think it was my natural inclination, even as a young child.
The Colorado Women’s Hall of Fame was created to recognize, honor and preserve the contributions of trailblazing Colorado women. Both historical and contemporary women have shared foresight, vision and accomplishment, but lacked a forum for recognition. Since 1985, the Hall has inducted 152 extraordinary women who have been outstanding in their field, elevated the status of women, helped open new frontiers for women or inspired others by their example. Inductees include scientists, teachers, social activists, philanthropists, authors, business leaders, elected officials and more.