First Saunders Leadership Academy Scholars Arrived This Fall

Joseph (Hon. PhD ’09, MBA ’68, BSBA ’67) and Sharon Saunders know firsthand how much difference it can make for a struggling student to be relieved of financial pressure. More than a decade ago, during a Teach for America assignment in an underprivileged school district in New York, their daughter encountered two young students. Joe and Sharon, impressed by the boys, quietly stepped in. They watched the boys take that opportunity to thrive as they graduated from high school and college and went on to change the trajectory of their lives.

“Education is the way to equality,” Joe said at Alumni Weekend in May, when Chancellor Rebecca Chopp announced the transformative $5 million gift from the Saunders Family Charitable Foundation. DU’s new Saunders Leadership Academy—serving promising students burdened by significant financial need—will be the most expansive, cross-University leadership program in DU’s history.

“I believe in my heart and soul that every kid in this country should have equal opportunity as it relates to education,” he said. “What we’re doing with the University is a drop in the ocean, but it’s a positive one, and I’m hoping more people might be motivated to do the same or similar.”

The first five Saunders Scholars arrived on campus in fall 2018, and within five years, there will be a total of 20 scholars on campus at all times. Saunders’ hope is that the students will form a tight-knit cohort while also impacting the DU community with their insights and resilience.

Joseph and Sharon Saunders

“This gift will make a difference for the lives of those students,” said Chopp. “This will make a difference for DU.”

This Saunders gift, though not the family’s first, is among the largest scholarship commitment in DU’s history. Saunders Scholars will benefit from financial aid, as well as internship and career support, outdoor education experiences and cultural exposure—all designed to build confidence and social capital. Many, but not all, Saunders Scholars are expected to be the first in their families to attend college.

Since retiring as chairman of Visa, Inc., in 2013, Saunders is “reinvigorated” with a new career. He owns and operates a restaurant in Maui, and he is chairman and general partner in Green Visor Capital, a firm that invests in innovative and socially responsible “fintech” companies. He continues to express his love of DU through his generosity.

“I am very passionate about this place,” he said. “I got a great education here, and the notion of giving—of paying forward so that other individuals can succeed—is just the most satisfying thing in the world.”