Young civic leaders credit university education
by Vicki Hildner | University Communications
Only one in 10 made the cut—a tough competition.
Four hundred thirty-five dynamic, up-and-coming city leaders under the age of 40 were nominated for the Denver Business Journal’s 2013 “Forty under 40” honor.
A gold sponsor of the event, the University of Colorado Denver | Anschutz Medical Campus takes pride in the fact that two of this year’s “Forty under 40” honorees are university alumni. Annie Davies, MPA, and Jeff Bontrager, MSPH, both attribute some measure of their success as young community leaders to their education at this university.
Annie Davies: “… a well-regarded school …”
Annie Davies had never stepped foot in Colorado when she decided to enroll in the CU Denver School of Public Affairs. Attending the school meant leaving her budding non-profit career and her extended family in Michigan in order to come to Denver, a city she had never seen. But that’s exactly what she did.
“[The School of Public Affairs] was a well-regarded school,” she said. “And Colorado sounded like a great place.”
That was in 2001. Today, 12 years later, Davies has been honored as one of the Denver Business Journal’s “Forty under 40” for the leadership she has shown at Rocky Mountain Human Services (formerly Denver Options).
“ … the best decision …”
After she graduated from the University of Michigan, Davies worked in Seattle and in Michigan before her interest in local governance prompted the move to Colorado to add a graduate degree to her credentials.
“It was perhaps the best decision I have ever made,” she said. “So many good things have come out of my decision to attend CU Denver. Denver is one of those communities where you can create opportunities to be engaged.”
Davies praises the flexibility of her master’s degree program, which allowed her to create a self-guided course of study in the field that increasingly interested her—higher education. By the time she finished her degree in 2003, she was prepared for a variety of positions related to higher education and civic engagement.
No surprise that she quickly found a dream position in Grand Rapids, Michigan. But not long after she arrived back in Michigan, she had an epiphany.
“I said to myself ‘What did I just do?’” she said. “I loved Colorado.”
“I have never loved a job as much …”
So when a position as director of marketing, community outreach and alumni affairs at the CU Denver School of Public Affairs opened up in 2006, Davies didn’t think twice about returning to Denver.
“I have never loved a job as much as I loved that job,” she said. “I got to use my strengths connecting people. I could go to work every day and help people find meaningful opportunities in the public and non-profit worlds.”
After six years in that position, Davies’ connection to the School of Public Affairs (SPA) led to another opportunity. Stephen Block, PhD, SPA research professor and director of non-profit management, asked Davies if she would consider the position of director of communications and development at (then) Denver Options, where Block also serves as Chief Executive Officer.
“It took me out of higher education,” said Davies. “But it was time to take another step.” Still, she said, CU Denver has “a special place in my heart.”
“I do owe the school a lot, and I hold in high regard the people who have helped me as mentors, employers, friends and colleagues,” she said.
Davies assumed her new position with a daunting mandate—rebranding the organization with its new name: Rocky Mountain Human Services (RMHS). She has taken RMHS through an exciting period of change and growth, offering new services to returning veterans and leading a wave of significant fundraising.
Davies calls the “Forty under 40” award “rewarding and affirming.”
“When I look at the list of people, I don’t feel deserving,” she said. “There are so many accomplished professionals in Colorado.”
Jeff Bontrager: “I’m so inspired …”
A native Coloradan, Jeff Bontrager can remember when, as a young boy, he accompanied
his parents to Union Station to pick up visiting relatives from the train.
They were a bit nervous,” said the university alumnus and Denver Business Journal “Forty under 40” honoree. “Back then, Union Station was in a seedy, dangerous part of the city.”
Today, with the Denver Union Station project enhancing the city’s already vibrant Lower Downtown neighborhood, Bontrager sounds like a civic cheerleader when he talks about the ways Denver has changed in his lifetime.
“I’m so inspired by everything that’s going on here—the non-stop flight to Tokyo, the Anschutz Medical Campus, Light Rail,” he said. “It’s also neat to see leadership coming from a variety of ages and sectors.”
“… healthy and happy lives …”
Bontrager’s journey to his current position as director of research on coverage and access at the Colorado Health Institute (CHI) began when he took a position as a professional research assistant in the CU School of Medicine’s Division of Health Care Policy and Research. There, he studied ways to improve the quality of home health care.
The job led him to begin work on his master’s degree in public health in a program that evolved into the Colorado School of Public Health. As a graduate student, Bontrager continued to work for the university while he pursued academic interests in health care systems and policy, communicable diseases, access to health care and bioterrorism.
“I learned to be a critical thinker, to ask the right questions, the relevant questions,” he said.
Ultimately, he realized his passion centered on health care policy at the state level.
“I really wanted to see individual Coloradans live healthy and happy lives,” Bontrager said. “This degree in public health assisted me in getting a position where I can influence the health of as many people as possible.”
In his position at CHI, Bontrager calls himself as a “data dude.” He describes CHI research as “robust,” designed to help facilitate and frame discussions about health and health care in Colorado.
“We’re moving beyond just being a data resource to providing leadership about these issues for Colorado residents,” he said.
In his spare time, Bontrager balances both sides of his brain with creative pursuits, including performances with local theater companies. He designs neck ties for his own business, Neckitecture, which he plans to launch within the next year. He also coordinates more than 50 volunteers at his church, participating in Family Promise of Greater Denver’s program to host homeless families and get them back on their feet.
As a recognized young leader in the field of health policy, Bontrager envisions a day when the profound disparities in health care available to different populations will transition into more equitable care. His years as both an employee and student at CU Anschutz have put him in the unique position to bring about exactly that kind of change.