Being a leader isn’t always easy, but neither is being a student. Fortunately, CU Denver’s recently elected student government executives are more than up to both tasks.

Aleena Sarwana, a junior studying HR Management in the Business School. got involved in student government in her sophomore year. “I felt uninvolved my freshman year, and student government was always doing something to help the school, so I decided to run for office. It gave me a purpose in college,” she said.

The same sense of purpose rings true for Grecia Portillo, a fourth-year International Business student, who first got involved in student government as a member of Freshman Council.

Grecia Portillo and Aleena Sarwana of CU Denver
Grecia Portillo, left, and Aleena Sarwana are CU Denver’s president and vice president, respectively, of the student government.

Both Sarwana and Portillo served on the Student Government Events and Planning committee. Then, both decided to seek higher office.

“After so many years of student government, running for president seemed like the next step,” Portillo said.

For Sarwana, her experience with student government was so welcoming it was an easy decision to run for vice president. “I loved the sense of community and wanted to stay involved,” she said. As it turns out, Sarwana isn’t the first leader in her family, her brother Omer Sarwana was vice president her freshman year.

Both Sarwana and Portilo were elected, creating an all-female top student leadership team.

Leading the way with a female team

If there’s ever been an all-female executive team, no one can remember when, and both Portillo and Sarwana are excited to be a part of what could well be the first. “It’s beneficial to have a female perspective on things,” says Sarwana. While a female leadership team is certainly a change, Portillo acknowledged that the previous executives were really good and left an impressive legacy for them to follow.

“Aleena and I work really well together,” Portillo said. “As members of the Events and Planning Committee, we heard from a lot from students—what their interests were and the kinds of things that concern them.” The leaders expressed the importance of being empathetic to student concerns and listening closely to what their stakeholders have to say.

In their new roles, Sarwana and Portillo communicate more with higher administration than they have in their previous student government roles, and they lead the entire student government. “People look to us when they want to get something done,” Portillo said. “We want to listen to what students need and help the other student government members with their own initiatives.”

“We also want to encourage more student government members to be involved in community service and the surrounding city,” Sarwana added.

CU Denver’s location in the heart of the city gives student leaders access to many different resources as well as many opportunities. “Outreach to students and community members strengthened my ability to talk to other people and communicate effectively,” Portillo said. “Now I can help other members of student government develop the same skills.”

Making Students Feel at Home

Portillo and Sarwana found a home in student government and want to make sure every student has the same experience. “My goal is to make students feel at home and feel like it’s more than just school,” Portillo said. “It should be a place you make friends, join groups, and stay involved.”

One of the top priorities for Portillo and Sarwana is ensuring students have access to resources on campus. This includes working closely with the CU Denver Food Pantry, a free mini-grocery store available for students in need. They are also working with the counseling center to gather data on how much it is used and ways to better connect students with on-campus resources.

As Sarwana put it, “We want to work on developing a database of student concerns, and by addressing these concerns, we hope to find ways to make it easier for students to come here.” Portillo goes a step further, adding, “I want students to find their space and get involved.”

Another top priority for these executives is easing students into the new Student Wellness Center, scheduled to open in 2018. “We are working with the Student Wellness Center to emphasize physical and mental well-being,” Portillo said. “It’s an opportunity for more sports and team building as well as spreading knowledge of resources,” Portillo said.

Leading the student body at CU Denver might seem like a lot of responsibility, but Portillo and Sarwana are confident they can handle the challenge. “It’s definitely more responsibility, but I get to share it with the other senators, Sarwana said. “We get to grow and learn together.”

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