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Meet the Noel Scholarship winners

A celebration of student success and community impact.

By Josie Lavender

March 4, 2021

Rachel B. NoelRachel B. Noel was a champion of the civil-rights movement and served Metropolitan State University of Denver as an educator and chair of the African American Studies Department. More than a decade after her passing, Noel’s legacy still lives strong within the MSU Denver community through the Rachel B. Noel Distinguished Visiting Professorship program, which annually awards scholarships to MSU Denver students who, through their actions, have served as an exemplary models for community service, diversity-advocacy efforts and academic excellence. This year, four students were selected for the Rachel B. Noel Scholarship and were each awarded $1,500 to support their academic journey.

“I am so proud of this year’s scholarship winners,” said Michael Benitez, Ph.D., vice president for Diversity and Inclusion. “At MSU Denver, we try to cultivate an inclusive campus climate. These scholars have truly embraced those values while excelling in their studies and leading important equity work on campus and beyond.”

Meet the inspirational scholars who have followed Noel’s example of leadership and adversity.

Rachel B. Noel Scholarship winners

Ley-Lonni Marie Woodruff

Woodruff graduated as a first-generation student in MSU Denver’s Social Work Master’s program. She has worked as a program coordinator for Sister Circles and the EPIC Scholars program. Woodruff is also a proud Black Lives Matter advocate. She joined several protests, taking live footage and sharing it on social media to provide clarity and awareness.

“I work to establish policies in our program and on campus to promote justice, conduct assessments to identify quality improvements for our program and try to bring about awareness on the importance of foster-care alumni in higher education,” she said.

Pauline Bialik

Bialik is a senior, majoring in biology and minoring in aviation technology. She has worked to help refugees from drug wars in South America and has influenced state legislation for Colorado students. In 2015, she volunteered to testify before Colorado’s House Education Committee, and her testimony helped influence the Colorado legislature to improve state residency laws, expanding in-state tuition and enhancing educational access to our most vulnerable populations.

“I am honored to be able to say that I influenced a positive and real change in our community, representing stronger accessibility, diversity and respect, through honesty and passion, to make positive changes in our laws and history,” Bialik said.

Soad Altaai

Altaai is a mother of two and a first-generation student. She is a junior who is seeking her degree in Human Services. As a refugee from Jordan, Altaai was motivated to help others who have gone through the same experience. She works with refugees as an interpreter and as a cultural coordinator for an Arabic-speaking woman cohort through Lutheran Family Services. The cohort teaches English and helps refugee women earn certification in early-childhood education.

“No matter who you are, no matter what you did, no matter where you have come from, you can always change and become a better you,” Altaai said.

Vianney Sandoval

Sandoval is a sophomore and a first-generation student majoring in Computer Information Systems. She is also a Dreamer, an undocumented immigrant protected under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. Sandoval has worked full-time since 2016 as a lead patient-access specialist at Denver Health. By working with telehealth systems, Sandoval witnessed how important technology has become to the community. She believes that access to technology is a human right and a social-justice issue.

“Coming from an immigrant background, I have lived firsthand the disparity of not having access to technology or members of my family not being familiar with technology,” Sandoval said. “Through my Computer Information Systems degree, I would like to make technology more accessible to vulnerable populations.”

Hope for the Future Awards

The additional Hope for the Future Award specifically honors Noel’s legacy as a warrior of the civil-rights movement and her effort to integrate Denver’s public schools. The award honors individuals who have walked in Noel’s shoes by promoting equal rights, education, community service and inclusive excellence for all, and who have demonstrated measurable progress in promoting inclusiveness, equality, diversity and multiculturalism. Their efforts may involve, but are not limited to, active civic engagement, institutional leadership and academic scholarship that have contributed substantially to Rachel B. Noel’s vision of progressive social change.

Please join the MSU Denver community in congratulating Fernando Branch and the Colorado Black Women for Political Action.

Fernando Branch

Branch taught high school geography, world history and economics before earning a master’s degree in education from Union University. He came to Denver in 2009 and began focusing on school-turnaround efforts within Denver Public Schools. As a school administrator, he worked diligently to craft innovative solutions to create equitable educational policy, championing equity, equality and diversity. He served on several key DPS committees and helped recruit talented principals, directors and a quality support team to reflect student demographics.

After many years of leadership in DPS, Branch accepted a new challenge by serving as an affiliate professor of education at MSU Denver. Branch is also a third-year Educational Leadership and Policy Studies doctoral student at the University of Denver, focusing on closing the opportunity gap in rural and urban communities. Fernando is also working to promote educational/academic excellence as the senior director of Partnerships and Programs for Colorado’s “I Have A Dream” Foundation. 

Colorado Black Women for Political Action

Colorado Black Women for Political Action was the brainchild of former state Sen. Gloria Tanner and was founded in 1977 by 13 women who wanted to encourage African American women’s participation in the political process and to serve as a political advocate for the African American community.

Today, the organization’s steadfast commitment to the vision of its founders is evident through its programs and services. Its members seek daily to infuse Colorado politics with the strength and perspective of the Black woman.

The main purpose of Colorado Black Women for Political Action is to provide a vehicle for meaningful political involvement of African Americans, create awareness around issues impacting the community and engage African American women living in Colorado in the political process.

The organization focuses on:

  • Educating the African American community on issues and how to organize.
  • Bringing important issues to the forefront.
  • Training future leaders.
  • Collaborating to generate forward-looking ideas.
  • Ensuring that positions relevant to the African American community are heard.
  • Getting results by active participation in the process.
  • Providing a voice for the African American community.

These awards and the Noel events culminated in the Hope and Healing panel of experts Wednesday evening, featuring past Noel professorship holders Wellington E. Webb; Wilma J. Webb; Melissa Harris-Perry, Ph.D.; Aishah Shahidah Simmons; Philip Hart, Ph.D.; and Judi Hampton.

Learn more about these local and national leaders:

Topics: Award, Events, Excellence, Rachel B. Noel Distinguished Professorship

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