As former president of the UCCS Student Government Association Sierra Brown prepares to graduate, she can confidently say that her future plans – and her life itself – have defied her every expectation.
Brown, an English major who was raised in Aurora, Colorado by her mother and grandmother, suffered a triple-whammy loss early in her life. During her last two years of high school, first her father, then her mother and grandmother, unexpectedly passed away.
“I ended up taking a year and a half off,” Brown said. “I had no idea what I was doing anymore. My mom didn’t go to college, so she didn’t really know anything about the process to begin with, and when she passed away, I didn’t have anyone to talk through it with.”
As she processed her grief, Brown tried community college, then part-time online classes through CU Denver. Nothing was working – until she visited UCCS.
Brown toured UCCS in December 2015 with a few friends. She recalls that as her tour group sat at Sanatorium Grounds in the University Center, former Chancellor Pam Shockley-Zalabak dropped by to say hello.
“She was on her way to a meeting, and she stopped and talked to us for 10 or 15 minutes,” Brown said. “She didn’t talk about the things that they typically focus on during a tour, like how great the academic programs are. She kept saying how much opportunity there was at UCCS, and how the school was growing and thriving – and how they needed more students who want to excel and help the community grow.”
“I thought to myself: This is it. This is the community, the school, that I need. I can grow here. I can change things here.”
Within two weeks, Brown had applied, been accepted and was on her way to UCCS. She started classes the very next month – and growth was on the top of her mind.
Brown was quickly elected to the judicial branch of the UCCS Student Government Association, where she served as justice. By April, she and her fellow justice Laveen Khoshnaw had been sworn in as chief justice and associate chief justice, respectively. A year and a half later, they became president and vice president of the student body.
Brown reflected that she and Knoshnaw learned tough lessons about leadership during their time serving on the SGA.
“I feel like there’s a point in everybody’s leadership position where you sit back and wonder, ‘Am I doing anything? Am I actually effecting change?’” she said. “I had to step into a position where I wasn’t liked all the time, and I wasn’t used to that. Sometimes I had to be a leader first before I could be a friend.”
But those lessons came in handy when Brown was named chair of the Intercampus Student Forum – and especially when she was asked to serve on the search committee for the new president of the University of Colorado system.
“I really took patience from that experience,” she said.
“My choices were criticized,” she continued. “I faced personal attacks. I had to learn to thicken up my skin…And I got to see how much the community cares about students.”
She continued, “After President Kennedy was announced as the finalist for the presidency, there was an uproar – but at the same time, I got to see alumni coming together and community members stepping up to make their voices heard. I saw that they cared. It sounds so crazy to appreciate that moment, but it was really great, because sometimes you need to see that support to know it exists.”
Having stepped down from her presidency in 2019, Brown spent her final semester at UCCS focusing on classes and preparing to graduate with a bachelor’s in English. And without student government to keep her quite so busy, she’s been busy reflecting on all that she’s learned and overcome while at UCCS.
“I’m realizing that I’m so much more than the positions that I’ve held and the things that I’ve done here,” she said. “It’s so important for me to step back and realize that even though I’ve had support, and I definitely didn’t have to do it alone, I’m still really proud of myself for getting to this point.”
“There have been plenty of tears,” she added, “but this school has dug its way into my heart.”
After graduating, Brown plans to move to Japan to teach English as a second language. She’s giving herself three years to travel, learn a new language and explore the world before heading back to the U.S. to pursue advanced degrees in student advancement in higher education.
“When I come back from Japan, I’ll get the opportunity to choose where I want to go,” she said. “That ability to choose is so enticing.”
“I used to say that I was an unlucky person, because so many bad things happened to me all in a row,” she said. “But I am really a lucky person. I have had so many opportunities and so many doors opened to me. My life constantly defies my expectations.”
As Brown prepares to walk across the stage at the Broadmoor World Arena, she has one final piece of advice for students finding their way, just as she did.
“Take the opportunities as they come,” she said, “and don’t be afraid. There are so many ways that you can navigate your life. So find those people who are willing to navigate with you.”
Brown will be one of more than 550 graduates participating in the 2019 fall commencement ceremony Dec. 20 at Broadmoor World Arena. A record-setting number of more than 1,000 students will be conferred degrees for the summer and fall terms during the 2 p.m. ceremony.