I graduated with my MBA on Friday, June 3, 2011! (More on that to come soon.) The University of Denver (DU) highlighted a handful of graduates. I was one of them. The story is below:
Joel Portman started his career at DU as a management major.
But try as he might, he couldn’t shake the notion that he was learning more about leadership from his extracurricular activities than from his classes.
Then again, he didn’t spend his free time just hanging out or going to hockey games; instead, he raised $300,000 for Hillel as an intern, served as a student senator, fought for religious accommodations for Muslims, Jews and other minorities on campus and worked as the coordinator for intergroup relations at DU’s Center for Multicultural Excellence (CME).
“I like bringing together different groups … and being able to think and explore,” Portman says.
DU’s dual-degree program offered the perfect compromise: Portman could get a bachelor’s in international studies — with a concentration in international security and conflict resolution — and an MBA.
“It has the economics piece but it also has the [focus on] relationships, and how people understand and interact with each other,” Portman says. “The MBA is allowing me to go into more depth with people who actually care; to learn what strategy is and how to apply that. I like to be able to understand what’s working, what’s not, why and how it can be improved.”
He’s now set to graduate June 3 with both degrees.
Portman came by his ambition — and his interest in social justice — at a young age. In high school, he went on a summer trip to Poland and Israel with his youth group, which was trying to settle on a project for Holocaust Awareness Week.
“I researched it and decided we should expand to genocide awareness more broadly,” Portman says.
Before long, Portman had founded his own nonprofit, Never Again!, dedicated to raising awareness about the Holocaust and the genocide in Sudan and Rwanda.
Though he’s since turned over the presidency, he remains active in that and other social justice groups.
At DU, he joined the Social Justice Living and Learning Community early on.
“I got involved with [DU’s] Undergraduate Diversity Committee and the [DU] Programming Board. I started exploring that more in depth and it just piqued my interest. I saw a lot of opportunity for improvement, and I like planning programs — so I figured it would be a good way to apply my skills, learn more and influence the community.”
He didn’t stop there.
In 2008 — his junior year at DU — Portman studied abroad in Be’er Sheva, Israel.
“It’s in the desert, so it has a lot of Bedouin, as well as a lot of immigrants from Ethiopia and Russia,” Portman says. “I had Jewish, Muslim and German roommates — and I met people from all over the world. It really shaped how I interact with people. [Be’er Sheva] was not very Westernized, so I had to interact with people the way they did. It’s very interesting to figure out how people come together and how conflict resolution happens.”
When he returned, Portman began putting those skills to work by volunteering at the CME. He’s quickly risen through the ranks and now is responsible for planning and producing workshops and training about diversity. His flagship event, the Diversity Summit, this year attracted almost 650 attendees, who discussed and strategized ways to improve inclusion and identity.
As a result of his work at the CME, Portman is in demand as a speaker himself; last year, he hosted a workshop at a national conference in Wisconsin, and this year he presented at a conference of several colleges.
Though Portman has been named DU’s 2011 Student Employee of the Year — and should be able to pretty much write his own job description upon graduation — he’s not resting on his laurels.
“I had a job offer but turned it down because it was in a place I didn’t see myself living. I want to be able to contribute value to the organization and be with them for more than a few years,” he says.
He would consider a position in consulting, project management, organizational development or training.
“I think doing diversity work in international businesses is my ideal job — even if it’s not in the title.”
Despite his numerous accomplishments, Portman comes across as remarkably humble— like when he outlines his ultimate plans for the future: “A lot of the successes I’ve had have been because of the support I’ve had from other people. My long-term goal is to be able to give back and help other people. A lot of what I’m doing now is building skills in other student leaders, so they can be successful. I want to stay involved in the community and give back, in terms of time and financially, to help other people do the work they’re passionate about.”
DU’s graduate Commencement ceremony begins at 4:30 p.m. June 3 at Magness Arena. For more information or to watch a live stream of the ceremony, visit the DU Commencement website.