According to former Skaggs School Director of Student Services Beverly Brunson, her career was a happy accident, spanning nearly three decades, changing thousands of lives, and redefining how we see the face of pharmacy.
As a University of Colorado (CU) Boulder BA graduate and CU Denver MPA graduate, Brunson was working at a law firm in the early 90’s. She had a friend who knew of an opening at CU Denver. After working a few years in admissions on that campus, Brunson applied for the position at the CU School of Pharmacy. February 1994, she started with the school as Director of Admissions. Brunson knew right away that she wanted to have an impact on the student experience, and diversity was important to her personally.
“It sort of started as an undergraduate. I was on this big campus and I did my first work-study job in the Asian Educational Opportunity Office,” Brunson said. “From then on, it was part of what I wanted to do.”
“When I interviewed for the position at CU, I found out about the programs here, specifically the [former] Summer Enrichment Program, which provided a kind of “boot camp” for students interested in pharmacy school. It solidified why I wanted to work here.”
“Some of the most rewarding experiences with students were with the ones who did struggle,” she says. “Watching them and supporting them to succeed and eventually graduate, was one of the most gratifying experiences of my job.”
Also driving her mission was the work of CU Pharmacy’s namesake, L.S. “Sam” Skaggs. In 1992, the nation watched in shock as the Los Angeles area erupted in riots after the violent beating of Rodney King. The Skaggs family, owners of hundreds of pharmacies which were eventually acquired by Albertsons/Safeway, had some of their stores affected by the riots. Rather than be angry, Mr. Skaggs decided that what communities of color needed were opportunities for jobs, education, and advancement. He used his substantial wealth and philanthropy to put his idea into action.Long before diversity, equity and inclusion became buzzwords, Brunson administered some of the School’s first diversity scholarships.
Dr. Louis Diamond was dean of the School of Pharmacy during this time and remembers the pivotal role that Brunson played.
To Beverly Brunson, right, providing a path for student success was most important.
“As it turned out, Mr. Skaggs provided funding so we could offer full tuition scholarships to students. It was really an opportunity for people to get a pharmacy education. Beverly was integral to the entire program,” said Diamond.
Alumna Sandra Leal, PharmD, ’99, MPH, FAPhA, CDCES, remembers both the Skaggs’ mission and the energy that Brunson brought to diversity initiatives. Leal, a first-generation student, grew up in Arizona and depended on pharmacists in Mexico for medical care. Leal credits the program that Brunson managed with helping her to integrate into a new life in Colorado.
“I remember going as a group to Estes Park for a field trip, and Beverly was driving this big van into the mountains. We were loaded with a group of summer students and it was my introduction to Beverly and to CU,” Leal said. “Beverly was so important in helping me find my place on a big campus.”
In fact, Leal says, she had called Brunson’s office so many times with questions that when she finally arrived on campus in person, the admissions office knew who she was by the sound of her voice. They greeted her with open arms. While at CU, Leal was awarded a prestigious diversity scholarship from The Skaggs Family Foundation.
Leal has devoted most of her career to helping underserved, low-income patients access quality health care from pharmacists. Today, she is one of the first women of color to be named President of the American Pharmacists Association, a position she will assume in Spring 2021. According to Leal, a new diversity scholarship at CU would allow more students like herself to make a difference in the world of pharmacy and accessible healthcare.
Brunson says her underlying goal has been to change the idea of a pharmacist from someone behind a counter in a lab coat. She wanted people to think of a pharmacist as someone who was accessible and they could talk to, someone who spoke their language, looked like them, and understood their culture, and was accessible.
During her tenure at the School of Pharmacy, Brunson found one of her most rewarding experiences was serving on the committee that awards annual scholarships to students. As 2020 drew to a close and Brunson started considering retirement, she found herself witnessing some of the same racial unrest she had first observed back when she started at the School in the 90s.
“This summer and the Black Lives Matter movement reminded me a little of when I started,” she said, referring to the Los Angeles riots. “Watching the racial tensions, seeing people treated differently. It is in many ways similar.”
It was one of the reasons Brunson thought a new diversity scholarship would be the best way to leave a legacy at CU Pharmacy – to continue to provide students of color an opportunity to further their education and create change in the world of pharmacy.
“If these students have one less thing to pay back, one less thing to worry about affording while they are putting themselves through school, it will make a world of difference on their futures.”