‘Like a Family’: Inside the CLAS Women’s Leadership Collective

Mentorship program provides UConn students with alumnae network to discuss career paths, goals, and life

Dean Julie Wade stands with two alumni and students on UConn campus

Liz Gustafson ’17 MSW, left, and Nicole Sanclemente ’19 (CLAS), right, serve as mentors to undergraduate students Sofia Saul ’22 (CLAS) and Geraldine Uribe ’23 (CLAS). They met with Dean Juli Wade, center, for the first time in-person at a CLAS Women's Leadership Collective event in April. (Contributed photo)

Be unapologetically yourself.  

It’s solid advice at any age, but for Nicole Sanclemente ’19 (CLAS), those few words hold special meaning. In fact, she first heard them as a student at UConn. 

“It was a big turning point in my life,” says Sanclemente. “Breaking that wall [and saying] ‘I’m unapologetically Nicole Sanclemente.’ And I will be in any space I’m in.” 

The eldest daughter of Colombian immigrants, Sanclemente recalls many moments of trying to find herself “personally, professionally, and academically” in college — and walking into spaces where she felt she didn’t belong.  

But with guidance from what Sanclemente calls a ‘village of mentors,’ she slowly began to embrace her accomplishments. 

“Mentorship is the foundation of success,” she says. “My mentors helped me get through the most monumental moments of my life, good and bad.” 

That’s the reason she decided to join the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences Women’s Leadership Collective. Each year, the program places 20 to 30 undergraduate students into small ‘mentorship circles’ with alumnae based on their career interests. They meet throughout the semester to identify career and life goals, develop leadership skills, and discuss issues that affect women in the workplace and society. 

“Mentoring is so vital to success in academia, for students and faculty alike,” says Juli Wade, dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, who spearheaded the program in 2020. “It’s important to me to provide programs like this where students can see possibilities for their future through someone who’s walked in similar shoes.” 

Elyssa Kelly, CLAS Senior Director of Alumni Relations, has led the Women’s Leadership Collective for its first two years. She says the program is a meaningful way to connect with alumnae who may not have been significantly engaged with the university since they graduated. 

“As I recruit mentors, almost every alumna says ‘Wow, I wish this program existed when I went to UConn,” says Kelly. “There is so much solidarity the alumnae share with the students around building confidence and navigating the vast career choices in liberal arts and sciences, as well as finding their voice as leaders.” 

Alumnae in the program range from the Class of 1976 to the Class of 2019. About half of the mentors are women of color. 

“We have multiple intersecting identities that are already disregarded by our society,” says Sanclemente. “It genuinely feels good to know that someone in your corner is rooting for you.” 

It genuinely feels good to know that someone in your corner is rooting for you.

Now the Policy and Program Coordinator for the Connecticut Women’s Education and Legal Fund (CWEALF), Sanclemente advocates for bills that are centered on women’s economic security in the state. She also leads a training program for previous legal education clients who are interested in becoming community advocates. 

She and fellow alumna Liz Gustafson ’17 MSW serve as mentors to undergraduate students Geraldine Uribe ’23 (CLAS) and Sofia Saul ’22 (CLAS). 

“It helps me to know that no matter what, I have someone to pick me up when I fall,” says Uribe, a double-major in political science and urban and community studies. “We celebrate every small win.” 

Uribe quickly noticed the similarities between herself and Sanclemente. They’re both Latina. They’re both first-generation students. They both share the same major. And they both want to make the world a better place. 

“The struggles and obstacles that we have had to endure, especially in college, are very similar,” Uribe says. “[She] sees me in a way that I never saw myself.” 

Reflecting on Sanclemente’s empathy and leadership, Uribe nominated her for the program’s Outstanding Alumnae Mentor Award, which she received at an on-campus celebration in April. It was the first time the group had met in-person — more than six months after their initial introduction. 

“We’ve created such a bond and connection through the Brady Bunch of Zoom,” Sanclemente says. “But to be able to be present and feel all those genuine emotions [in-person] is special. It’s a mutually beneficial relationship.” 

Uribe hopes to pursue a career in political campaign management or work with a nonprofit. And she’s sure of one thing: mentorship has changed her life for the better. 

“I know they’re going to be mentors for life,” she says. “I think that’s the best thing that I could have gotten out of it.” 

Her advice for other UConn students? Don’t be afraid to ask questions and turn to those who have walked similar paths before you. 

“A behind-the-scenes look at what you want to do in your life and your future can be scary,” she says. “I think being open minded is the best way to go when it comes to mentorship. 

“We’re now like a family.” 

If you’re interested in serving as an alumnae mentor for the 2022-23 academic year, please reach out to Elyssa Kelly, CLAS Senior Director of Alumni Relations, at ekelly@foundation.uconn.edu.