Zuleika Johnson grew up in the Bronx, the daughter of immigrants from the Dominican Republic, and the first generation in her family to go to a university. Today, as assistant director of development at UCCS, she’s helping to build the scholarships and support that help countless students swap struggle for success in their university careers.

Building relationships and giving back are threads woven through her work as a case manager for a homeless shelter in New York City, in volunteer management for Urban Peak, and in leading corporate giving for CPCD (Community Partnership for Child Development).

“With all my jobs … it’s not only about the relationships you’re building with the people that you’re helping, but also with the people who are helping — who are providing that support,” Johnson said. “It’s being able to connect one-on-one with people and letting them know that we have their best interests at heart and that we can do this work. … I’ve experienced that in all the jobs that I’ve had — where working together as a community is what’s going to help us move forward.”

Johnson has been with UCCS seven months, and helping people build better futures through education is a passion now.

“My parents moved from the Dominican Republic before I was born and …  they went through a lot of hardship,” Johnson recalls. “I saw what an education could do for me because my parents didn’t obtain more than a high school degree. Seeing their struggle and wanting to help them — and help other people that are like me and like them — is why I decided to give back…”

Johnson spoke with the Business Journal about nonprofits, the importance of scholarships and leaving the Big Apple behind.

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What brought you to Colorado Springs?

I moved here about 4½ years ago to be with my sister. … I always wanted a reason to leave the city and just go somewhere where I can actually afford it and have better opportunities. There’s so much competition [in New York City] and the quality of life isn’t great. It’s a fun city to visit, but it’s different. [Moving to Colorado Springs] was a drastic change, but that’s what I was looking for. I wanted a place where I can just relax, and not the constant hustle and bustle of New York. I moved in with my sister and her kids, and then I met my husband six months in. He was born and raised here, so I found my community and my place here. I love it.

Talk about your early career.

I went to school at Connecticut College and I did my BA in gender and women’s studies and economics. I moved back to New York — my first job right out of college, I was a case manager for a homeless shelter in New York. I decided to go back to school and obtain my master’s in public administration from the City College of New York, and then I started working in fundraising — because I still wanted to help the communities that I lived in, but case management work was too much for me.

What was it like?

Oh, it was so hard. My role was to help homeless women and their children into permanent housing — in New York. It was a really difficult job. I was 21, living at home with my mom, helping women try to find permanent housing for them and their children. It was a weird cycle because a lot of the women in the shelter had to be on public assistance to be in the shelter, but when they obtained jobs, they lost the public assistance and then were kicked out of the shelter. So they could just never really pick themselves up. So I decided I wanted to do something more behind the scenes, and that’s when I started to do fundraising. I worked for an organization called Girls Educational and Mentoring Services in New York City while I was going to school obtaining my master’s degree. A few months after I completed my master’s degree I decided I wanted to move to Colorado.

I worked for Urban Peak Homeless Shelter for Youth and I did volunteer management there. It introduced me to how amazing this community is and how much people love giving back to help the people that are in need here. My next job was with CPCD… giving children a head start, and I was in charge of their corporate giving program. That was an amazing experience as well.

Tell us about your work at UCCS.

My job there is to raise support for the College of Letters, Arts and Sciences, which is their liberal arts college on campus. My main goal is to raise support for scholarships for students. I transitioned there because it’s the fastest-growing university in the state and there’s just so much opportunity for growth and learning different skills within fundraising. … UCCS is huge; it’s growing, it has such a significant impact in this community, and it’s really working hard to help the students that are attending school. One-third of the student population is considered low-income. There’s a large population of minority students, and that’s something that I’m passionate about — helping those that can’t do it without a helping hand.

Is Colorado Springs responsive and giving?

Oh yeah, and that’s why I’m here. I love it. I’ve seen it since the day that I arrived — that not only were people willing to help me in my career and make me feel part of this community but they’re doing so much — they’re extending themselves to the point where they have no time — just to make this community a better place for people who live here, who work here, and people who are in need here. I wouldn’t be where I am today if it weren’t for that support and the partnerships that I’ve built since I’ve been here — especially [from] El Pomar. They have an Emerging Leaders Development Program and I’m the co-chair of the Hispanic Advisory Council, and they’re doing great work to help minority leaders in this community and give them the leadership skills, connections and networks that they need to succeed. That program has been super significant to me.

Talk about the importance of scholarships.

As we all know, getting a higher education degree is extremely expensive. Fortunately UCCS is one of the more affordable universities, but a lot of our students are still struggling to make ends meet, so a lot of them end up working two, three jobs just to be able to attend school. … If we’re able to raise support for scholarships … then they can participate and have a more fulfilled, comprehensive educational experience. For example, we’re working on a scholarship right now that’s called The Bridge Forward, and that scholarship is specifically for students that don’t qualify for financial aid but still can’t afford to go to college. A scholarship like that — let’s say $2,500 —can prevent a student from having to work 250 hours across a semester in a part time job. That’s a lot of hours. … [The Bridge Forward] is helping students that are doing everything right. They’re working, their parents are working, they’ve saved for their child’s education — but they can’t afford it. Rent is ridiculous and cost of living has skyrocketed, so it’s hard to be able to afford that, so you have to choose. And you shouldn’t have to choose, when an education is so important in pursuing a career.

Editor’s note: This is an extended version of the profile that appears in the July 6 print edition of the Business Journal.