Alana Horwitz, the college’s fall 2020 outstanding graduate, says she has her late father to thank for her success
In May 2020, Alana Horwitz seriously considered graduating without finishing her honors thesis. Life had taken an excruciating turn.
In February, her father had been diagnosed with cancer, and she’d later moved into his home to care for him. Finishing the thesis that she had been working on since her sophomore year of college seemed daunting. But Horwitz’s boyfriend repeatedly urged her not to quit.
So she didn’t quit. She wrote her thesis during the summer and successfully defended it in November.
Her father lived to see her finish, and he learned she’d graduate summa cum laude. A few days later, he was moved to hospice.
“He got to know that I completed my thesis, and I think that was really important to him,” she said.
Horwitz graduates from the University of Colorado Boulder this month with degrees in ethnic studies and political science, summa cum laude. She has been named College of Arts and Sciences’ fall 2020 outstanding graduate, a distinction her father did not live to celebrate.
“He would be so proud of me, and I think that everything he did for me really led up to this,” she said. “He was always the most supportive person when it came to all of my endeavors, such as athletics, school and work. So, I really have him to thank for this.”
Joanne Belknap, a professor of ethnic studies and Horwitz’s thesis advisor, credits Horwitz herself. Horwitz’s thesis explored the correlation between a high school student’s family, socioeconomic and educational background on their academic performance as measured through the conventional SAT and ACT tests.
In her research project, Horwitz surveyed 461 CU Boulder students to compare their backgrounds and conventional academic achievements. She found a racial academic achievement gap, as other researchers have, but her multivariate analysis, or analysis of patterns in several data variables at once, found the academic achievement gap was driven primarily by family income and variations in high schools’ preparing students for college. That is the racial academic achievement gap starts to disappear when controlling for class factors.
Belknap said Horwitz’s study indicated that “structural racism and poverty are the biggest predictors of the academic achievement gap,” and she noted that Horwitz plans to go to law school to become a civil-rights attorney who hopes to advocate for reform in standardized testing and school funding.
“One (thesis) committee member said that he can envision her as the U.S. Secretary of Education down the road,” Belknap said. “The other committee members agreed she is that smart and that good.”
The admiration is mutual. Horwitz met Belknap as a first-year student pursuing another major. As part of a class assignment, she interviewed Belknap about police brutality.
Horwitz said Belknap’s passion for social justice was contagious: “I got home from that meeting and created an appointment to change my major (to ethnic studies) the next day,” Horwitz said, adding that Belknap had the biggest impact on her academic career.
She also praised Anthony Bastone, a CU Boulder pre-law advisor, who helped her meet with law-school deans and tour their schools.
In addition to her research project and honors thesis, Horwitz participated in the CU in D.C. internship program in fall 2019. She interned with the Peace Corps, which she described as “amazing.”
Horwitz, who was born in Colorado and grew up in Highlands Ranch, is an avid outdoors person, a trait she shares with her dad. “I grew up skiing and snowboarding, and I made it a priority to go skiing pretty much every weekend.”
“During college, I would choose to go to my dad’s house in the mountains every weekend and ski and snowboard with him instead of spending time with my friends in Boulder,” she said.
He was always the most supportive person when it came to all of my endeavors, such as athletics, school and work. So, I really have him to thank for this."
She’s worked as a ski instructor and enjoys hiking fourteeners, mountains higher than 14,000 feet above sea level. She’s done five so far, and her favorite is Handies Peak near Lake City.
Additionally, Horwitz plans to complete her dad’s “bucket list,” to do the things he didn’t get to do. One of them is heli-boarding—helicoptering to a high peak and snowboarding down—in Canada.
Horwitz has also studied abroad in Spain, where she volunteered to teach English at an elementary school. At CU Boulder, she tutored ethnic-studies courses in the Department of Intercollegiate Athletics.
Horwitz is not going directly to law school. She plans to take a year off and hopes to volunteer for AmeriCorps. But law school has always been her plan, since she read To Kill a Mockingbird, the Pulitzer-winning novel by Harper Lee, which portrays attorney Atticus Finch, a beacon of morality and racial justice.
The impact of the work is indelible. Recalling that chapter in her life, she noted that one of her water bottle stickers replicates a presidential campaign sticker that bears the words, “Atticus Finch 2020.”