A focus on students

As she prepares for retirement, Vice Chancellor Lisa Erwin continues to put students first.

On most Monday nights for the last decade, you could find Lisa Erwin, PhD, hanging out with a bunch of teenagers and twenty-somethings. It wasn’t just a social gathering, and it wasn’t a random group, either; she was attending the University of Minnesota Duluth (UMD) Student Government Association (SGA) meetings. Although Lisa is not a member, her thoughtful engagement and caring smile have been a mainstay at the event, and for nearly 13 years, she’s held the honorary position of permanent guest

Now, as Erwin retires after serving as vice chancellor for Student Life and dean of students, it’s memories from connecting with the people on campus, and the students, like on those nights with SGA, that remain some of the most indelible from her time at UMD.

But Erwin’s journey to Duluth didn’t follow the usual trajectory.

An aerial view of the St. Louis River estuary and Grand Avenue. The ground is very green and the sky is blue with mixed cloud coverage.
Views of Duluth and the St. Louis River Estuary as seen from above.

She began her career working with college students as a resident assistant during her undergraduate days at Indiana University. Erwin then held positions in many areas of student affairs, but it was the role of vice president for student development and enrollment at Bemidji State University that ultimately brought her to Minnesota. Every few months, she would make the drive to visit Duluth. With each trip over the hill and onto the Lake Superior shores, her love of the city, of the culture and the food and everything it had to offer, grew.

It wasn’t long before Erwin began looking to UMD for opportunities. She wanted to continue in a senior student affairs role, and when the vice chancellor for student life position came open, she applied. In August 2011, Erwin got the job, and it’s been a role she’s filled ever since.

People sit around tables and Lisa Erwin smiled at another people at the table in the Kirby Ballroom.
Erwin (center) reacts while Chancellor Emeritus Lynn Black addresses a crowd gathered to celebrate Erwin’s career on April 24, 2024 in the Kirby Ballroom.

“In Lisa, I saw a recognized national expert on Student Life,” Chancellor Emeritus Lynn Black said to a crowd gathered to celebrate Erwin’s career on April 24, 2024 in the Kirby Ballroom. He shared the impact she’d had on the campus and his sense of pride for all they’d accomplished together for UMD students. “She lives and models the Student Life values,” Black said.

For Erwin, it was her dream job. “It was just all the really wonderful parts of the university that, to me, really resonated with what I see as the value of the student experience and what I thought I could bring to the table. So professionally, it was just the perfect fit,” she said.

With each experience at college, students are learning not only academics, but so many life skills, Erwin said, from navigating parking tickets, to a challenging social situation, to helping a roommate with a conflict, “those are deep learning experiences.”

“I think challenges help you grow,” Erwin said.

Early on at UMD, Erwin began attending student government meetings. Her presence there was a strong memory for UMD alum Mike Kenyanya, who now serves as Co-Vice Chair on the U of M Board of Regents, a role that Erwin encouraged Kenyanya to apply for while he was a student at UMD. “For all the four years I was there, every Monday, 6:00 pm, Dr. Erwin attended the student government meetings,” Kenyanya said. “That's not part of her assigned duties, but something she takes very seriously.”

Initially, Mike and his fellow students were nervous to have a University administrator join their discussions. “I think at first we thought, maybe… the Chancellor planted someone at the back of the room,” said Kenyanya. But they grew comfortable with having her there, and “came to really appreciate that and [her] input in all our deliberations.” 

And Erwin appreciated the opportunity to hear from students directly. “After a while they asked me to give a report,” she said, “and I became what they have called a permanent guest, which I've loved.”

She hadn’t realized the impact those meetings would have on her, but upon reflection, her times at SGA turned out to be some of the most rewarding. She got to know the student leaders and the up-and-comers, like Kenyanya. “You're seeing students thrive and flourish and grow right in front of your eyes,” Erwin said.

At the May 9, 2024 Mission Fulfillment Committee Meeting of the U of M Board of Regents, Kenyanya thanked her directly following her final presentation to the group. “What you've done for students broadly, but then some of us more specifically–transforming from an advisor to a mentor to a friend–is really special,” Kenyanya said. “I appreciate you, I know we appreciate you.”

A woman in academic regalia hugs a student in commencement cap and gown in a stadium where many admin and students are leaving the stadium.
Lisa Erwin, vice chancellor for Student Life at UMD, (center) participated in her last Commencement ceremonies on May 4, 2024 before her retirement. She greeted current students like Uyen Nguyen (center left), commencement speaker and UMD’s outgoing student body president, colleagues, and former-student-body-president-turned-Regent Mike Kenyanya (second from right).

"Working with Dr. Erwin has been an inspiring experience; her unwavering dedication and infectious passion for her work with students have left an indelible mark on all of us. Her leadership and kindness have shaped the students she worked with and set a high standard for excellence that we all hold with us." 

- Uyen Nguyen ('24), UMD alumna and outgoing student body president

When asked about leadership, Erwin says “being upfront and clear and a reality setter is really important. But I also think gratitude is everything.”

That approach to leading, her focus on the people at UMD and her tenacious spirit has led to Erwin being recognized locally, regionally and nationally for her work in student affairs. Among other accolades, she’s received the University of Minnesota President’s Award for Outstanding Service and the Scott Goodnight Award for Outstanding Performance as a Dean from the National Association of Student Personnel Administrators (NASPA). Both are incredible honors and recognition of her work. 

Now, as she closes this chapter at UMD, it can feel like the gap left by her departure is something that can’t be filled. And that’s true, Interim Chancellor David McMillan said at Erwin’s retirement celebration. “There’s certainly no replacing Dr. Lisa Erwin,” he said. But McMillan recognized and appreciated Erwin’s leadership development skills. “Lisa has prepared her people to continue and to thrive,” he said.

Most importantly, though, McMillan emphasized her focus on UMD’s students. “She looked at every issue from the perspective of: What will this mean for our students? How will it impact them and what will it mean for the rest of our campus?” McMillan said. “It’s a perspective and an intuition that I’ve leaned on many times in the past nearly two years, and I don’t know what I would have done without it.”

After McMillan’s and Black’s remarks, Erwin stood to address the crowd gathered in her honor. She shared her humility, gratitude, hope and wishes for the campus. She thanked everyone for attending, the people who made it possible, and extended a special thank you to her colleagues from Bemidji State University, who had made the trip out to see her off. And true to form, she brought it back to her focus.

“The strength here is in the staff and faculty and the students. That's what makes this place really special,” Erwin said. “I feel tremendous hope for our campus. It’s all of you who make this place what it is.” 

Header Image: Lisa Erwin, vice chancellor for Student Life at UMD, speaks with a student worker at the Student Life Office.