A veteran higher-ed executive who specializes in interim positions, former Interim VP for Student Affairs Beth Hellwig shares her impressions of UND
Editor’s note: Beth Hellwig served as UND’s interim vice president for Student Affairs from October 2021 to early January. This story takes a peek inside her Jan. 9 farewell party and is followed by a Q&A with Hellwig.
* * *
It’s a wonder UND Interim Vice President for Student Affairs Beth Hellwig and her beloved West Highland terrier, Savannah, ever made it out of town after a recent farewell reception in the Memorial Union.
That’s because it was a full house, and every time Hellwig made a move, she quickly was surrounded by another circle of well-wishers singing her praises — the oft refrain, “she sure didn’t act like an interim.”
“She was the right person at the right time,” said Troy Noeldner, UND’s director of Housing & Residence Life. “As an interim, it’s kind of hard to come in and fill a role on a temporary basis, but she did way more than just fill a role. She spent a lot of time building connections and collaboration. Her breadth of experience in student affairs really helped establish a presence with our leadership that was so helpful.”
Hellwig was here during much of the construction phase for UND’s new McVey and West halls.
She had an ear to the students and listened closely to what they wanted in their new home, added Johnson Controls Consultant Mike Burcham, a liaison between UND and the general contractors on the project.
“I don’t want to single anybody out, but she was fantastic,” Burcham said. “She’s been one of my favorite people to work with at UND. She was so in tune with the students, and you knew she wanted them to have the best experience possible.”
Turns out in the 15-month stint she was at UND, she was a favorite of most everyone else, too.
Student Body Vice President Morgan Mastrud said she and fellow Student Body President Faith Wahl were grateful for every minute of Hellwig’s patient guidance.
“Dr. Hellwig is truly one of a kind,” Mastrud said during just one of three speeches at the farewell gathering. “She is kind, intelligent, hardworking, passionate and a light in every room she enters. She taught us to think outside the box, to dream beyond what we thought was possible and to look for small ways to make a big impact for everyone.”
And even the smallest of actions were felt far and wide, Mastrud said. For instance, Hellwig never was seen without a bright and friendly smile on her face.
“She went out of her way to connect directly with students of all backgrounds,” Mastrud said. “That (easy) smile and hello made students feel seen and helped them recognize their own worth.”
As UND President Andy Armacost took the podium for his remarks, he called out the names of just a few of the vice presidents he spotted in the crowd.
“I know the whole team relies so heavily on Beth’s wisdom, advice and kindness on a daily basis,” he said. “Any time we wrestled with tough issues, Beth’s words of wisdom were always there, always focused on the students and always focused on the good of UND.
“… When we go through life, we come across people who touch us in a very special way, people who are going to be lifelong travelers with us for the rest of our journey on this Earth. Beth, you’re one of those people for me and for so many people in the room.”
A Q&A with Hellwig
Before joining UND, Hellwig served as interim vice president of student affairs and enrollment management at San Francisco State University, as well as vice chancellor for student affairs and dean of students at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire and dean of students at Gonzaga University in Spokane, Wash.
The Albuquerque, N.M., native also held a number of positions related to student life at other universities, including the University of Northern Colorado, Colorado State University and Montana State University. In today’s Q&A, we asked the longtime leader how UND, its people, programs and overall experience stack up.
Q. You’ve spent almost 50 years working in higher education. How does UND rank when you look back on your career? What’s your overall impression of UND and its people?
A. l have just found UND to be extraordinary in so many ways. I honestly was not fully aware of the great status it holds within the state of North Dakota and also throughout the region. When I was once here 20-plus years ago, it was a whole different campus. And to see the beautiful growth — with all the new facilities and buildings, the renovations at the library, the new Nistler College, the new residence halls — it’s been pretty wonderful to experience such a great campus.
Academically, UND is stellar and has so many wonderful programs. And then within the Student Affairs Division, I will just say that the individuals I’ve had the pleasure of working with have been incredible. If you know anything about our division, we have the Housing & Residence Life. We have Dining Services, the TRIO programs, Student Orientation and Greek Life. It’s all pretty extraordinary. We’ve got the Wellness Center, Student Health Services and the Counseling Center. The staff in all of these areas work so hard to serve our students and families.
I’ve been very impressed with the quality of people, and the students I’ve encountered also are wonderful. We have two women as president and vice president of the Student Body, and it’s been really special to get to work with them. I’ve been able to work closely with so many people. I could go on and on, but my impressions are nothing but super positive.
Q. Can you share some of your biggest takeaways or memories of your time here?
A. There have been so many that I don’t even know where to begin. I probably came at the tail end of the pandemic, when we all still were wearing masks and distancing ourselves. And seeing how we managed the pandemic in California versus how we managed it in North Dakota was quite different. I was really impressed with UND’s pandemic response team. I was able to bring some ideas, but I learned a lot seeing how everything was handled here. It was great to see how collaboration works on campus when everybody is pulling together.
My life passion has been working with college students, so one of my favorite parts was being able to watch students at move-in and then walking across the stage at commencement — kind of the bookends. The move-in was incredible. Volunteers from fraternities, sororities and all sorts of student groups would meet families right at the curb, pick everything up and take it to their rooms to help them get settled. The distribution was as organized as I’ve ever seen on a campus.
I also got to be a judge at the Dining Center’s “Chopped Competition.” That was so much fun! The African Culture Night was amazing with all of these students, faculty and staff from Africa performing, singing, doing poetry and a fashion show. It also was mind-boggling to see how many people from different tribes across the country came to enjoy the powwow. The beauty, the pageantry, the culture and history was absolutely fantastic. The Korean festival was great, too, and the Feast of Nations was another one of my favorite events.
When I first arrived, I thought, “Well, this is a very homogeneous campus compared to San Francisco State University, where 83 percent of students are people of color.” But then I experienced all of these different events and realized there really is a lot of cultural diversity here. I was proud to be able to experience it all.
In fact, I recently attended a conference for all my colleagues of The Registry (a group that helps universities find highly qualified interim executives), and someone joked to the group by saying, “Don’t worry. We won’t be sending you to North Dakota.” And I said, “Excuse me, you sent me to North Dakota, and it is spectacular!” I am going to be an ambassador for UND, Grand Forks and North Dakota. As I go out into my travels, I will be talking about all the great things I’ve experienced.
Q. In what other ways do you think UND stands out? What are we doing right?
A. Oh, gosh, there are so many things the University is doing right. President Armacost is just an extraordinary leader. I have so loved working with him and seeing his kindness, his generosity and his spirit in leading people. One of the things he always says is “love your people,” and that’s one of my philosophies, too. If you’re a supervisor, do everything you can to invest in your colleagues. I absolutely love working with students to make a meaningful experience for them. I think the way the president has established himself as a leader — not only on campus but also in the community and throughout the state — really stands out. And then to see the University working with Space Force, and our world-renowned aviation program. Wow! It’s just incredible.
A lot of the international students I’ve met here are in the aviation program, and a lot of the out-of-state students also are drawn here because of all of UND’s great programs. The law school is fantastic. The medical school … this is just a great place to be.
Q. A big part of UND’s marketing campaign is based on showcasing our students as “leaders in action.” How do you see our students living up to that brand?
A. I oftentimes had the privilege of interfacing with student leaders. The students with the Association of Residence Halls are absolutely awesome. They’re really great to work with and have a true vision and a passion for making the residence halls a great experience. And as I mentioned, I met monthly with the president and vice president of Student Government, so I saw regularly how well they tackled important issues on campus. They were fantastic!
Our Associate Vice President of Student Affairs Cassie Gerhardt invited me to attend a meeting of the Council of Leaders, too — these are the presidents of different student clubs and organizations, fraternities, sororities, Student Government — and it was fun to get to know them, hear what their issues are and see how they were leading on campus. That’s been very impressive.
The provost and I, along with the associate vice provost and Cassie also have been working on creating a new leadership scholarship program. And that’s been really fun. Cassie started it by doing a scan of what currently is happening with leadership development on campus and what we could do in the future to fill in the gaps. I think that’s been another great part of the “leaders in action” brand. The other thing is student employment.
I think some of the opportunities we have with jobs on campus are giving students high-value, real-world experience. They’re certainly getting paid to work, but they’re also learning a lot about how to be good employees. It’s been fun to watch them lead.
Q. You’ve been working closely with students for a very long time, and a lot of things have changed over the past five decades. What words of advice do you find still hold true?
A. Well, my advice for students still would be to wake up early, go to class and take full advantage of the college experience. Get involved so you can make a difference on campus. Join a club or organization and find groups of people you can learn from. Work hard and get a job so you can learn about the world of work. I think that’s really important. Now, not everybody has the privilege of being able to find a college job that’s meaningful (to their future career), but I think in every job, there are still lessons to be learned. And one more thing: I’ve heard from so many students and parents that as soon as students move away for college, they don’t call home for four months. It’s important to keep contact with your family and friends back home. These are the people who really care about you and helped to get you where you are. Reaching out to them will go a long way in making them feel like they’re still a part of your life. Call home.
Q. And what’s next for you?
A. I guarantee it’s hard to leave. The people here have been so kind to me. The first day I arrived, two of my colleagues were at the apartment to help me move in and brought me gifts. The president and his wife came the very next day to welcome me, and they sort of adopted me. We’d go to the movies together and out to eat together. They and other colleagues have invited me to their homes for meals, and everyone always said, “Bring Savannah.” (That’s the name of her West Highland terrier.) Nobody except for my last college has ever said that. People have been so generous to me, and it has made my stay here incredibly positive. The culture at UND is pretty amazing!
So, after this wonderful experience, I’m going to go home to Colorado and just breathe a little. I’ve lived in Fort Collins for a lot of years, so I have a lot of good friends there. But I hope I’ve made some really good friendships that will last a long time here, too. And I hope to get another opportunity to be an interim somewhere else. I feel like I probably still have more to do.