Staff Spotlight: Dr. Dewain Lee

February 12, 2014

UAA Dean of Students, Associate Vice Chancellor for Student Development
Hometown: New Orleans, La.
Fun Fact: Dewain was the only female grandchild in her family for the first 20 years of her life, until her uncle’s daughter was born.

Dr. Dewain Lee serves as UAA's dean of students and associate vice chancellor for student development. Photo by Philip Hall/University of Alaska Anchorage

Dr. Dewain Lee serves as UAA’s dean of students and associate vice chancellor for student development.
Philip Hall / University of Alaska Anchorage

Education has served as the capstone of Dewain Lee’s life for as long as she can remember. As a little girl growing up in the midst of a close extended family in New Orleans, she remembers her parents—both social workers—instilling in her a thirst and respect for academic achievement as well as a desire to help other people find their voice and use it.

“Education was paramount in my family,” she said. “I’d always gone to private, Catholic schools, from kindergarten. It was just an expectation I was going to go on to college, not just the bachelor’s level. I had mentors, teachers I’m still in touch with today. That’s what led me to a college campus.”

What Dewain hadn’t figured out, however, was the path she would choose once she earned her bachelor’s degree, majoring in drama and communication.

“I actually thought I was going to go to Hollywood and be an actress,” she said. “I used that degree right out of college and worked at a local TV news station. I went out with reporters, put stories together. I had a local agent and was Hollywood bound—I had stars in my eyes. At the same time, I had a desire to work with young people, to help them.”

Finding a calling

A year after earning her bachelor’s degree, Dewain enrolled at Xavier University and began working on her master’s degree. She signed up to take a career-counseling class.

“That was an ‘Aha!’ moment for me,” she said. “Moving from high school into college is a natural transition of life—that time is critical. The experiences and relationships [at that time] mean a lot.”

Her passion for helping shape students’ lives at the college level led her to complete her master’s in counseling. Her first jobs—as a career counselor at Bryman College in New Orleans, and then at stately, historic Dillard University—opened up a view of other possibilities that would help her help students on a much more global scale.

“I wanted to be involved in shaping students’ lives at the policy level,” she said. “I could see all the moving pieces and that the picture was bigger than the career center and financial aid. To make sure the pieces fit together well, I needed to be in a position to effect change.”

Dillard promoted Dewain, naming her its director of career services.

“I got to sit at the table with people making decisions,” she said. “This was where the real change was happening, the collaboration with other departments, and it became easier to help students see the interconnectedness of things—the classroom, extracurriculars, outside—and create opportunities for faculty members, alumni and employers to talk about the needs of employers and gaps in student services, learning what we weren’t doing in terms of students.”

Some students had not connected with internships and volunteer opportunities they needed, or didn’t know how to motivate and direct themselves toward promising career possibilities. The people and offices that could help them existed, but were operating in silos, isolated from each other. To be effective, they needed to operate in concert, Dewain said.

“We needed to build a bridge across the campus in all of those areas and tear down those walls,” she said.

Once again, Dewain found herself turning to education as a tool. She decided to enroll at Capella University and earn her doctorate.

“That was the level of education needed to really advance and be a true player in the game,” Dewain said. “They all had Ph.D.s—not the initials, but the training that comes from going through that process, understanding student development theory, what students’ needs are.”

Dewain delved into [business] organization and management, “which I think still applies,” she said. “I’m managing an organization here designed to support students—understanding who they are, what their needs are, how they learn, how they interact with each other, how this translates to the greater world once we graduate them.”

Hurdling obstacles

Earning her doctorate wasn’t easy. Hurricane Katrina intervened, breaching the nearby east levee of the London Avenue Canal near the rear of Dillard’s campus on Aug. 29, 2005. “Lake Pontchartrain poured into our campus and remained there for nearly three weeks,” Dillard’s president, Marvalene Hughes, said in a guest blog in the Washington Post.

Dillard shut down. Dewain lost her home and almost everything in the storm, a Capella alumni publication stated, but she fortunately was able to flee to safety with her laptop, which contained the dissertation she was working on. Dewain left New Orleans until Dillard reopened, when she returned to live in one of the hotel guest rooms while classes took place in conference rooms.

Eight months after Katrina, Dewain resumed work on her dissertation and, in December 2006, graduated from Capella.

The American Accounting Association awarded her its Outstanding Dissertation Award for her dissertation about job satisfaction for Generation X accountants and Dillard promoted Dewain to the position of dean of Student Affairs.

Dewain spent 12 years with Dillard and then decided she wanted a change.

“I was looking for an opportunity to enhance my professional portfolio, have an experience at a different institution,” she said. “I sure did get different!”

Dewain made her first trip to Alaska in December 2009 to interview for a position with UAA.

“It was cold, very foreign and isolating,” Dewain said. “The uniqueness of the opportunity was so different from what I knew, but the whole point was to experience something different. It offered a different type of diversity.”

The university, in April 2010, hired Dewain as dean of students and associate vice chancellor for student development.

Dr. Dewain Lee stands by Lt. Col. Leo Gray, one of 31 surviving combat pilots of the Tuskegee Airmen. Photo by Philip Hall/University of Alaska Anchorage

Dr. Dewain Lee stands by Lt. Col. Leo Gray, one of 31 surviving combat pilots of the Tuskegee Airmen.
Philip Hall / University of Alaska Anchorage

Four years after arriving, Dewain misses New Orleans’ unique ambiance and its spectacular fusion of food, music, art, history and warm weather. She’s still acclimating herself in Alaska, which she says has been a difficult process.

“I’m not an outdoorsy person,” she said. “I don’t hike, I don’t ski. I go to the movies or dinner. I like jazz concerts and quaint jazz halls and the hustle and bustle of big-city life.”

Getting acclimated at work, however, has felt much more natural. “It’s interesting, in line with what I was doing, although it’s a different institution, larger,” Dewain said. “The work remains the same.”

She said UAA is unique in that it has a very diverse population peopled with Alaska Natives and myriad other ethnicities, older students, commuters, people who serve in the military, immigrants of all persuasions. A one-size-fits-all approach to students here doesn’t work.

Dewain said UAA has a large “first-generation” population—students who are the first in their families to attend college.

“I came from a family where everyone had, at a minimum, a bachelor’s degree,” she said. “If I didn’t find what I wanted [at college], I could talk to Mom. When working for a large first-generation population, you have to provide more services. And there are economics. Costs are increasing and federal aid is decreasing. How do you support students who need help with that? The landscape is quite difficult.”

Engaging every student

Dewain’s goal of reaching every student and helping each of them succeed in their individual ways led her to establish the Emerging Leaders Program (ELP).

“We’ve partnered with speakers who have come in and supported us,” she said. “It’s not based on majors or other stipulations. The campus is so large. This is an open opportunity for students who might not otherwise have leadership opportunities. Just because they don’t hold an office doesn’t mean they’re not worthy of it.”

Students in the program learn about various paths they can take to become a leader, define for themselves which of these ways might work for them and build a sense of community with other students going through the same process.

“They get together in retreats, build relationships,” Dewain said. “It helps with retention, because they offer support to each other—‘How are things going; I didn’t see you in class.’”

ELP matches students with on-campus mentors and offers workshops, self-assessments, chances to learn and practice new skills and options for taking part in community activities.

“My goal is to create an engaged campus where students feel like they belong,” Dewain said. “You need to create opportunities for these students to feel, ‘This is my school.’”

People interested in learning more about ELP may contact the Student Life and Leadership office at (907) 786-1215.


Written by Tracy Kalytiak, UAA Office of University Advancement.

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