10 Questions with Donna Lee
July 13, 2021
By Elsa Wenzel
Donna Lee, the College’s new vice president for student affairs, finds something special about the soul of Rollins, where she learned the meaning of leadership as the capacity to create change. The culture of making a difference is part of what’s drawing her back to the College, where she worked in various capacities in the Office of Student Affairs for more than a decade.
Rollins is where Lee, who was raised in Long Island, feels she grew up. She first arrived on campus in 1996 as a “green professional” following nine years in the U.S. Army. The former military captain moved into Elizabeth Hall and worked in residential life, disability services, and multicultural affairs, eventually serving as dean of student affairs.
After a decade at Rollins, she took the helm of the division of student life at Agnes Scott College in Decatur, Georgia, where she created the Center for Diversity and Inclusion that focuses on providing education, resources, and advocacy in pursuit of social justice. Since 2015, she has served as the vice president for student affairs at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota, near the heart of recent racial reckonings over the murder of George Floyd.
Concurrent crises—the COVID-19 virus and the virus of racial injustice—may dominate this historic moment, but Lee, a self-described introvert, doesn’t plan to show up at Rollins with a to-do list. Instead, she’s looking forward to listening to the community and collaborating with colleagues in order to foster spaces, opportunities, and vessels for healing, hope, and change.
We recently sat down with Lee—who starts July 15—to learn more about what she has in store for the student experience at Rollins.
You worked at Rollins in various Student Affairs roles for more than a decade. What drew you back? “I’ve been asked this question several times, and my honest answer is, why would I not? Rollins was my home for 13 years. I left a part of me in that place and took a part of the place with me when I left. The mission of Rollins—educating students for global citizenship and responsible leadership—and the principles that guide the College—excellence, innovation, and community—are the very things that have informed the way I do the work. While I originally never envisioned myself leaving Rollins, I left, learned, grew, and found my voice as a student affairs leader and educator. For whatever reason, the universe opened the possibility for a return to my home.”
How do you see the role of Student Affairs on campus? “The work of Student Affairs is informed by decades of theory, best practices, and educational models that affirm and support a commitment to the holistic development of students and a recognition that learning happens in all places and spaces. With students at the heart of all that we do, Student Affairs educators cultivate transformative experiences that challenge and support students on their journey toward their best selves characterized by the achievement of meaningful and purpose-driven lives.”
What do you envision as the ideal student experience at Rollins? “Every student should see themselves as part of Rollins. Every student should feel a sense of belonging. Every student should be able to thrive and flourish. Rollins offers a rich and diverse array of experiences and opportunities that immerse students in a journey of engagement that begins at matriculation through the time they cross the stage—a journey that helps them discover who they are, what they’re passionate about, and how they want to use their gifts, talents, skills, and knowledge to make a difference in the world.”
You’ve done a lot of work in your career thus far around diversity and inclusion. How will you bring that experience to Rollins? “While many campuses have made strides in increasing the numbers of students who come from diverse backgrounds, there is still great work ahead in creating communities that are truly inclusive. This involves pausing to critically assess and interrogate the systems, structures, policies, and practices that may unintentionally be excluding people: What pipelines are we using to recruit students? What are we teaching? Who is doing the teaching? If we look across our curriculum, is it fully representing the diversity that is our world? I’ve been quite impressed with the work that Rollins has already taken on, and I’m excited about partnering with others to move us closer to a vision for a campus community that is diverse, inclusive, and just.”
What do you see as some of the biggest challenges facing students? “The world is now even more fraught with the effects of a global pandemic and a racial injustice crisis; students are holding and carrying a range of emotions, feelings, questions, doubts, and fears. It’s easy to understand why they may feel powerless and overwhelmed. Indeed, it is the work on a campus like Rollins that creates hope and possibility.”
What’s your leadership style? “As a leader, I inspire a shared vision among the team, one that each has played a role in co-creating. I set direction and create the systems and structures to facilitate the work or remove the systems and structures that may be barriers so that the people I serve can do their best work. I’m not directive. I derive more joy from watching someone stand in their own light and really soar in their own leadership. I see myself as a learner with a responsibility to push beyond my own learning edges so that each member of our community feels affirmed, valued, and heard.”
What do you hope to accomplish in your first year? “I see my first year as one of relationship-building across campus and beyond. I need to spend time listening and learning and discovering the key areas where more attention might be needed or lifted up higher. I need to spend time learning about the division of Student Affairs and its phenomenal work, assessing and identifying areas of challenge and opportunity. I need to have a firm understanding of the academic curriculum so as to ensure the work of Student Affairs connects with, complements, and reinforces the learning goals of the College.”
Long-term, what are some of your goals for Student Affairs? “At this point, it’s premature for me to articulate long-term goals before having an opportunity to immerse myself in the community and the work. In general, as students evolve and change, it’s important that the work evolves and changes, and as issues and trends emerge, that we’re responsive, and our work is relevant. Assessment and strategic planning must be continual and ongoing, and we must engage in a process that is inclusive and honors voices at all levels across the division to create deep, lasting change.”
What do you do for fun? “I’d been a marathon runner. I picked up running in Florida and completed my first marathon at Disney. A knee injury stopped me in my tracks, but after seven years, I’ve picked it back up again. Now, I’m not going to be running any races, but it’s relaxing and therapeutic—my way of reflecting and processing. I just haven’t really been able to find another substitute for it, so it feels good to be able to be out there again. I also enjoy cycling and exploring the communities that I’m in.”
What are you most looking forward to about being back in Winter Park? “I’m looking forward to re-establishing my connections to the Winter Park community and the friendships I formed while there. One hope is to reconnect with my friends who are part of Habitat for Humanity. I’m also looking forward to re-familiarizing myself with some of the yummy places to eat and discovering the new ones that have popped up since I was last there. I never took advantage of canoeing or kayaking on Lake Virginia, but this time, I plan to. And no more Minnesota winters is definitely a plus.”