Robin Holmes-Sullivan was the first person in her family to go to college.
Soon, she'll run one.
Holmes-Sullivan was named president at Lewis & Clark College in Portland. She currently serves as dean of students. Her new leadership position, which starts in July, marks a milestone for her and the college. Holmes-Sullivan is the first woman to ever lead the private college. And the first African American to do so. And she's the first LGBTQ person to lead the institution.
"I really think that we're on a great trajectory and I want to make sure that continues," Holmes-Sullivan said. "I also think that we have challenges ahead and in many ways, I think I'm uniquely qualified to help us with those challenges."
In an announcement of the leadership change, Lewis & Clark said the search for a new president involved a "rigorous nationwide search that attracted a strong pool of over a hundred applicants."
She's not new to the college, or to Oregon. Holmes-Sullivan, a licensed clinical psychologist, is the dean of students and current vice president for Student Life at Lewis & Clark. She came to Lewis & Clark in 2019 after serving as vice president of Student Affairs at the University of California. Before that, she spent 27 years at the University of Oregon, where she served as vice president of Student Life. She'll replace current president, Wim Wiewel, who is retiring this summer.
During her time in California, she also worked closely with Janet Napolitano, the former Arizona governor and secretary of Homeland Security under former President Barack Obama. Napolitano served as president of the University of California.
In an announcement from Lewis & Clark, Napolitano called Holmes-Sullivan an "excellent choice" to lead the college.
"(Robin) possesses the leadership, vision and personal qualities that one wants in a college leader," Napolitano said. "I can't think of a better selection."
While helping lead higher education institutions on the West Coast, she's also continued her psychology practice.
"I still have a practice. I limit it to about three clients a week," she said, noting the balance in patient care and professional duties for the college.
Holmes-Sullivan said her ascension to the presidency at Lewis & Clark reflects the college's commitment to diversity and equity. Her personal experience is a poignant display of why those values are critical in higher education.
"I think about it from my perspective when I was in college, in grad school," Holmes-Sullivan recalled. "It wasn't until my second year of my doctorate that I had a professor who was African American. I remember how I felt when I knew I was going to be in her class. Not only did I benefit from her class, she was an excellent professor, but I could see myself reflected in her.
"I oftentimes would be sitting in class and questioning whether I was smart enough or doing well enough. Even if I was going to be seeing patients. Would they accept a Black psychologist? I didn't have a lot of people I could turn to and say 'how was this for you?' There were so few options for me to do that. It was a lonely struggle."
Holmes-Sullivan's experience nearly three decades ago is still prevalent in higher education.
The National Center for Education Statistics reported that, in 2018, just 6% of full time faculty in colleges and universities were Black.
"I think the more we can bring strong diversity to our colleges and universities, the more students will see themselves reflected," Holmes-Sullivan said. "I'm honored to be able to play a small part in helping students feel as though they belong, regardless of who they are and where they come from."
The college's incoming president takes the helm at a time when enrollment is trending down at many colleges and universities in Oregon. Nationally, undergraduate enrollment fell by 3.2% in 2021, according to Oregon's Higher Education Coordinating Commission.
But Lewis & Clark may be an anomaly.
"We seem to be bucking that trend," Holmes-Sullivan said during a phone interview. "Last year, when many colleges were really struggling, we welcomed our largest class in the history of Lewis & Clark. This year, applications are running ahead yet again at record levels. We feel good about where we're sitting."
Holmes-Sullivan's own path to higher education started with the encouragement of her parents — a health care worker and U.S. Marine. A first-generation college student, she earned a bachelor's degree in psychology from California State University at Fullerton in 1986 and went on to earn two master's degrees in experimental and clinical psychology. She went on to obtain a Ph.D. in clinical psychology in 1992 from the California School of Professional Psychology.
Born in the south, her family made the move to Orange County in Southern California as a child, when her father was stationed at a military base there. She said her parents advanced from entry level jobs to management positions and passed down values of integrity, hard work, care and compassion for others.
"Those values will continue to be my north star as your president," she told Lewis & Clark community members in an announcement Jan. 26.
She's tried to instill those same values in her own children. Holmes-Sullivan and her wife, Kathy, have two adult sons, a daughter-in-law and a grandchild.