The first time Becky Roloff set foot on the St. Paul campus of St. Catherine University, she was a teenager.

Now, 40 years later, she’s returning as its 11th president.

Roloff, 62, was named Wednesday to succeed Sister Andrea Lee, who has been president of St. Kate’s for 18 years.

This is the first time in St. Catherine’s 121-year history that it has chosen a president from outside the academic field, officials said.

Until now, Roloff has spent her career in the business and nonprofit worlds, most recently as president and CEO of the YWCA of Minneapolis.

But officials cited her “extraordinary leadership” and fundraising skills, as well as her deep ties to the university, among the reasons she was chosen after a nationwide search.

“She’s an alum, and she really knows the essence of what it takes to come out of a liberal arts education and be a leader,” said Karen Rauenhorst, chairwoman of the board of trustees, who also served on the search committee. She noted that a growing number of colleges nationwide have been turning to leaders from outside of academia.

“It is a change,” admits Roloff, a 1976 St. Kate’s graduate who earned her MBA from Harvard in 1982. But she believes that her business background and expertise will be a strength. “I certainly know the challenges of inadequate funding for education,” she said. “My job is to make sure that they have the resources that they need. I love St. Kate’s and would do anything I could to help it.”

Roloff, who grew up in Dickinson, N.D., said her experience as a student at St. Kate’s helped inspire her career ambitions as a young woman. “I never knew a woman doctor, a woman attorney, a woman engineer; I just had never seen that,” she said. “When I came to St. Kate’s — your teachers by and large are women, the people running the place are women. I thought, ‘Wow.’ That’s when the lights turned on.”

After a stint as a grain merchant for Cargill, she went on to become a vice president and general manager at Pillsbury, and a senior vice president at American Express. In 2005, she became president of the Minneapolis YWCA. Roloff, who is married and has two adult sons, served on the St. Catherine’s board of trustees for 12 years, four as chairwoman. In addition, she’s been on the board of the Children’s Theatre Company, among other organizations, and president of the Minnesota Women’s Economic Roundtable.

Roloff starts her new job on Aug. 15. The day before, she said, she plans to participate in her eighth triathlon, in the YWCA’s annual event at Lake Nokomis. “We have a lot of women in their 50s and 60s,” she said. “It’s a really empowering thing.”