ST. CLOUD – Robbyn Wacker's parents didn't finish high school. Instead they dropped out to help their German immigrant parents work in Colorado's beet fields.

Because of that, they made sure their children had ample opportunities to explore, learn and — most important — read.

Wacker is now the 24th president of St. Cloud State University, which had its first day of fall semester classes Monday. She studied gerontology and sociology and then served as professor and administrator at the University of Northern Colorado before coming to St. Cloud in 2018.

From first-generation college student to university president, Wacker is known for being a trailblazer: She's the first woman to be St. Cloud State's permanent president, as well as its first openly gay person in the role.

In a written response to the Star Tribune, Wacker, 64, talked about how her experiences growing up shaped her views on education and leadership, and how she is working to reinvent St. Cloud State to ensure it not only survives, but thrives in the years to come. Answers have been edited for clarity and length.

Q: St. Cloud State this year unveiled an ambitious $32 million fundraising campaign to stay competitive and relevant. Why is it so important to undergo these changes now?

A: Over the last decade, higher education institutions have been experiencing significant challenges: uncertain and declining state funding, increased competition and simply a shift in demographics with the number of high school graduates remaining flat or even declining.

For us, we know that the path forward in addressing these challenges requires us to act with urgency to fundamentally reimagine ourselves as a new state university, with a framework we call "It's Time." [That] will require financial resources from nontraditional sources, and philanthropy will be an important part of that future revenue mix.

Q: Part of the campaign highlights establishing an identity at St. Cloud State — to differentiate it from other state schools. What is St. Cloud State's identity? Does it have one? Does it need a fresh one?

A: We have talked more about our identity as what we aren't (we aren't a Research 1 university nor are we a community college) rather than clearly establishing what differentiates us in the higher education market. Our "It's Time" strategy is redefining our identity by establishing areas of distinction — in our academics, in how we support students and how we engage with business, nonprofit and education partners across Minnesota and beyond.

As we go forward, we will focus on being a leader in four areas: holistic health and wellness, applied science and engineering, education and leadership. We will focus on creating individualized support for students that only smaller institutions could offer; implement a teacher-scholar model where our faculty are engaged in research, scholarship and creative works; and continue to extend our reach. For example, our international enrollment is second only to the University of Minnesota [among Minnesota's public colleges].

The career data we have for alumni suggest we do a great job of preparing students for success and that our graduates rise to leadership positions. We will do a better job of telling this story. We are confident that we are shaping a new identity that provides Minnesotans with a distinctive choice for their higher education needs.

Q: How will the university continue to implement these strategic initiatives if enrollment continues to decline and funding remains a concern?

A: The "It's Time" initiative is not a traditional strategic plan that tweaks our operations here and there to react to the challenges. It is ripping up the pages of the old playbook for higher education. To use a Minnesota analogy, we are skating to where the puck is going by creating a new state university that will proactively position us to successfully and proactively respond to changes.

We've learned a lot from remaining open and providing a quality educational experience for our students through a pandemic. This helped us to modernize with technology in some ways and reconceptualize how we can meet students where they are. And finally, as we manage through these challenges, we are carefully planning and managing our current resources.

Q: How do your experiences define how you view leadership?

A: As a leader, I don't count anyone out. I am a first-generation kid from a lower middle-class family that didn't have a lot of money and my parents weren't able to guide me in preparing for or paying for college. As an undergraduate, I had to figure out how to be a successful university student. I depended on grants, work study, part-time work (making and delivering pizzas!) and almost dropped out because I did not have the money to pay for tuition one semester. It was because of the generosity of a friend's parents who paid for that semester's tuition that I was able to continue.

I also know everyone matters to the success of an organization. My mother was responsible for placing substitute teachers in K-12 classrooms every day — making early morning calls for 30-plus years. I remember her telling me that she wanted to make sure she found the best substitute for each class. She was multiple layers down in the school district organization but what she did was incredibly important. I always want to acknowledge everyone at SCSU for the important role they play.

Q: What's it like to be SCSU's first permanent president who is female and the first openly gay president?

A: I navigate my days often trying to dispel the stereotypes associated with my identities as a woman, someone who is now over 60, and someone who is openly gay. Unconscious biases that are fed from stereotypes regularly occur. When I am introduced, the speaker often only uses adjectives associated with women such as kind, thoughtful and warm vs. brilliant, strategic and innovative (of course, I think I am all of those!). As a woman I am aware that there are still situations where I have to work extra hard to gain credibility and respect as a leader.

On one hand, these identities shouldn't matter because I want to be viewed free of stereotypes. But these experiences also provide me with different perspectives and empathy to understand others' lived experiences. I am mindful that being the first female/openly gay president is incredibly important and demonstrates to those with similar identities that they too can reach their professional goals and not be limited by the expectations others may have for them.

Jenny Berg • 612-673-7299

Twitter: @bergjenny