Women in Business: Terisa Riley

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Class of 2021 Women in Business Terisa Riley Chancellor University of Arkansas-Fort Smith (UAFS), Fort Smith

Residence: Fort Smith

Education: B.A., communications, University of Missouri; M.A., higher education, University of Missouri; Ph.D., higher education and research, Saint Louis University.

Professional background: Riley spent more than 25 years serving in virtually every facet of higher education, from academics to administration, before taking the helm as the first woman chancellor at UAFS on July 1, 2019. She is a member of several boards including Fort Smith United Way and U.S. Marshals Museum and is a member of the University of Arkansas System Racial Equity Task Force. She also chairs the UA System’s Workday Steering Committee.

What was your dream job as a kid and why? As a kid, I loved to watch shows like “Police Woman” with Angie Dickinson and “Charlie’s Angels.” Watching shows that featured empowered, strong, intelligent women made me want to be a police officer. I figured if they could be beautiful and smart enough to “get the bad guy,” then that was a great job for me. Later, I actually fulfilled that dream and learned that for most cops the job entails much more report writing and policing a “beat,” than the more exciting situations shown in 30-60 minutes on television. When I got pregnant with my twins I definitely knew that carrying a gun and pager was not for me.

What advice would you give young women who are currently at the beginning of their careers? I learned early in my career that finding a mentor — a seasoned professional who provides guidance and insight to help you develop your professional skills and networks — was the most critical relationship to cultivate. By nature of the roles, the mentor will keep the best interest of the protégé in mind and tailor her style to the needs of the new professional. As a young professional, I was so lucky to be taken under the wings of more experienced professionals who helped me to navigate organizational culture, learn about time and financial investments, and generally did all of that in a friendly and supportive environment.

What is a leader’s best asset? The best leaders know they do not accomplish anything alone, so the best asset of a leader is the people around her. I believe in helping people to feel valued, ensuring that people stay connected to the mission of the university, and provide them with tools to succeed. When we try something and fail, a leader takes responsibility.

When we try something and succeed, the people get the credit. The University of Arkansas-Fort Smith has some of the most highly credentialed faculty and most caring, supportive staff in the country, so it is easy to be grateful for the wonderful team I inherited when I became the chancellor.

What’s your biggest passion and why? My biggest passion is helping people graduate from college. As a first-generation college student who worked three jobs to get through college, I love being in a position to remove institutional barriers to success. First-gen students — students whose parents did not graduate from college — usually do not have someone to advise them on the bureaucracy of higher education.

Many students need help with admissions applications, financial aid forms, advising, and staying on track to graduate. Anytime we can diagnose and solve a problem — and remove barriers that cause students to drop out or stop out — provides me with such a feeling of joy and accomplishment.

What is something distinctive that people would be surprised to know about you? I am a risk-taker. I have bungee-jumped from a hot air balloon, graduated from the National Police Academy, attended Ft. Lewis officer training camp, parasailed, and spent time on the USS Harry S. Truman where I experienced both a tailhook landing and catapult take-off. I have rappelled from a 200-foot tower and ziplined. I have thrown hand grenades and used missile launchers. If the challenge involves weapons or the military, I’m up for it.