Leslie Taylor’s journey at Colorado State University has been anything but boring.
Over the past 21 years she has worked as an academic counselor in Athletics, spent time working in the Office of Admissions, moved into web communications, and had a dual role as assistant vice president of enrollment communications, reporting to two vice presidents. Along the way she has supported the Native American Cultural Center, served as the ultimate Rams volleyball fan and worked with former husband and CSU volleyball coach Tom Hilbert to raise their teenaged daughter, Myles.
“It has not been a linear path,” Taylor joked.
Indeed. But Taylor’s diverse background, institutional knowledge and deep devotion to CSU were chief among the reasons why Provost Rick Miranda named Taylor this week as the new Vice President of Enrollment and Access.
“She has a lot of experience in multiple areas, so she brings a unique perspective to this position,” Miranda said. “It’s not just the length of time she has spent here but the breadth of her experience. She’s able to speak from a position of not just being from CSU, but of CSU.”
Taylor has had a lifetime of variety leading up to her arrival at CSU in 1997, so her career path has been seamlessly navigated. Her childhood was spent adapting to new homes, new faces and new places. Her father, who worked for the Federal Aviation Administration, was transferred frequently, so Taylor lived in six states, attended 10 K-12 schools and lived in – not counting college – more than 20 houses while growing up.
“My mom was an excellent role model and a big believer that you have to grow where you are planted,” she said. “It wasn’t easy, but I made it work. Honestly, I was incredibly lucky to be exposed to so many different lifestyles and cultures. At the time I didn’t appreciate it, but I do now.”
Taylor discovered a love and a talent for sports when she was in middle school and was good enough to land a track scholarship to Oklahoma. A first-generation student, she had no idea how to negotiate the process and went to school wide-eyed and a bit intimidated.
“Sports were not a big thing in my family, but I quickly learned what it meant to be an athlete at Oklahoma,” said Taylor, a high jumper who qualified for the NCAA Championships as a freshman. “It was a great time to be in school there – we won a national championship in football, and our men’s basketball team made the (NCAA Tournament) championship game. That’s when I became a sports fan – and a huge Sooners fan.”
Finding her passion
She met Hilbert at Oklahoma, and when he landed his first head coaching position at Idaho she was first exposed to the ins and outs of working in higher education. Prior to that Taylor thought she would earn a master’s and Ph.D. and become a professor, but a job in Idaho’s admissions office recruiting multi-cultural students – including the Native American tribes in the area – changed her life.
“That’s when I knew I never wanted to leave higher ed,” she said.
When Hilbert became CSU’s coach in 1997, Taylor quickly established herself as a campus stalwart. She learned from mentors like Mary Ontiveros, the current vice president of diversity, Tom Milligan, the current vice president of external relations, and Robin Brown, the former vice president of enrollment and access, and utilized the skills learned through a fascination with web communications to become a valued member of various work teams across campus.
In 2014 she met Melissa Trifiletti, who had been hired as director of admissions. They immediately connected both personally and professionally, and CSU’s admissions process soared to new heights, with record numbers of freshmen and transfers entering school, and record enrollment each year during Trifiletti’s tenure.
When Trifiletti was chosen last year to replace the retiring Brown, Taylor was ready to work side-by-side with her friend to take the division to new heights. Tragically, Trifiletti never spent a day in her office at her new job – she died Aug. 13 following a long battle with cancer. Taylor was named interim vice president.
“People in enrollment and access were very excited about Melissa and what she was going to bring to the position,” Taylor said. “I had to fill her shoes and still be myself, which was a challenge. I had the incredible advantage of having been here for 20-plus years, but it was still a tremendous challenge. People were really hurting.
“The most memorable thing about that process is that we got to witness the remarkable support of the CSU community. People were amazingly supportive, letting us deal with the shock and grief of Melissa’s death while moving forward. I still get emotional thinking about it because people were so kind and so willing to help us out.”
Finding the right fit
It was Taylor’s ability to successfully negotiate that difficult situation that convinced Miranda that he had found his next vice president of enrollment and access.
“What I saw in her was a real concern for her people; she got them to keep their eye on their jobs while still honoring their grief,” he said. “Leslie had her own grief to deal with but she also realized the importance of leading others through that process. She walked that line quite well.”
Even though CSU has enjoyed several years of enrollment growth while admitting brighter and more diverse classes every year, the challenges facing CSU and other schools are real. As Colorado’s population becomes more diverse, CSU must adapt by appealing to that demographic and changing the university’s culture.
Taylor, who proudly embraces her Cherokee heritage and brings years of experience in recruiting diverse students, is prepared to deal with those issues.
“The challenges for higher education in Colorado are not insignificant,” she said. “We’re going to have to do things differently in order to be successful while remaining true to our land-grant mission. We need to be able to recruit and support students from all backgrounds and see them through to graduation. Meeting enrollment goals in the next decade will begin to be challenging.
“I’m tremendously excited to be in this position but I’m also smart enough to be a little bit anxious about it. The good news is that we have amazing leadership and dedicated people in this division, and we work in for a great university.
“I absolutely love my job, and that’s something I don’t take for granted. We have the chance to change people’s lives every day, and if you can’t get excited about that you probably should go do something else.”