There have been moments, both small and quiet and large and quite public, that have brought forth a range of emotions for Jill Heaton these past several months as she has served as the University’s Senior Vice Provost and as the Executive Vice President and Provost for Sierra Nevada University (SNU).
Heaton and Sue Johnson, the Executive Vice President for Finance and Administration at SNU, are heading the transition team that is helping the University and SNU work through a year’s worth of approvals needed for SNU to join the University on July 1. On Saturday, SNU, founded in 1969, will celebrate its 52nd and final Commencement in what is without a doubt one of the most picturesque spots in all of higher education.
Heaton has taken her job as SNU’s top academic officer seriously. As has Johnson, who perhaps better than anyone has understood what this year needed to be about.
“Jill and I committed early on, as the Senior Leadership of SNU, that we would be transparent, we would solicit ideas, initiatives and that we would listen and respond with open communications,” Johnson says. “Throughout this year, we have held several town hall meetings to provide information to students, faculty, staff, parents and the community at Incline Village. These town halls, with the first being early fall 2021, were a cornerstone to successfully leading SNU through this academic year, to share progress on the transition and answer questions.
“This was coupled with the three core principles Jill and I agreed we would operate under for this transition: the student academic experience from incoming freshman to our graduating seniors; institutional governance and operations and; community relations. Throughout this transition we were laser-focused on our commitment to the SNU students, culture, community and the intimacy of this beautiful campus. We were committed to improving lives within the institution, the region it serves, maintaining a vibrant institution of higher education at this location and joining forces with a growing public University that is providing a superior education in Northern Nevada.”
Heaton has embraced this “all-in” approach to the past academic year. So much so, in fact, that not long after University Provost Jeff Thompson announced Heaton had been appointed to her new role last summer, Heaton moved into the residence halls at SNU.
“That means my most important commitment to SNU is a successful academic year,” Heaton says. “I could not imagine doing that from afar. You can’t get to know the people, the students, the place, the community, if you’re not there.”
Heaton, Johnson and the rest of the transition team have been so busy, in fact, it took the observation of a recent visitor to SNU’s Incline Village, Nevada campus to point something out to Heaton, who has been working closely with Student Services and Student Affairs offices on both campuses in order to ensure that the academic year has been seamless for SNU’s students.
“My colleague, the newly appointed Associate Vice Provost for Research and Creative Activities Professor Doug Boyle was up there to observe, to see what we were doing,” Heaton remembers of a recent town hall meeting that drew about 100 students – about one quarter of SNU’s enrollment.
Professor Boyle pointed out that the presenters that day, representing a variety of aspects of student-based services at UNR and SNU, were all women.
“All the people who were student-facing that day were women,” Heaton says. “I said, ‘You know, I’ve noticed that, too.’ The face that the students see, it’s all women right now.”
Whether it has been design or simply by chance, there is no denying that throughout the complicated process of transitioning one institution into another that a good number of women at both institutions have been playing lead roles.
A quick glance at some of key players and units involved who are working directly with the students of SNU and in ensuring the transition runs smoothly include the following:
Melisa Choroszy, UNR Associate Vice President of Enrollment Services;
Heather Turk-Fiecoat, UNR Registrar;
Lourdes Gonzales, UNR Director of Financial Aid and Scholarships;
Chai Glenn-Cook, UNR Director of Veteran Services;
Adilia B. Ross, UNR Assistant Director of the Office of International Students and Scholars;
Kara Cleveland, UNR Director of Graduate School Operations;
Emilly Borthwick-Wong, UNR Executive Director of Advising;
Sheena Harvey, UNR Director of Fitness and Recreation Sports
Tylar Tidwell, UNR Recreation Sports Coordinator;
Natalie Fry, UNR Marketing Communications Officer
Lizzie Thibodeau, SNU Dean of Student Affairs;
Roseanna Wehby, SNU Registrar;
Annamarie Jones Keyton, SNU Accreditation & Assessment
Nancy Beigel, SNU Executive Assistant to the Provost
Kristine Young. SNU Executive Assistant to the Executive Vice President for Finance and Administration;
Heaton is quick to add that in addition to those in student-facing roles there have been a number of people who have also played key roles.
“The people who are making it happen for the institution are all over the gender spectrum,” she says.
Still, the sheer number of women involved in one of the most complex endeavors the University has ever undertaken speaks to a number of interesting aspects of how work is often done at the University. The transition is expected to be completed no earlier than July 1, 2022.
“It wasn’t picked or planned, but I think it’s a recognition of UNR’s own culture, how we have a lot of women in leadership at all levels of campus,” says Heaton, a Professor of Geography at the University since 2004. Prior to joining the Provost’s Office in 2018, she was a department chair. “It’s just a strong reflection of our own culture at UNR, which includes a lot of really great women.”
Heaton discovered very early on during her time at SNU how important it was to maintain strong connections with a cadre of professionals who were willing to help, no matter what their own workloads were like, or what the challenge of the moment entailed. In August, the massive Caldor Fire made the air in and around the Lake Tahoe Basin thick and hazy with smoke. The fire threatened South Lake Tahoe and put east shore communities like Incline Village on high alert.
Heaton had already been working with Dr. Cheryl Hug-English, the director of the University’s Student Health Center and the institution’s chief medical officer, on COVID-19 protocols for the Sierra Nevada campus, where in-person classes were soon to begin. Faced with emergency planning caused by the threat of the Caldor Fire, Heaton turned to Amanda Windes, the University’s Manager of Organizational Resilience. Emergency preparedness documents were drawn up quickly. Heaton says Windes’ expertise and insights “made us think about things we hadn’t even thought about” in the event SNU had to evacuate its campus, located only a short walk from the waters of Lake Tahoe.
For a tense and smoke-filled several days, buses were parked in the SNU parking lot and were at the ready for a possible evacuation of students in the event the Caldor Fire moved toward Tahoe’s east shore.
“If causing me to have a heart attack is good, then yes, that whole experience, in looking back on it now, was one of those important moments where everyone came together in a really positive way,” Heaton says. “The pandemic planning and then the fire emergency preparation left us no choice but to buckle down and do what was best for the institution. Honestly, that was an amazing start. It brought in Wolf Pack individuals, the Wolf Pack family, which embraced SNU as new family members.”
“All of the people that were brought together between the two campuses, through those first connections in August, helped forged what have been lasting relationships throughout this academic year.”
Johnson agrees that the first few days of the academic year, though extremely uncertain and unsettling, were also an exercise in understanding what the SNU/UNR team was capable of accomplishing.
“The leadership teams at SNU/UNR emerged as a strong single focused team, to do what was right to remain alert and prepared,” she says. “Preparing an evacuation order off the mountain to UNR, ensuring that students had room and board was paramount during this period of time. Despite student participation in evacuation preparedness – preparing their own personal go bags, students participated at a very high level in their immersive two-week course that had begun.”
“At the end of the day, of the last day of this program, the students gathered in a circle and were asked to give one word to describe their experience that week. The first student placed their arm around the person standing next to them and said ‘friendship.’ This continued around the entire circle to each individual. This is true of the Executive Leadership Teams from SNU and UNR, as we stand in the circle of ‘transition’ we have developed professional respect and friendships.”
Heaton says the experience, both personally and professionally, has been one of her most rewarding.
Working on a daily basis with Johnson, a longtime fiscal executive whose distinguished career included serving as chief financial officer at Harrah’s Lake Tahoe, has been one of many highlights.
“We have made a perfect complement of one another,” Heaton says. “Sue’s grasp of business operations, my grasp of the academics. It’s been a nice balance. If it was all academic, or all business, we would miss the boat. Sometimes Sue is leading me by the hand and sometimes I am leading Sue by the hand. Even though we are coming from different perspectives and experiences, it’s been amazing to work with her. We are singularly focused on the success of the students, the success of the employee transition and the success of the institution.
“We’re both without ego in this. We both know I don’t need to be right or that Sue doesn’t need to be right. We need to be right for the institution.”
And then Heaton smiles: “Sue uses the analogy of Indiana Jones, where that massive boulder is chasing after him, and we just keep running. We make the decision every day that we can and that we should always be moving forward.”
Johnson, for her part, says that the feeling of respect and admiration is mutual.
“It has been a personal joy and honor to work alongside Jill,” she says. “Together we have leveraged our diverse experiences and knowledge to guide our strategies and create an exceptional working relationship. As the Executive Transition Team, we listened, learned and lead based on our backgrounds and experience. We collaborated, were inclusive, problem solved and developed innovative solutions to the challenges that were presented to us during this transition year. One would not be successful without the other.
“I value Jill’s integrity, dedication, effective efforts and contributions to a successful transition and the reality to complete this historic, unique opportunity for SNU, UNR, the State of Nevada and higher education in this country as a whole.”
She adds, “A mentor of mine told me, ‘treat people as you would like to be treated.’ That core value as always remained with me throughout my professional career. It is important to remember that students, faculty and staff at SNU are passionate about this amazing small, private, liberal arts university. At the end of the day, that simple ‘thank you’ from a student, faculty or staff member tells me we have done a tremendous job treating people with respect and dignity not matter how difficult decisions may have been.”
Heaton says the work of her colleagues on both campuses is a reminder of how the best organizations have individuals who, no matter the challenge or the ask of them to do something more, always view their work as something more than a job.
“You know, I have such an amazing, deepened respect for all that it takes to run a university through this experience,” Heaton says. “There are just so many pieces that make a student’s time at a university successful. They’re not in these jobs, Heather, Melisa, Lourdes and so many others, because it’s a job. They do their work because they love what they do. And they have a strong institutional commitment to the success of UNR. Without question they know that UNR’s success is dependent on this acquisition. This is history in the making.”
Heather Turk-Fiecoat, UNR’s Registrar, can still recall the first time she ever visited the SNU campus, about 25 years ago. She was struck by the beauty of the place. As the academic year has played out, she says it is only natural that she and so many others at UNR would want to pitch in to help.
“SNU is a special place and we want to ensure we embrace that beauty and culture,” she says. “We never do anything alone, but here the critical nature of listening first and working together is essential to keeping the spirit of the institution that her community holds so dear.”
Turk-Fiecoat’s role, like so many as Heaton and Johnson have pointed out all year long, has been extensive and not without challenge. Yet the work has been done efficiently, and with a sense of purpose. Just a quick glance at some of Turk-Fiecoat’s work provides a glimpse into how extensive it has been for all those involved this year.
“My main role has been to provide guidance and build a bridge between SNU and UNR for the SNU students,” she says. “We are excited to have these students join us and we want to ensure that their transition is successful and seamless, but there are a million details. From transfer equivalencies, immunizations, academic structures and degree progressions, there is so much going on under the water to make sure these students are set up for success. Both institutions have very different policies, culture, and structures and we have to bring everything into alignment with UNR and NSHE polices.”
What has motived her, Turk-Fiecoat says, has been what lies ahead. She believes that the coming together of the two institutions represents the best of what collaboration can be – the best of institutional strengths, of combined and shared resources, and the best urges of people who are working together for a common cause.
“There are so many possibilities for the future,” she says. “On July 1st we begin serving our new students and transitioning all their official academic history as we become their home and custodian of records. There are historical student records from multiple different systems, digital copies, and physical paper to pull together to make sure that we have everything. But that’s the stuff no one sees, what they will see is the life that will build from the seed SNU planted. The possibilities are endless of a place where students, faculty, community can come together for innovative programs solving the world environmental issues, being inspired by the clean air to create in the arts, and collaborating around shared visions. It will be a place like no other.”
Adds Borthwick-Wong: "I believe that in higher education collaboration is the most effective way to support students. Students do not understand or care that we are in different offices, departments, or divisions. They just see one institution so I think that it is important that we work to be that for them and engage in collaboration to make everything smoother for the student process."
Johnson says that the year has demonstrated that no matter where one works – whether it has been at SNU or UNR, or both – the focus always needs to be in the right place. Students have always been the top priority at SNU, she says, and this is what has always made the campus such a special place.
“(SNU) Founding President, Ben Solomon, has often been quoted as saying that Sierra Nevada University is ‘living in harmony with the environment,’” Johnsons says. “It is this environment coupled with our faculty and staff that are resilient, perseverant and care for our students and each other that make this campus so special. At the end of the day, it is not one individual that creates our successful student outcomes, but a joint effort by all. Together we successfully help students achieve their dreams and further their pursuit of future opportunities. Students are our priority.”
Heaton’s time living in the residence community at SNU has also given her an opportunity to take some informal notes. Every day, when she has walked the 75 or so yards from the dorms to her office, pausing sometimes just to watch the students she shares meals with in the cafeteria, all hurrying to class, she is reminded of the differences, and the similarities, between the two institutions she is serving.
“It’s a melding of SNU’s culture of immersive, small, intensive, student focus, and UNR’s culture, while it’s a lot bigger, it’s also the biggest little university out there in terms of really trying to keep that personal student focus in all that we do,” she says. “One of the most important aspects of this experience is that both institutions stand to gain from this transition. I’ve learned that SNU is a very special place, and that we want a piece of their secret sauce. That’s why living on the campus has been so helpful to me. If I don’t know what the ingredients to their secret sauce are, we can’t incorporate that into the Wolf Pack Way, and ultimately grow the Wolf Pack in a positive way.”