Sydney Lewis Sydney Lewis
Associate Manager, Communications

Published

February 22, 2024

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For two decades, Elise Awwad has dedicated her career to empowering learners, meeting them where they are and as they are. As DeVry University’s President and CEO, Elise leads the university, faculty, and students on a path of opportunity.

Elise, a pivotal figure in higher education, is driven by a passion for learning and a commitment to impact future generations. Recognizing college as a critical bridge from K-12 to career readiness, she views it as a key tool for breaking barriers and shaping life trajectories. Her own college journey, transformative and filled with choices, led her to return to academia twice, underscoring her belief in education's power.

The Path to President and Chief Executive Officer

Elise is a lifelong learner and passionate leader, championing education as a tool for challenging societal norms and achieving economic mobility, especially for women. Her belief in education's transformative power is reflected in her 20-year journey at DeVry University, progressing from an admissions advisor to Chief Operating Officer, and now as the President and CEO. Her dedication to ensuring educational access for all has been a constant in her career.

“Education is an influential force with timeless significance,” says Elise. “Once education is attained, whether it’s an educational milestone like a degree or a credential, it becomes an enduring possession.”

Elise's ascent to CEO, a role she never previously envisioned for herself, demonstrates her philosophy of "blooming where planted." Starting as an admissions advisor in 2004, she embraced increasing responsibilities, honing her leadership skills. When the CEO opportunity arose in 2023, she prepared herself through mentorships, skill development, and networking, realizing the role aligned with her career trajectory.

"I’ve continuously worked to improve the student experience," Elise continues, employing innovative tools and reassessing processes to ensure robust educational outcomes. Now as DeVry's first female President and CEO, she embodies her belief in lifelong learning and the power of education. 

“I did a lot of soul searching, coming to the conclusion that becoming a President and CEO was within reach and had been something I've been unconsciously working towards my entire career,” Elise shares.

- Elise Awwad

Anticipating and Addressing Student Challenges 

Elise’s experience, passion, and empathy in direct advisory of students, allows her to lead in a transformational way, informed by both experiences in the classroom and in their personal lives. She’s been right alongside DeVry students in their education and career journeys.

“I was right beside these students early on and I was their first call prior to taking their last course,” she reflects. “I was their first call prior to registering for graduation, and those were really proud moments for them, but also for me.” 

The needs of students are evolving with lingering social effects from the pandemic, coupled with emerging technologies like artificial intelligence and alternative skilling through work-based learning initiatives. Elise’s role involves not only understanding the current needs of her students but forecasting how shifts in our world impact our students’ learning experiences.

“There’s evolving technology, policy, and student needs. Staying ahead of these shifts, advocating for resources for our learners and leading teams to make the shift with the student demands were among several hurdles,” she states. 

There is no denying the adoption of online learning has been a trial-and-error process for many institutions, jumpstarted by remote work trends brought on by the pandemic. Shifting perceptions on the quality of digital learning and leveraging that modality is one of the greatest challenges Elise has faced since starting her higher education career path in 2004. “I’ve been around a lot of shifts in higher education, in watching student demands, and we have to be ahead of the curve.”

However, it is empathy, understanding, and clear communication to which Elise says make these challenges and hurdles easier to overcome, allowing realization for growth and improvement.

Democratizing Access to Opportunity Through Tech & STEM Exposure

Since becoming CEO, Elise Awwad has focused on bridging societal gaps, especially in technology and STEM fields where women are notably underrepresented. Women make up nearly half of the U.S. workforce but are highly underrepresented in the technology sector. They hold only 28% of the jobs in tech.

What happens when your workforce is not diverse? “You get cultural stereotypes, you get a lack of female role models, and at the end of the day, all that equals an inadequate support system,” Elise emphasizes. 

Recognizing DeVry's strength in tech-forward education, she spearheaded the DeVry Women+Tech Scholars program, launched on International Women's Day 2021. This initiative aims to empower women through mentorship, job search resources, credentialing, and scholarships, encouraging them to pursue tech careers.

Skilling opportunities like the program play a significant role in empowering women and girls economically, as they are key drivers of closing the gender gap in the job market. Success, she believes, hinges on building confidence and skills, helping women challenge traditional barriers and influence economic decisions.

“The confidence that you can do it, the nudge to do it, the support to do it, and then you’ve got to get the skills necessary in order to succeed,” says Elise. “Not only does it help boost their ability to influence economic decisions, but it also helps challenge the traditional barriers that have kept women out of these lucrative career fields for so long.”

 She calls it “democratizing access” to tech and STEM and through this process, societal and professional barriers are dismantled and the path to greater opportunities across genders occurs.

DeVry's commitment to closing the opportunity gap includes programs like Women+Tech Scholars, enhancing problem-solving, productivity, and innovation. Elise advocates for early engagement in technology career readiness, promoting exposure to tech careers for young girls through initiatives like HerWorld, which introduces underrepresented middle school girls to STEM and careers in technology, building their digital fluency and technology confidence.

Through work-based learning, apprenticeships, and internships, girls and young women can get hands-on experience under the support and guidance of mentorship, teaching them both crucial technical skills and soft skills.

As a result of the Women + Tech Scholars program, DeVry has seen a tangible growing interest in women learners enrolling in their tech programs. In the current academic year, women account for over 30% of the College of Engineering and Information Science’s new enrollments, up from just under 23% in the academic year 2020-21, signifying hundreds of women students taking the leap in their careers.

In Her Own Words: Women+Tech Scholar, Trinity Myrben

“Since enrolling in the W+T Scholars program, I have had many unique milestones for my career and academic life. Assuming a new role at Junior Achievement and preparing for participation in the National Cyber League with future participation in the spring. Adopting the recommendations to network, putting myself out there, making a portfolio and challenging myself through competitions and side projects. I even convinced my manager to let me build an app, which will be a major Portfolio project I plan on adding this winter. 

I benefited from the advice I received in the mentor meetings recordings and guidance from the lessons. As a mentee, my strength was putting in the action needed in terms of work readiness. In the future, I also will work on gaining deeper connections with mentors and maintaining those connections.”

Trinity Myrben is pursuing a Bachelor of Science in Computer Information Systems program with a Specialization in Cybersecurity Programming.
Trinity Myrben is pursuing a Bachelor of Science in Computer Information Systems program with a Specialization in Cybersecurity Programming.

Elise’s Advice to Women & Girls Looking to Rule the World

  1. You absolutely belong. Don’t let imposter syndrome or a room of faces who don’t resemble you deter you from succeeding.
  2. Be confident! A little confidence goes a long way. Be confident in your purpose regardless of your seniority. Inspire your team and those around you.
  3. It’s never too late or early. Get engaged now. Follow your interests. Pursue your dreams – free of fear.
  4. Always take time to reflect. It is hard to objectively say we are successful or can attain a certain goal. Take inventory of all the things that brought you to this moment and celebrate.

Stay Tuned: 14th Annual International Women’s Day Forum

Learn more about Elise’s journey and DeVry’s efforts to empower women and girls through education when Elise takes the mainstage for a Purpose Talk on empowering individual achievement.

About the authors

Sydney Lewis

Sydney Lewis

Sydney Lewis is associate communications manager for education, workforce and corporate citizenship at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation.

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