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Educator and engineer Abel A. Chávez will become Our Lady of the Lake University’s first Latino president in July, when current President Diane Melby retires, the university announced Thursday.

Chávez currently serves as vice president for enrollment and student success at Western Colorado University in Gunnison, where he has worked since 2014. He will be the 10th president of the 127-year-old private Catholic university.

“What an honor,” Chávez said by phone from Colorado on Thursday afternoon. “I will embrace the opportunity and also the challenge that comes with being the first Latino to serve in this role at this tremendous university.”

OLLU began searching for a new leader in August, after Melby announced in May that she planned to retire on July 15. Melby has served as president since 2015. She helped launch OLLU’s largest fundraising campaign last year, which aims to raise $55 million by the end of 2023.

“Dr. Chávez brings a record of outstanding leadership in higher education to Our Lady of the Lake University,” board chair Paul Olivier said in a statement. “He also brings strong business skills and global experience. He is the right person to move OLLU forward.”

At Western Colorado University, Chávez also served as associate vice president for academic affairs, dean of graduate studies and an associate professor in the School of Environment and Sustainability. Before transitioning into higher education, he founded a consulting company in Denver and worked for Anheuser-Busch in Houston and Dow Chemical in Freeport. He also served an international business residency in Beijing and Singapore. 

Our Lady of the Lake University has named Abel Antonio Chávez as its tenth president. Credit: Courtesy / OLLU

Chávez, 42, grew up in Denver the son of immigrants, frequently visiting family in El Paso and Juárez, Mexico. His family encouraged him to pursue a higher education, and he became the first in his family to graduate from college. He earned a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering from the University of Colorado Denver and a master’s of business administration from the University of Houston. Chávez returned to Denver to get his doctorate degree in civil and environmental engineering.

“I’ve always leaned into the challenges that were before us as a family and certainly as an individual,” he told the San Antonio Report. “Being the first in my family to complete this level of educational attainment has been one of those opportunities and challenges.”

Chávez wanted to attend the Colorado School of Mines, one of the top engineering schools in the country, but he couldn’t afford the tuition, although he had been accepted to the school. His parents didn’t allow him to take out student loans, so he went to community college for two years before transferring to the University of Colorado Denver. He said he met many mentors there who helped him on his path.

Relationships like that have propelled Chávez along the trajectory that led him to where he is today, and he hopes to open similar doors for students at OLLU.

“I want to continue to create that portfolio of opportunities for our students so that they, too, can lean in and try things to see if that is their path,” he said.

As a first-generation college student, Chávez knows he has the experience and skills to help guide other first-generation students at OLLU. About 43% of OLLU students are first-generation and 78% are Latino, according to the university.

“We, as a university, have to mobilize and ensure that we are attracting the resources necessary to fulfill some of the needs of our students,” he said. “That might be mentorship. It could be advising. Sometimes it could be affordability. Those challenges range rather widely, and we will listen, and we will do everything that we can to close those gaps.”

At Western Colorado, Chávez mentored students of Mexican origin and connected them to a scholarship program funded by the Mexican government. He received the Ohtli Award, a prestigious honor given by the Mexican government to those who have provided assistance to Mexican citizens.

“Dr. Chávez cares deeply about students, especially the underserved,” said Steve O’Donnell, OLLU trustee and chair of the search committee, in a statement. “He is an agent of transformation, a leader who has provided life-changing experiences for students. I believe he will be an outstanding president.”

Chávez will face many challenges at OLLU, including the nationwide trend of declining college enrollment during the pandemic. He said he plans to take a data-driven approach to the problem, which is what Western Colorado is doing, examining where students are coming from and what resources they need to complete their degrees. He also plans to sit down with families and students to listen to their concerns so OLLU can be responsive to their needs.

While OLLU competes with large public universities like Texas A&M University-San Antonio and the University of Texas at San Antonio, Chávez believes the university’s intimate experience and small student-to-faculty ratio attracts students, especially first-generation students who may be uncomfortable moving far from home or living on a large campus.

“They know that they will have people who care for them and that maybe people will call them out if they don’t show up for class and say ‘I didn’t see you in class today. How can I be a resource to you?'” he said. “That is the way we will compete, and that’s the way that we will continue to show our families that we truly care for them.”

Brooke Crum

Brooke Crum is the San Antonio Report's education reporter.