Cheryl Presley was an important voice for diversity and equity at Colorado State University, helping to launch some of CSU’s first programs for retention and support of first-generation students, among other achievements.
Presley, a School of Social Work and School of Education alumna (B.S., ‘74, M.Ed., ‘75) and CSU Division of Student Affairs associate vice president (1990-2000), is one of the College of Health and Human Sciences Legacies Project honorees for 2020. Recognized for her unending dedication to promoting equity in education, Presley’s legacy of advocacy lives on throughout CSU’s campus and beyond.
Early emphasis on education
Since her childhood in Denver, Colorado, Cheryl Presley always understood the priceless value of education, thanks to her parents. Both from the rural, segregated south with educations that spanned just past elementary school, Presley’s parents sought to instill a passion for learning within their children.
“I can always remember my mother and father saying that education is the one thing no one can take from you,” Presley recalls.
Presley, the eldest of her five siblings, immediately took to the instruction of her parents. Through primary and secondary schooling, Presley strived for academic excellence, becoming heavily involved in programs geared towards higher-education preparation and success. During her junior and senior years in high school, Presley participated in Upward Bound, a college preparatory program for first-generation college students, and soon after selected CSU to study design and merchandising.
Once she was on campus; however, Presley’s work-study assignment with Project Generating Opportunities (Project GO) shifted her passion in another direction: service.
Making the switch to social work
While working with Project GO, an organization with the initiative to recruit students of color to pursue higher education at CSU, Presley found that she greatly enjoyed the opportunity to collaborate with and serve fellow students. This realization, coupled with the cultural push towards social activism in the late 1960s and early 1970s, prompted Presley to change her major from fashion merchandising to social work.
Through the social work curriculum, Presley began seeing the world differently as she harnessed her pre-existing skills in active listening and helping others. Upon graduating in 1974 with her B.S. in social work, Presley continued her education at CSU, enrolling in the adult education master’s program.
“Going into adult education was related to the windows of opportunity and the experiences that I had,” Presley said. “I always loved working with and helping college students, so moving from social work to adult education flowed naturally.”
While pursuing her master’s, Presley worked as a tutor at the CSU Learning Lab, an academic support program. In this role, her mentors Eva Smedley, reading and English faculty, and Robby Nyman, former director of the Counseling Center, both recognized Presley’s passions and capabilities and encouraged her to seek a career providing academic support to college students.
Presley did just that, and more.
Paying it forward
After receiving her M.Ed. in 1975, Presley worked in a number of roles with community organizations in Colorado, each centered around advocacy and social justice. Though her roles in service were fulfilling, Presley knew that her goal in life was to work with students on a college campus.
Never forgetting about the opportunities afforded to her as a student, Presley returned to her mission of serving college students with the goal of paying it forward.
These efforts were successful, to say the least.
From the late 1970s through the 1980s, Presley worked with students at the Metropolitan State College of Denver (now Metropolitan State University) in the Health Careers Sciences Program, first as a counselor coordinator, then as a project director.. As she continued to focus on enriching students’ college experiences, Presley was promoted to assistant to the academic vice president where she recognized the importance of her voice in implementing campus-wide policies.
After learning more about academic administration in higher education, Presley found herself at another pivot point – an opportunity to grow and to touch lives on a greater scale. In 1985, Presley decided to pursue her Ph.D. at the University of Michigan, and while working on her dissertation in 1990, she found another opportunity at CSU.
By the summer of 1990, Presley returned to CSU to serve as the assistant vice president of student affairs, and as assistant professor in the Student Affairs in Higher Education Program in the School of Education.
Her impact was immediately felt.
Achievements at CSU
From 1990 to 2000, Presley served as assistant vice president and was promoted to associate vice president in 1996, providing leadership to 11 departments and centers in student affairs.
“Cheryl was a pioneer in student affairs in terms of being a woman, and an African American woman rising up in roles of leadership,” current CSU Vice President for Student Affairs Blanche Hughes said. “She was always a teacher, always committed to helping students be successful in higher education – and she was one of the first out there without many role models to guide her way.”
When reflecting on her time at CSU, Presley is most proud of her contributions to making the University more equitable for all. These points of pride include:
1. Advancing women and improving the salary inequities between females and males.
2. Helping launch service-learning and volunteer programs at CSU.
In collaboration with colleague and friend, Victoria Keller, then director of the Office of Community Services, Presley advocated with faculty and senior administrators to gain university support for volunteer and service-learning programs.
“Cheryl’s background in social work and higher education made her the ideal partner to grow civic engagement and service-learning at CSU,” said Keller. “Her commitment to respectful community partnerships left an indelible mark on CSU and the communities we serve.”
3. Serving on institution-wide committees that helped advance students and the student experience, especially for first-generation college students.
Alongside colleague and mentor Paul Thayer, CSU associate vice president emeritus, one of the committee’s accomplishments was the implementation of CSU’s Key Communities.
“Cheryl was an early and very powerful voice for diversity at CSU,” said Thayer. “She was so successful in articulating the ways that every dimension of diversity enriched our campus and enriched the ways that we were able to learn and interact with one another.”
Though her time at CSU concluded in 2000, Presley’s presence remains and extends from Colorado to the campuses of Boston College and Earlham College where she served in similar administrative roles. Leading to her retirement in 2013 and beyond, Presley remains an advocate for students, known for her warmth, kindness, and dedication.
Today, Presley enjoys her retirement in Hudson, Massachusetts, with her husband Michael Baker. The two are parents of four, with 14 grandchildren. Presley continues to give back by providing mentorship and guidance to student mentees and colleagues.
Looking back at her successful career, Presley acknowledges her mentors and collaborators with gratitude.
“My work with my mentors and colleagues during my time as a student and as associate vice president of student affairs prepared me to do very well in my career here at CSU and at other universities,” Presley said. “This has all been a wonderful experience for me, so to all of my friends and colleagues: I say thank you.”
Celebrating from a distance
In previous years, Legacies Project events took place in-person, most recently in the Richardson Design Center. Due to COVID-19, however, 2020 marked the first virtual iteration of the Legacies Project. In spite of the distance, friends, colleagues, and multiple generations of Presley’s family logged into Zoom to commemorate her achievement.
About the Legacies Project
The College of Health and Human Sciences Legacies Project honors the personal and professional histories of former faculty, staff, and alumni of the College. The project has highlighted the achievements of our honorees and preserved their stories since 2012.
To watch a video about Presley and to learn more about her history, go to her Legacies webpage. To make a gift in Presley’s honor, you can support the Lighten the Load Fund, a fund established to provide emergency financial hardship support to students enrolled in the College of Health and Human Sciences.