By Mary Massaquoi
Rehnuma Lizzie Wahab, who normally goes by her middle name, has been named SUNY Plattsburgh’s new vice president of enrollment and student success.
Wahab is originally from a small country in Asia called Bangladesh. At the age of 17, she came to the United States to attend an all-women’s college in Macon, Georgia.
“It was interesting coming from a Catholic institution that was co-ed to a single gender college in the United States, but it was phenomenal. I had great professors, wonderful peers and great mentors,” Wahab said.
After finishing her undergraduate years, she attended the University of Buffalo for a masters in pharmacology. During that time, she realized that invasive research wasn’t something she wanted to do for the rest of her life. She worked with radioactive isotopes and animals.
“I realized quickly that even in research it’s not pure academics,” she said. “There’s a lot of politics involved when you work with big pharmaceutical companies, the big farmers or big organizations.”
Wahab said she learned a lot from those years.
“I learned statistical analysis, how to put together research programs, how to follow through, how to get peer evaluated,” she said. “I learned some essential skills in terms of academics.”
Soon after that, Wahab applied to Coca-Cola to be one of their minority grant writers. Her focus was minority students in areas of professional studies like medicine or law finding ways to not only support them financially but to help them go all the way with their professions.
“I was dealing with funds for 16 million dollars and recruiting from inner city Atlanta to give opportunities for women to go into the sciences and go into those big professional programs with full support from the Coca-Cola Foundation, she said.
Wahab describes this experience as eye-opening.
“When you are a student, you have one perspective of how the world operates, and when you start working on the other side, you realize very quickly that there are so many opportunities but no pathways.”
This experience created the grounds on training for Wahab’’s career in enrollment management. While working in Georgia with small women’s institutions, Wahab participated in a program for four years called Spectacles. They helped to spread the knowledge to universities about opportunities at corporations that were opening up to pair students with the perfect programs. Wahab managed to help 580 students get scholarships. After this, many institutions reached out to her. Wahab recalls the time she was contacted by a college in North Carolina and asked to be the dean of admissions. She had never obtained such a position. It was very new for her.
“I was able to turn around this college increasing their applicants from 100 to 600students,” she said.
Later in her life she started to realize how fascinated she was with all-women’s colleges.
“It played an important role in supporting women and positioning women for success,” she said.
After 7 years of ongoing growth of applicants, which 45% were minorities taking top internships, she was ready for a new obstacle.
“When that partnership was solidified, I thought I was in a good position to apply for vice-presidency,” she said.
She then moved to Rosemont College in Philadelphia. Here, they faced the same challenges other institutions she worked with faced.
“What you need is an advocate to go and ask for pathways,” Wahab said.
Wahab has had a long streak of jobs in many places. She’s worked at The University of New Haven in Connecticut where she was given a 38-million-dollar grant to aid female students. One of Wahab’s last moves was Russell Sage College. When she arrived, the college had a first year enrollment of 320 students. One year later, it became 780. Wahab has helped many students move forward throughout all four years who struggled with paying for college.
“Please don’t let policies dictate what you can or can’t do in terms of persistence,” she said. “We were a high-minority serving students. We needed to keep students on campus.”
Before SUNY Plattsburgh, Wahab worked at the University of Maine where she worked with refugee students. She lended a helping hand to many students whose parents struggled financially. Wahab wanted to continue her work there but being away from her family took a toll. When a position at SUNY Plattsburgh opened up, she admired the clean air, scenery and the fact that it was away from many epicenters.
“I was one of the last applicants. It worked out. I could do the same tactics I was doing for the past 20 years,” she said. “I came to Plattsburgh with a lot of hope to shuffle the institution into a more diverse one.”
Like many administrators, Wahab’s main focus is the students and their needs.
“Instead of saying I’m student-centered, I like to say I’m a student,” she said.
The COVID-19 pandemic threw Wahab a major curveball.
“There will be many colleges that won’t make it,” she said. “Those that will make it should.”
Wahab believes the pandemic is exercising a university’s ability to adapt to obstacles. COVID-19 was a way to prepare for future situations that no one could have expected.
“The best to serve the institution and the best at taking care of people’s children are the ones that will move forward,” she said.
Wahab started her work July 1. A typical day for her starts at 7 a.m. and could end at 10 p.m.
“We are all on call,” she said. “We are all ready to serve at a moment’s notice.”
Though her days are filled, she doesn’t mind. It’s all about the students.
“Our students need us, and we need to be the one leading by example,” she said. “We keep each other safe. We let people know we are here. I advise all to help one another.”