Empathy in Higher Education: The Life and Career of DeVry President and CEO Elise Awwad

NAPERVILLE, Ill. – September 5, 2023 – Her nearly two-decade career in higher education at DeVry University has been guided by her empathic belief in the potential of others, combined with entrepreneurial knowledge and a profound understanding of education as a transformative power, which has ultimately shaped an innovative leader who stands to further her impact.


On September 5, Elise Awwad assumed her new role as the president and chief executive officer of DeVry, making her the first woman to achieve the position in the university’s 92-year history. Prior to becoming DeVry’s top leader, she served as chief operating officer for the last two years. 


Elise’s journey at DeVry has been characterized by consistent recognition that has taken her through succeeding roles with increased levels of responsibility. Beginning in 2004 as an admissions advisor, Elise became senior director of admissions in 2012, before achieving executive roles as vice president of enrollment management in 2016 and vice president of strategic enrollment in 2019. 


From overseeing student operations to leading all admissions functions and student support, Elise’s roles at DeVry have steadily focused on how students enter the university and exit successfully to graduation into thriving careers.  


In fact, Elise often looks back on her start with DeVry and how she witnessed students grow from personal challenges to achieving their goals. “The passion that I had since day one advising students on the frontlines has never been lost as I’ve taken on roles of increased responsibility within the organization,” shared Elise. “That experience has been incredibly influential and inspiring.”


She demonstrated a desire to help others even earlier on. Elise seized volunteer opportunities, giving back to communities in need, during her undergraduate studies at Southern Illinois University, where she earned a bachelor's in business administration with a concentration in small business management and entrepreneurship. Elise later went on to earn an MBA from DeVry’s Keller Graduate School of Management and an Executive MBA at the University of Notre Dame.


When the time came to decide on her life’s direction, eventually taking over the family business or forging her own path, Elise found the answer in her desire to have a meaningful impact on others’ lives. “I’ve always been passionate about assisting others,” she shared. “I wanted to find something that would enable me to make a positive impact while bringing about a sense of fulfillment in my professional responsibilities.” 


Understanding how she impacts those around her has also influenced Elise’s leadership style. “The great Maya Angelou once wisely said, ‘I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel,’” shared Elise. She credits Dr. Angelou’s quote for guiding her interactions with students and colleagues as she seeks to understand their stories, perspectives, and aspirations. 


Women have achieved more bachelor’s degrees than men in the U.S. over the last 40 years, yet they remained underrepresented in C-Suite-level positions. As she gained recognition, Elise realized the need to support other women in the workplace, which in 2019, led her to establish EDGE (Empowerment, Diversity, Growth, and Excellence), a network of leadership scholars and professionals who promote the enhanced career experience and advancement of women in leadership roles at DeVry and in the broader community. “EDGE was created to empower women and accelerate their advancement at DeVry,” said Elise. In fact, EDGE was recently recognized by the 2023 Diversity Impact Awards as a Top 25 Employee Resource Group (ERG) for its outstanding efforts to advance diversity, inclusion, and equity.


Elise attributes “passion and persistence” to her own success. However, her belief in education’s transformative power also keeps her going: “For me, it’s DeVry’s unwavering commitment to student success. Once an individual attains an educational milestone, it becomes an enduring possession. The potential of education to empower individuals, uplift communities, and advance society is immeasurable.”  

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About DeVry University 

DeVry University strives to close society’s opportunity gap and address emerging talent needs by preparing learners to thrive in careers shaped by continuous technological change. Founded in 1931, the university offers undergraduate and graduate programs onsite and online in Business, Healthcare and Technology. DeVry University is accredited by The Higher Learning Commission (HLC, www.hlcommission.org/). The university’s Keller Graduate School of Management is included in this accreditation. To learn more, visit devry.edu.