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NIU Today | Kerry Wilks brings world of experience to Graduate School, International Affairs

As the new dean of the Graduate School and associate vice president for International Affairs, Kerry Wilks brings to campus a world of experience as a university educator, administrator, global recruiter and volunteer.

Kerry Wilks, dean of the Graduate School and associate vice president for International Affairs.

But it’s the passion for her work that’s made her successful and stands out most.

As a teenager, Wilks fell in love with the Spanish language. She ended up earning her Ph.D. in the language from the University of Chicago, specializing in Spanish golden-age theater (1590-1681). She spent 17 years at Wichita State University (WSU), becoming a tenured Spanish-language professor and later administrator. For the past eight years, she racked up impressive accomplishments as WSU’s associate dean of the Graduate School. Over the last five years, she also led (quite successfully) the institution’s student recruitment in India.

“I’m delighted that Dr. Wilks has joined the Huskie family,” Executive Vice President and Provost Beth Ingram says. “She brings a depth and breadth of knowledge about graduate and international education that will serve NIU’s students well. Her energy, enthusiasm and passion are already apparent.”

Wilks, who started in her new post on March 1, says it was the combination of responsibilities for graduate education and international affairs that first drew her interest to NIU.

“It sounded like it was a job made for me,” Wilks says.

“Then I came to visit campus, and the diversity, equity and inclusion efforts blew me away. So many universities talk about DEI, but here I saw it in action. I wanted to be a part of that.”

Wilks will draw from an extensive playbook she created at WSU, with the first page focusing on relationship-building. “Working collaboratively across units is a key component to achieving success with most endeavors related to graduate education,” she says.

At WSU, she launched a Graduate Student Association and more broadly succeeded in fostering a strong sense of the community. Aided by other colleges and departments, her work resulted in dramatic growth of graduate-student programming to include more orientations, research competitions, graduate teaching assistantship trainings and more than 50 professional development and social events.

The efforts helped students build camaraderie, honey personal skills and establish cross-disciplinary research relationships, Wilks says. Most importantly, they fostered friendships.

Wilks remembers a biology major who called the Graduate Student Association a godsend. “Before the association formed, she said she was so lonely that she found herself naming the microbes in her lab,” Wilks says. “The association gave her a place for needed human interactions with her peers.”

Wilks knows that NIU and other institutions nationwide face challenges in coming years. More and more first-generation undergraduates are percolating up to graduate education, and universities must be prepared to meet their unique needs. At the same time, the nation’s colleges and universities will see a rapid drop in college-aged individuals in coming years.

“While this presents a plethora of challenges, it also allows for an equal number of opportunities,” Wilks says.

It helps that she has expertise in navigating new models of graduate education to meet student and work-force demands. She has been a recognized leader in alternative or micro credentialing at the graduate level and has presented on the topic with colleagues from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and SUNY Stony Brook. The unbundling of credentials can forge new pathways in education, she says.

“Today’s deans must be willing to use their leadership skills to strategically move forward in new areas of education,” Wilks says. “This is especially true in graduate education since one must be nimble enough to take advantage of emerging market trends and also continue to promote scholarship and research that is the life-blood for both graduate students and faculty.”

Wilks will help lead lead strategic enrollment management efforts for the NIU graduate population—another area where she has experience. Her efforts here will begin with program assessment, to make sure student needs are being met, and she’ll seek to use management models based on best practices.

Personally, Wilks describes herself as an advocate—for students, people on the margins and animals. In fact, she can’t wait to meet NIU’s mascot, Mission II, and she and her wife Donna DiTrani, a former professional bowler, have two rescue dogs and two rescue cats.

While easygoing, personable and quick to laugh, Wilks also suffers no fools when it comes to her principles.

Take the offer she had a few years back to become the statewide chair of Equality Kansas, an advocacy group dedicated to ending discrimination against gender identity and sexual orientation. While she was weighing the time commitment for the volunteer post, one individual told her it wasn’t a wise move if she wanted to advance in higher education.

The advice helped.

“I went right back to the organization’s executive director and said, ‘I’ll take the job,'” Wilks says.

Wilks brings the same can-do spirit to her new post, but she knows meeting the challenges of the future will require a team effort. She has already been impressed with her staff and colleagues across the university.

“NIU has been a warm and welcoming environment,” she says. “I’ve been very lucky to come into two units that have incredible staff members who are giving it their all, day after day. Walking into such a hardworking student-focused group has been a joy.”

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