Chancellor Stefani Hicswa
Navigating life on her own terms, inspiring others in the process
Stefani Hicswa, Ph.D., has no time for pretenses and little patience for perfection. Rather, the new chancellor at MSU Billings is driven to make her time count – for her staff, her students and her family.
The chancellor books her calendar six weeks out and packs her hours with whatever will take her another step toward creating rewarding lives for everyone in her orbit. She places particular emphasis on the word creating. For her, that translates into purposefully setting boundaries and honing priorities.
As she describes the path that took her from high school in Dillon to university chancellor in Billings, she stresses “authenticity” and “intention” – two creeds that have served her well both personally and professionally.
“This job is too fast-paced to be somebody I’m not,” she says. “I have never worried about climbing a career ladder or been focused on breaking the glass ceiling. My goal is to help students be successful, whatever that takes.”
Stefani has created a life that she relishes – a life that intertwines family and career. She was the first in her family to earn a college degree (her mother has since gone on to earn her own B.A.) and took her current position in January as the first woman chancellor in the 94-year history of MSU Billings.
Her chosen pathway has also reaped rewards for the institutions over which she has presided – from president of Miles Community College (2006-2013) to president of Northwest College in Powell, Wyoming (2013-2020). At both institutions she guided capital projects, led the campus and communities through strategic visioning and raised student retention rates to among the top in the nation. Now, at MSU Billings, she strives for similar success.
“We’ve been talking a lot about our ‘true north’ here,” she says. “Student success – I really want to focus on that at MSUB. The other piece is to let people know what a gem this place is. The caliber of the faculty and staff here is amazing.”
Despite her busy schedule, Dr. Hicswa — she prefers to be known simply as Stefani — is approachable and down-to-earth. She introduces herself with a vibrant smile and a firm handshake. She is committed to her position but she is just as committed to her husband, a consulting forester, and her two teenage sons.
“My family is not just important to me, but they’re integral to what I do at all times,” she says. “I make no excuses. My kids are part of who I am.”
Early in her career, Stefani and her husband decided that he would take charge of the kids’ daily schedules while she attended to official duties. But she refused to compromise on certain priorities. Until the boys reached their teens, she cooked them a hot breakfast every morning, made every effort to join them for dinner and always made it home in time to read to them before bed. In between, she made a point to attend school activities and, when that was impossible, participated virtually.
Today, she decompresses by trading in her “chancellor role” to become a “weekend warrior,” joining her family on high-octane mountain bike, snowboarding, or white-water rafting adventures.
“I’m kind of an adrenaline junkie,” she says with a smile. “By focusing and being ‘in the moment,’ my mind is not spinning on university issues. When I play, I play as hard as I work.”
There’s no question Stefani works hard. Her day typically begins at 4 a.m., when she curls up on her couch with phone in hand to check her email and social media feeds. She doesn’t drink coffee but relies on her own inner energy to launch her day.
She arrives at the office early and keeps her 8 a.m. hour open for whatever might pop up unexpectedly. By 9, she faces a day jam-packed with meetings, briefings and spontaneous interactions with students. She frequently lunches with donors, community members and friends. After hours – often three to four evenings a week – she attends university and community-related events.
At day’s end, she re-checks social media and email, knowing that whatever she can address quickly saves her time in the morning. Lastly, she unwinds with one of the three or four books she’s been reading — maybe one of the CJ Box or Longmire series.
“I might only get through three or four pages (before nodding off),” she says, smiling again.
Unlike so many who are driven to success, the chancellor shuns perfection.
“Perfectly perfect is impossible to expect anyway,” she says. “Give yourself grace.”
In a chapter she authored for “Gen-X Presidents Leading Community Colleges,” by Martha Ellis and Linda Garcia, Stefani explains her take on “work-life balance.” Besides prioritizing family, she takes short-cuts that save her time.
“Just because I can do something does not mean I should do it or that it is the best use of my time,” she says.
She only irons the front of her blouses because she figures the back is out of view and will just get wrinkled anyway. Her bed is often left unmade and the laundry is left unfolded. She says housekeepers are one of the best investments she’s ever made.
“Rather than spending time every weekend cleaning my house, I spend that time with my family,” she says.
In truth, Stefani blows the lid off “work-life balance.”
“Sometimes the best adventures are when you feel a little off-balance,” she says. “Sometimes you have to break the rules to lead the life you want.”
With her forthright manner and can-do attitude, Stefani exudes a spark that has propelled her into local, state and national leadership roles. She firmly believes that good leaders aren’t just born but can be nurtured, and she’s constantly on the lookout for opportunities that will allow others to shine.
“When I’m talking to young women, I ask them ‘If not you, then who?’” she says. “I try to push them to have confidence to dream dreams they didn’t even know were possible.”
Amy Sexton, a student at MSU Billings and the Montana University System’s student regent, calls the chancellor a “phenomenal mentor.”
“She has inspired and supported me to go after opportunities that previously seemed unreachable,” Amy says.
Stefani smiles when asked what she considers to be the components critical to shaping strong leaders.
“Love, care and compassion,” she says. “I really think we need to hone in on that more.”
Bossan Abdyyeva is a beneficiary of that strategy. The former Northwest College student had transferred to MSU-B before Stefani was named chancellor. Knowing how the chancellor maintains connections with students, despite her high position, Bossan was particularly excited at the prospect of seeing Stefani lead at MSUB.
“Every single student on campus knew her,” Bossan says of her experience at Powell. “She made each student feel special, especially since she knew students' names.”
Stefani knows firsthand the power of encouragement.
“My parents always told me ‘You can do whatever you want,’” she says. As the oldest of four siblings, she alone chose the academic life. She maintained good grades and learned the rewards of serving others.
“That service piece of growing up in a small town really made a difference,” she says.
Yet, neither she nor her family knew the process involved in progressing from high school to college. Her motivation was heightened when she was discouraged from pursuing college, based on financial constraints.
“That made me angry. That’s part of what drove me,” she says. “I don’t want anyone to feel like college is a barrier because they don’t think they can afford it and don’t know how the system works.”
Stefani not only earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Montana, but went on to earn a master’s degree at Montana State University and a doctorate at the University of Texas at Austin. The doctorate came after she attended a national leadership conference for women. Inspired by what she was exposed to at the conference, she set her intentions, at age 28, to become a college president.
“I knew I needed my doctorate and experience,” she says. “Within 10 years I was a college president.”
When she was hired as president of Miles Community College, she was mother of a 2-year-old toddler and still nursing a 2-month old.
“I did not climb a traditional career ladder, nor wait until my children were grown to pursue a presidency,” she wrote in “Gen-X Presidents Leading Community Colleges.” “Stopping out of my career to have children did not hold me back. I didn’t worry about being the perfect wife, mother or homemaker. I invested in a good partnership with my spouse and asked others for help. By setting priorities and deciding early on that I would not attempt to be all things to all people, I have navigated my life on my own terms.”
Stefani sees part of her role as chancellor at MSU Billings as instilling hope in the community. Area business leaders may not use the word “hope,” she concedes, but they talk about their needs and their desire to see students stay and invigorate the local economy. As a champion for the university, she also fosters philanthropy.
“I get to tell people about all the cool things we are doing at the university,” she says. “Who doesn’t want to give to scholarships? You can make a huge difference in a student’s life.”
She’s also a committed advocate for faculty and staff. When she arrived this past January, she was bowled over by their devotion to students and their willingness to adapt during the Covid pandemic.
“I got to see the extent to which they would go and the creative activities they engaged in to make sure they didn’t lose students through the cracks,” she says.
The chancellor offers advice in nuggets.
“The most expensive degree is the one that’s not finished,” she says. “We have an obligation to help our students finish. They need to complete to compete.”
As Stefani navigated her way through her own career, her research on student retention has proven especially relevant. She relied on data to identify certain gaps and then set about addressing those gaps. When students failed to show up for class, a simple phone call made a difference. When students were presented with high expectations, they raised their own. More surprising, research showed that students taking refresher courses were more successful if they attended college courses simultaneously.
“It shrinks that time for earning a degree,” she says. “They can totally handle it. It’s about trusting them and pushing them.”
She’s also been known to press freshmen to promise that one day they will walk across the stage at graduation to shake her hand. That commitment made a huge difference for one former Northwest College student, who stated that fact in his graduation speech.
“He said, ‘When I made that promise, then and there I set that goal. I wouldn’t be standing her without that goal,’” she recounts.
At MSUB, Stefani has set a goal for the campus, the community and herself: to involve all parties in a shared strategic visioning process that will shape the university’s future with student success in mind. The strategic visioning process is best when it reflects multiple viewpoints, including those that conflict. Stefani is adamant that the vision be broad.
“Who am I to have ‘My Vision’?” she asks. “We create a shared vision about what we can do collectively.”
Katlyn Gillen, a 2020 MSUB graduate and now on staff at the university, will no doubt participate. She considers Chancellor Hicswa as a perfect fit for the university at this time.
“The chancellor is lively, compassionate, sedulous and supportive,” she says. “She has reached out to me on many occasions to congratulate, sympathize, and/or check in. I don’t think words can describe how spectacular she is.”
With students soon returning to campus and Stefani gearing up for her first full year at MSU Billings, she voices excitement at the prospect of changes to come in higher education.
“Covid has changed the world and we have already had a head start,” she says, noting that MSU Billings has long been the leader in online learning in Montana. “We’ve been on that cutting edge. We are primed for the future.”
Chancellor Stefani Hicswa
By the numbers
1 – Chancellor Stefani Hicswa is the first in her family to graduate from college and the first woman chancellor at MSUB.
2 – She has two teenage sons.
4 – The hour, in the morning, when Stefani starts her day.
37 – The age at which she first became a college president, at Miles Community College.
800+ -- The number of people employed at MSUB, making it the fourth-largest employer in Yellowstone County.
4,200 – Estimated enrollment at MSUB, making it third-largest in Montana’s University system.