Wicked Excited: A First-Gen Student’s Journey to a College Presidency
Robyn E. Hannigan takes the helm as Ursinus College’s 19th president during a time when the success of every student—backed by a brand-new strategic plan—is front and center. It’s something that personally resonates with Hannigan, whose career path can be defined by one word: opportunity.
In the opening scene of Jaws, a group of teenagers is sitting around a bonfire on the beach. As the camera pans the crowd of carefree summer revelers, one young man strums a guitar while another plays a harmonica.
The last thing on the mind of any of the characters in the scene—other than the killer shark lurking in the water—is college.
“The guy playing the guitar—that’s Mike,” Robyn Hannigan said, smiling at the memory. “They were filming Jaws down the street from where I lived [in Rhode Island]. My brother actually met Mike, and I think he just wanted to spend a little time being like Mike—a guy playing a guitar on the beach.”
This isn’t a story about Mike the guitar guy. It also isn’t a story about Hannigan’s brother, Tod, but his decision to not attend college was one that changed Hannigan’s life.
“There was a lot of pressure on him,” Hannigan said of her brother. He applied and was admitted to Providence College. Around the dinner table the night that Tod shared the exciting news, their father started to consider what it meant for the family financially.
“He said, ‘Maybe I’ll find another job.’ And then my brother looked at me and said, ‘Well, it’s not going to happen. I want Robyn to go to college.’ My dad, in his Irish accent, said that it wasn’t really a priority. I was 9. But my brother put his foot down and said that he wasn’t ready. He wasn’t sure college was for him. He wanted to make sure I got an education and he told them to keep saving so that I could go to college.”
“For me, that opened up a world,” Hannigan said. “I never expected to go to college.”
Tod Hannigan may have spent some time on that beach with that guitar, but he also enjoyed his own career success in quality assurance and quality control in the chemistry field. As for Robyn, her brother’s sacrifice put her on a path to becoming a metal chemist, environmental scientist, entrepreneur, professor, researcher, provost, and now, the 19th president of Ursinus College.
She’s passionate about college access for not only first-generation students like herself, but also for students from all backgrounds, and she’s passionate about providing opportunity.
“I grew up with mixed heritage and different cultures, and I was a first-gen kid,” said Hannigan, a descendant of a Narragansett Indian Tribe. “I didn’t realize it at the time, but most colleges weren’t and still aren’t ready for a kid like me. I want to make sure that no student arrives on campus and feels like they are at a disadvantage.”
Hannigan is candid about her own perceived disadvantages. During a welcome event on the Ursinus campus in mid-March—where she and her family were introduced to faculty, staff, and students in person for the first time—Hannigan talked about embracing who she was as a student and translating it to success. She said her family, professors, and peers “helped me grow into my superpower as a dyslexic, revealing my strengths in pattern recognition and making connections across disciplines.” “They empowered me to embrace the unknown and be comfortable with discomfort, to question assumptions, and find a confidence within, creating the habit of mind to ask and answer the question about what matters,” she said on that sunny day on Strassburger Commons outside of the Kaleidoscope Performing Arts Center.
Maybe she wasn’t always a stellar student, but Hannigan said, “Everyone learns differently. Everyone comes to a learning experience differently, and everyone can be successful. I believe everyone is gifted. You just have to find what your gift is, and it’s our job as educators to keep all the doors open so that every student can find it.”
Back to that beach in Rhode Island. As a young girl, Hannigan remembers approaching a University of Rhode Island graduate student who was scouring the sand and the water for mussels. “She was doing research and she would let me help her,” Hannigan said. “I realized that could be me. The university wasn’t just this mysterious place down the street. It was something I could be part of.”
Hannigan pursued her undergraduate degree at The College of New Jersey, earned a master’s degree from the State University of New York (SUNY) at Buffalo, and received master’s and doctoral degrees from the University of Rochester. She was a professor at Arkansas State University, was the founding dean of the School for the Environment at the University of Massachusetts Boston, and was most recently provost at Clarkson University in Potsdam, N.Y.
She also was a program officer at the National Science Foundation, holds four patents for advanced medical application technologies, and created two start-up companies founded in partnership with students.
When it comes to Ursinus, she sees a lot of similarities between her own path and the ones created for Ursinus students.
“I’m struck by how everyone here works together to create an experience that allows students to achieve their highest potential,” she said. “Who you are when you walk in the door is embraced at Ursinus, and then you are supported as you navigate a path through a myriad of opportunity. All the dots are intentionally connected.”
Hannigan knows that not every college experience is the same, but the beauty of an education at a place like Ursinus is that students can chart their own course to self-discovery. “The ‘Open Questions Open Minds’ approach to our curriculum says, ‘Let’s work together to cocreate knowledge and understanding around these fundamental questions,’” she said.
They are questions that challenge students to embrace their own creativity, which reminds Hannigan of a pair of students she worked with at Arkansas State.
While studying tobacco smoke chemistry under grant-funded research, Hannigan realized she didn’t have the analytical equipment necessary to achieve one of her goals. A student she was working with designed new technology to make the research a success. They patented it and started a company together.
Another student asked her to reconsider a line of research she had been working on and instead investigate chemical fingerprints of snuff, a smokeless tobacco that was prevalent in the rural African American community where this student lived.
“She was being authentic and true to her own life experiences. And that led to new knowledge that we’re still learning from today,” Hannigan said.
“I’ve always been fortunate to surround myself with students who are willing to take huge risks and even fail,” she said. “It’s OK to say, ‘Let’s try something that hasn’t been done yet.’ If we stick to our traditional lanes, we can’t learn from those risks and failures.”
As a scientist, she said she continuously reflects on how transdisciplinary work can inform how we understand the world, and that goes far beyond the classroom.
“I got into college leadership because certain things need to happen—with diversity, with access and opportunity. I wanted to keep the promise of higher education alive and make sure it thrives into the future,” Hannigan said.
“Robyn believes in the essential and transformative power of higher education, especially at this particular moment in time,” said Nina Stryker ’78, Interim Chair of the Ursinus Board of Trustees when Hannigan was elected. “She is a student-focused leader who understands that residential, liberal arts institutions like Ursinus are best suited to help students view solutions through a multidisciplinary lens.”
Hannigan’s interactions with students throughout her career led her to become a passionate advocate for access and opportunity. It ultimately became a foundational pillar of the School for the Environment at UMass Boston, and it’s something she sees in Ursinus’s mission—one that is closely aligned with her own.
“When I decided that I wanted to become a college president, I sought out institutions with a vision that would allow me to lead in a way that would be most impactful,” she said. At Ursinus, she found a college steeped in open inquiry and purposeful action.
“Ursinus walks the walk,” she said.
Expanding opportunity, especially for students throughout the region, will be one of the many goals Hannigan pursues at Ursinus as the college’s next strategic plan begins to take shape. With that at the forefront, it’s hard for her to not think about her younger self all those years ago, and the opportunity she had to attend college thanks to her brother’s selfless gesture.
“It’s about the whole student, and this entire institution is fully invested in every student’s success,” Hannigan said. “But it’s not just the students who are here now; it’s every student before they come to us, and it’s every student after they graduate. By harnessing that commitment, you can do some profoundly impactful things.”
As for getting started with authoring the next chapter in Ursinus history, Hannigan evokes her New England roots: “I’m wicked excited,” she said.
Tom Yencho contributed to this story.
Visit ursinus.edu/RobynHannigan for more about our new president.
Q: As a scientist and entrepreneur, is there a recent development or invention that truly amazes you?
A: I am obsessed with mRNA technology. What impresses me is that the concept was, until recently, considered unlikely to be successful. But with the pandemic came the opportunity to take the risks to explore the technology’s full potential and, well, we see how that paid off. Groundbreaking science, risk-taking researchers, willingness to invest in possible failure…what’s not to be amazed by?
Q: Look into your crystal ball. What innovations do you think will come to fruition in our near future?
A: I feel really confident that we will see disease cures that take advantage of what we learned from the development of the COVID-19 vaccine. And I see the lines between traditional science and entrepreneurship blurring to create a new kind of scientist—an entrepreneurial scientist.
Q: Name something that has truly inspired you or challenged your thinking.
A: I am inspired by many things. To bring that inspiration closer to my new home, Franz Kline’s Torches Mauve, which hangs in the Philadelphia Museum of Art, has been a piece that echoes in my soul. I encountered it in college, and I was mesmerized. The painting tells a story of pressure and intention. I just adore it.
Q: You love fantasy books— and anything with dragons! Do you have a favorite?
A: With books, I have a “right now” favorite, but no overall favorites. In Brandon Sanderson’s Way of Kings, a quote that resonates with me is, “Too many scholars think of research as purely a cerebral pursuit. If we do nothing with the knowledge we gain, then we have wasted our study. Books can store information better than we can—what we do that books cannot is interpret. So, if one is not going to draw conclusions, then one might as well just leave the information in the texts.” It’s things like this—nuggets of wisdom—that I draw from books. That, and the opportunity to escape my reality and explore worlds different from my own.
Q: What is the most important thing you’ve learned from both your Narragansett heritage and your Irish heritage?
A: Growing up and being raised as I was, I took away a strong sense that all who came before me created the opportunities I have. Both my father and mother brought common values of respect for elders, for tradition, and an inherent respect for our planet and people. It is hard to draw just one lesson or attribute away from these two cultures, but I think at the core, it would be respect for the past and an appreciation of the fact I carry the hopes and dreams of past generations into the future.
Q: In your view, what is the biggest challenge facing college presidents today?
A: The pandemic supercharged challenges we were already facing with respect to enrollment, such as changing demographics, fewer traditional college-aged students in the Northeast, and the concerns over return on investment. As a president of a residential liberal arts college those challenges are, to me, opportunities to examine how we do what we do. Is our message clear and does it resonate with potential students? Do we demonstrate the true value of an Ursinus experience through our lifelong alumni success? Are we vigilant in preserving access and opportunity? We have the opportunity, though not the luxury of time, to innovate across the organization and harness the profound impact of the Ursinus experience in new ways; to reimagine ourselves for the future. So, I guess the challenge is how to manifest all of the opportunities quickly enough to matter.