#HigherEdHero — Meet Kristi Okerlund

While they might not scale tall buildings or catch villains, there are super heroes walking among us. These heroes use their powers to support and guide students and families through their high school and college years. They are creative, energetic, resilient, organized, empathetic, hard-working professionals who make a difference in the lives of those around them. 

As an author and speaker, it has been an absolute joy to work alongside these heroes of higher education, providing guidance and reducing anxiety for students and families as you navigate the high school-to-college transition.

This is why I’d like to share their stories (and superpowers!) with you.

Each month, I’ll be featuring a #HigherEdHero on my blog and social media platforms. My goal is that by sharing their experiences and advice, we can provide information that will reduce anxiety and build confidence–and help set students and families up for success through the college launch and beyond.

This month I get to introduce you to Kristi Okerlund, Director or Student Involvement & Parent Programming at the University of North Dakota (my alma mater! 💚).

Kristi grew up in Fargo, North Dakota, and moved to Grand Forks, North Dakota, to attend college at the University of North Dakota (UND). She fell in love with the college experience and decided to stay! Kristi earned her bachelors degrees in Management and Classical Studies and went on to get her masters in Educational Leadership. She has been working at UND since 2007 and is currently the Director of Student Involvement & Parent Programs.

Kristi is married to Tyler and has two children – Chay and Lucy. Kristi also is a dance teacher at Dance, etc! in Grand Forks. She loves volunteering, going to hockey games, and spending time with her family and friends.

KR: Welcome, Kristi! What are some of the biggest challenges college students are facing today? How are they overcoming these challenges? 

KO: A few things that come to my mind are: making friends, feeling connected, mental health, and managing the demands of courses. COVID has intensified challenges for many students. Here at UND, we are doing our best to help students feel connected and to be able to meet other people, while ensuring students are safe. In some situations, students have had to work much harder to meet people as many classes are virtual. My hope is that students are reaching out for help when they are struggling and that they are persevering through knowing that we will come out of this pandemic hopefully soon and that we can have more in person activities and events! I remember being told way back in March of 2020 as we were being sent home to work remotely that “no one signed up for this” – I say those words so often to myself and to others when I’m having a rough day or helping a parent through a tough situation. Knowing students are not alone in their struggles and that we are here to help is my number one message for parents over the past several months.

KR: What is a typical day like in your career as the Director of Student Involvement & Parent Programs at UND?

KO: I always start my day by responding to email and voicemail messages that came in overnight. Next, I check in with my team to see how they are doing and if I can assist them in any way. I have a variety of meetings each week that I attend, and right now my team is helping with collecting demographic information and greeting at all COVID testing events on campus which keeps us quite busy! We are preparing to orient and welcome new students that will begin at UND in the fall 2021 semester as well. No day is the same which I love and I am so fortunate to work on such an amazing campus with incredible colleagues!

KR: As a higher ed professional, what is your philosophy on parent involvement in the college experience? 

KO: Parents are partners – I look at the partnership as a triangle including the student, the family, and the University. Parents are critical to their student’s success in college. Students see their parents as their #1 influence in decision-making. The more information we share with families, the easier it is for parents to guide their students and help them understand University processes. I absolutely love working with parents and it brings me great joy to help answer their questions as they work to cheer their student on throughout their college experience!

KR: What’s one tip you could give regarding the college admissions process?

KO: Ask questions! No question is a silly question! Be sure you understand scholarships, financial aid, and what you are eligible for! So many students tell me that they knew UND was the place for them after their campus tour – it felt like home. Where feels like home to you? Know that the staff and faculty are here to support you and to guide you. Reach out…ask questions…and know we are here because we want you to be successful!

KR: One of the questions I hear students ask—especially now with COVID-19 and many campuses placing them in single rooms—is “How will I make friends?” In your opinion, what are the best ways for students to connect with one another?

KO: My recommendation always is for students to step out of their comfort zone and join a student organization, find a job on campus, ask a neighbor to grab dinner together, attend athletic events, join a community organization, attend a place of worship, etc. Always be on the lookout for new opportunities! The more you try and explore, the more you will feel part of the UND family!!

KR: How can parents/guardians help their students become college-ready? 

KO: Help your student learn to be an advocate for themselves. Speak up! Ask questions! My kids are 4 and 8. When we go to a drive through, or pre-COVID, when we ate in restaurants, they order their own meals. I know it sounds silly, but anything you can do to help your children speak for themselves, advocate for their needs, and take action when needed will be so helpful for them as they near the college years! University staff are here to support you through the entire process and we see parents as partners. We also want to ensure that our students are ready for what’s to come. Here at UND, we are creating “Leaders in Action”!

KR: What words of wisdom would you give to a current high school senior as they prepare for their college years?

KO: Be true to yourself! Selecting a college is a HUGE decision and is not to be taken lightly. Be patient with yourself! It’s OK to not know exactly what you want to major in. Take classes you never would have imagined taking! Ask questions! Have high expectations of yourself and others! Make the most of your experience!

KR: What is a favorite memory from work in the last six months?

KO: Two things come to mind – first, watching my staff become closer than ever before. We are an incredible team and I am so grateful for them! Second, the opportunity to spend more time with my kids. It has been a huge blessing to have more downtime to spend together!

Kelly’s note: Here’s a photo from the day I first met Kristi at a conference for parent and family program professionals. I was wowed by her professionalism and her desire to seek ways to continue to improve the college experience for all students and families. She doesn’t just talk the talk–she walks the walk. She uses her superpowers to educate parents and empower students for success. Kristi is truly a #HigherEdHero!

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