by Angie Dixon (’94)
College athletic directors are often measured by statistics – the wins and losses of the teams they manage. Lisa Campos (B.S., ’99; M.S. ’01), vice president for Intercollegiate Athletics at Northern Arizona University, could cite plenty of glowing numbers. Since joining NAU in 2012, the university has captured 29 team conference championships, secured five consecutive track and field championships, earned its first NCAA berth in volleyball since 1999, won four consecutive swimming and diving titles, and achieved back-to-back Big Sky Presidents’ Cup trophies, an award that recognizes the department’s excellence in athletics and academics.
But as a first-generation student who defied the odds to become one of the youngest women to run a Division I athletics program, Campos is living proof that stats alone don’t define success.
Campos was born in Las Animas, Colo. Her mom only attended school through the second grade when she began to work in the fields. Her dad is a second-generation Mexican American who served in the Vietnam War. Growing up, Campos’ parents always emphasized the importance of education.
“They just wanted a better life for my sister and me,” she said.
In high school, Campos was part of a TRiO program, a federally funded outreach and services program that supports first-generation, low-income students. As part of that program, Campos went on campus tours during her senior year.
“I had never been on CSU’s campus before then,” Campos recalls. When they toured CSU, she remembers how good it felt to be on campus.
“The agricultural environment reminded me of home. It just reflected my upbringing.”
After Campos applied and was accepted to CSU, the University’s Academic Advancement Center reached out to her.
“I had peer mentors meet me as soon as I got on campus,” Campos recalls. “They took me on a campus tour, and before my first day of classes, they took me on a dry run to make sure I knew where I was going. The AAC is what got me through.”
Campos says support from the AAC was a constant throughout her undergrad studies. She relied on the center for tutoring, academic advising, and mentorship. She eventually started working in the AAC and the provost’s office as a work study student. She says those experiences helped influence her decision to continue her education after earning her bachelor’s degree in business administration and pursue her master’s degree in student affairs in higher education. It’s also where she says she gained lifelong friends and mentors.
“I had a great experience at CSU and great support from my professors and faculty,” she said. “Dr. Crabtree was the provost at the time, and that’s when I also got to know Keith Miser. Mark Denke and Blanche Hughes were also so supportive of me and the other students in my grad program. They helped prepare us for life after school.”
She also recounts the critical role her first-generation scholarship played in her completing her degrees.
First-generation students face unique challenges and hardships that impact their ability to graduate. According to 2011 Pell Institute data, only 11 percent of first-generation, low-income students graduate within six years of enrolling in school, while more than 45 percent drop out completely. Why? Simply put, many students first in their family to attend college have never been exposed to a college environment and its everyday school rigors, and many colleges and universities lack the resources needed to support the needs of first-generation students.
“All of the stats say I shouldn’t have graduated, let alone become an athletic director,” says Campos. “But I had tremendous support from CSU even before I arrived on campus, and I continue to take advantage of that support today.”
“My mom was the one who first mentioned the scholarship to me while I was applying to CSU,” she said, “and I wouldn’t have been able to make it through CSU, or any college for that matter, without that program. It was huge for my family. I worked a ton, saved a ton of money for school, and I made sure I got good grades.”
During the second year of her master’s program, she attended a career fair where she found out about an open assistant dean position at the University of Texas at El Paso.
She landed the job in 2001 and eventually earned a Ed.D in educational leadership there.
Recalling the positive mentorship experiences she had at CSU, she sought out similar relationships at UTEP, which she found from the university’s associate athletic director.
“She took me under her wing,” Campos says. “We became running buddies and we ran every morning at 4:25 on the nose. I didn’t want to disappoint her, plus I was a little scared of her, so I was always on time,” she chuckled.
When her mentor decided to take a job at Oklahoma, Campos’ name came up as her UTEP replacement. She reached out to her old CSU mentors for help with her decision.
“They all encouraged me to take the athletic job at UTEP,” Campos said. “They said I would love it and even joked that they would personally help me find another job if I didn’t,” she said.
She held the associate athletic director position at UTEP for nine years before NAU reached out to her for the athletic director position.
“This was the first AD job I had applied for and I didn’t really think I would get it, so I was pretty surprised when I was offered the job,” she said. “I have a very supportive husband who said ‘you gotta take this job.’ So I did.”
Campos continues to honor the significant support she received throughout her student and career life by fostering a culture of giving at NAU, and by paying it forward to the next generation of first-generation students.
In 2016, Campos established a first-generation scholarship at CSU, the Joe and Rose Campos Scholarship Endowment. Named appropriately after her parents, she wanted to give students the same support she received as a young student.
“I wanted to honor my parents because they have always been huge proponents of education and paying it forward,” Campos said. “And I wouldn’t have been able to get through college without my scholarship. I want to pay it forward for another student so that they can earn their degree.”
Last year, NAU student-athletes set a new record for community service, logging 5,428 hours, beating last year’s mark of 5,327. Campos also serves as a board member for several community and collegiate-related committees, and in January, she became one of Flagstaff’s “20 Under 40” award recipients as well as was recognized by the Sports Business Journal as a 40 under 40 honoree.