Fostering growth and building community: President Kelly and his passion for people

By Janea Melido | September 21, 2022 6:30pm
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Robert Kelly is the first lay and African American President at UP.
Media Credit: Ryan Reynolds / The Beacon

Trapped in a hotel elevator, a mother and daughter anxiously wait in distress for someone to discover the mechanical failure. But within moments, the sense of fear, confusion and disorientation were immediately relieved upon two hands emerging, forcing the elevator doors to open. 

Embodying his favorite comic book hero, Superman, Robert Dwayne Kelly, took the opportunity to act out his favorite movie and ‘rescue’ his wife and daughter from a stressful situation.

“My daughter looked up at him — she was little, probably in first grade — and said daddy really is Superman,” Kelly’s wife, Bridget Turner Kelly said. 

As UP’s newly appointed president, Kelly will be inaugurated this Friday. He plans to channel his passion for helping people by building a stronger bond at the University. 

Canva by Janea Melido

“We need more community,” Kelly said. “We need more people talking from a positive standpoint with each other as opposed to tearing each other down. We spent so much time tearing things down and that’s life, that’s going to be necessary. But, if we don’t have to do that, how can we celebrate these moments?”

Growing up in New Jersey, Kelly values the importance of getting connected with the people around him and often found it being tied to his love for the schooling environment. While his passion for education continued to grow, Kelly made a pivotal career change while he was in graduate school.

Studying for the LSAT one night, Kelly found his eyelids drooping after reading each section in his book. The next morning, he decided that law school wasn’t the ideal route for him and decided to feed his curiosity about higher education. 

“I went around and asked different faculty and staff mentors, ‘How did you get a job like you have?’” Kelly said. “And what I found was that I was asking these people who work in the higher education environment, and therefore I figured out that’s what I wanted to do.”

After Kelly got his master’s degree in higher education and student affairs administration, his first job out of graduation was a hall director at Colgate University in Hamilton, New York. Here he met and hired Alex Vasquez to work in the residence life office which sparked a friendship that has lasted 25 years and counting.

Vasquez describes his best friend as a builder of relationships and community. He emphasizes that Kelly’s extroverted nature makes him a very relational person.

“He’s a builder of community,” Vasquez said. “He builds teams very well. One of the things that really gets him going, really sort of excites him is the opportunity to build … and that’s the thing that lights his fire.”

Having worked at Seattle University, Loyola University Chicago, Union College and Loyola University of Maryland, Kelly has found himself building those relationships across several states.

Whether long term or fleeting, Kelly tries to put meaning into every interaction he makes, one being a brief exchange of words with former President Barack Obama.

Robert Kelly meeting President Obama after Loyola Chicago's basketball team visited the White House for winning the NCAA championship.

Photo courtesy of Robert Kelly.

“I shook his hand and then I put my hand over it because I didn’t want to let go,” Kelly said. Yeah, both hands on his one hand … that was an amazing moment.”

In a study done by the American Survey Center, results show that maintaining meaningful connections and relationships have been proven difficult. Even though many of the relationships Kelly has built are now across the country from him, he strives to make sure they don’t falter. 

The time, effort and energy that it takes can be challenging, but Kelly has shown that to him, friendships can withstand anything, even distance. 

“One of the things that really strikes me about him is his relationships,” Turner Kelly said. “When I met him, getting to meet his high school friends, his college friends, his friends from grad school, his family, I was just starting to see that he’s really good at maintaining relationships.

In his own family, Kelly tries to instill his personal philosophy of community building and a positive outlook within his own children.

Every night, around the dinner table, his family goes around telling each other their three highlights for the day and one thing they’re grateful for. 

“We’re trying to teach them gratitude and why it’s important …,” Kelly said. “The habit of learning helps them to be more aware of their surroundings, more aware of the beauty of the world and aware that sometimes people are more than just the one story they give you.”

To further foster that awareness of the world, Kelly and his family find time each year to travel somewhere new. Whether it be out of state or out of the country, he and his wife make it a point to make their trips not just a vacation, but a memorable lesson as well.

On a trip centered around touring college campuses, Kelly and his wife took their children to Harvard’s library. Inside, they were able to see the letters that Alexander Hamilton wrote to Aaron Burr. 

While his kids have already watched Hamilton and memorized its soundtrack, this trip helped them conceptualize history and the significance of it.

Robert Kelly, Bridget Turner Kelly and their children.

Photo courtesy of Robert Kelly.

“I think that the family has been able to see the diversity of the world because we’ve taken some time to get outside of our own boxes,” Kelly said. 

As the University’s first lay person and African American president, keeping the University core of diversity, inclusion and the common good in mind is a priority for Kelly. His goal is to instill that practice within his children as well as the UP community. 

Vasquez, who has worked alongside Kelly in higher education, believes that he has what it takes to bring that mindset to campus.

“If it’s a goal at the University of Portland, he is going to be 100% behind that,” Vasquez said. "He wants the staff to reflect the diversity of the student body. He values it, he writes about it and he lives it in his life. He is going to come in and bring different people, different skill sets and different talents to the table.”

With the University going through changes from budget cuts to adjusting to the removal of the mask mandate, Kelly comes in at a time of transition. Despite the adjustment period, he wants everyone to keep in mind that they can lean on and rely on each other.

“It's not just students, I would say for even the faculty or staff around, give yourself a little bit of grace,” Kelly said. “You know, when you begin to feel overwhelmed, take a moment. Count to 10, count backwards, take some deep breaths and realize that you're in the right environment. You have the right people around you to solve any issue.”

Janea Melido is Copy Editor for The Beacon. She can be reached at melido24@up.edu.

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