Alumni Issue 2020: Georj Lewis, exploring leadership

Friday, October 2nd, 2020 at 11:33 AM

For many people, leadership is something which either comes naturally, or can take time and hard work to form. For Edinboro alumnus Georj Lewis, leadership is not only a choice of career, but something which has shaped his life, going all the way back to his days on campus.

Lewis, now president of Atlanta Metropolitan State College, first came to Edinboro as a defensive back for the football team. But the Fighting Scots weren’t his first choice.

“Originally, I thought Edinboro was too cold, so I didn’t think I wanted to go up there in the snow,” he recalled.

“At one point, I committed to go to Indiana University of Pennsylvania,” continued Lewis. Gene Smith, an assistant football coach at Edinboro, from 1989 until 1994, gave him a call though, convincing him to change his mind. “I really felt like they wanted me to come to Edinboro, and I felt like I was going to be welcomed as part of the family.”

He looks back on the decision fondly, stating that everything happens for a reason and you don’t always make the best decisions when you are young. He believes that “going to Edinboro,” though, was “probably the best non-family related decision of my life.”

Lewis started at Edinboro in 1989 and graduated with a degree in business and accounting in 1993. He would later return for his master’s degree in counseling, with a focus on student personnel services, in 1998.

The decision to go back to Edinboro for the master’s degree was tied to a job opportunity. “I worked at a group home briefly, but then worked for a finance company for about a year. And then I had an opportunity to apply for a job in the admission’s office at Edinboro,” explained Lewis. He would go on to work in admissions at the ‘Boro for five years, and the multicultural affairs office for two years. “It was easy [working there] because I was talking about the place where I went to school and loved so much. I wasn’t really recruiting. I was just talking to students about my experience.”

“Leadership doesn’t always have to be from the front,” said Lewis. This view of leadership was shaped during both of his degree programs at Edinboro, and it started with the football team. “What I learned the most about being involved with the team … is that you work hard for the other members of the team. You’re a major part of the success if you work as a team.”

Lewis would go on to be inducted into the Edinboro University Athletics Hall of Fame in 2006. His role as a defensive back ties directly into his leadership principles. “It was a role that you don’t always hear about (the defensive back), so you understood what your role was and you worked really hard. It was the comradery and us depending on one another.”

The responsibilities of a student athlete can test the skills of a potential leader. “Being a student athlete, while it may appear to be easy, lots of people don’t see the limited amount of hours that you have for free time. You learn how to manage your time, and how to focus on your academics first, because if you can’t do those things, you can’t participate on the team. And if you don’t work hard in all of those areas, you let people down … as a foundation, knowing what it means to be part of a team has helped me learn about leadership.”

The same principles of teamwork applied during Lewis’s time as the director of the multicultural affairs office. “It’s the same type of team environment. You’re not more important than anyone else. The purpose of the office, the purpose of the college is much more important than any individual. Leadership means sometimes you have to work a little harder; there’s times when you have to step back and let others step up.”

After Edinboro, Lewis led in roles at Georgia Southern University (GSU), Indiana University Northwest (IUN), and GSU-Armstrong Campus. He also participated in three leadership programs: the Millennium Leadership Initiative, which was through the American Association of State Colleges and Universities; the Executive Leadership Institute; and the Advanced Leadership Academy through GSU. The goals of these programs were to focus on leadership in higher education.

“It’s a program that helps prepare senior level administrators for the college presidency,” Lewis said about the Millennium Leadership Initiative. “You’re always learning; you always can get better. You can always do things to help prepare yourself for whatever’s next.”

The benefits of working with these programs were that they could help prepare him for the next steps in his career. “There’s intentional things one can do, and those are three things (Millenium Leadership Initiative, Executive Leadership Institute, Advanced Leadership Academy) that were pretty intentional to help prepare me for leadership, and [that] also helped me improve and prepare for other leadership roles…”

He continued: “It’s all learning and continuous improvement. Those are the kind of things that I participated in that I feel helped along the way, and that’s where you learn about yourself, learn about others, learn your style (of leadership). You go through things that sometimes aren’t so comfortable, but some of those things make you stronger.”

While at GSU, Lewis would get his doctorate in leadership, with a dissertation that would lead to an eventual publication. “It (the dissertation) was on resilience of African American male senior administrators. The study wasn’t about getting to the top or being a president, the study was more about ‘what does it take to be successful or to be resilient in that type of environment.’ The focus was on African American males, so a lot of my research leading up to that was looking at factors that have an impact on trajectory and the success of African American male senior leaders on college campuses.”

Lewis would go on to write a chapter in the “Handbook of Research on Black Males.”

Georj Lewis is now the president of Atlanta Metropolitan State College, appointed to the position in November 2019. He detailed three different strategies which have guided him during his time and for his life: listening, remaining focused on the purpose and values of the organization, and taking responsibility.

“Everything that I do should be to advance the vision, the mission, and the strategic plan of the college. So, when I’m presented with challenges and opportunities, you step back, listen, and try to respond in a way that supports those things…”

He’s also recognized the value of a team effort in his time as a leader. “There’s no accomplishment as a leader of a large organization that you solely own by yourself. And I think recognizing that it does take everybody is something that is helpful for me as a leader.”

Throughout his entire career, starting at Edinboro and moving into the future, Lewis said that student advocacy has been a main priority. “It is the most rewarding part of what a higher education professional does. Knowing that you can be part of somebody else’s success. Way back in the admissions office, when you’re trying to match up what the student’s interest and skills are with the degree program ... if they connect, they could actually achieve their dream by coming to school at Edinboro.”

Lewis made it clear on what the goal of his tenure as Atlanta Metropolitan State College president is. “Everything we do is focused on student success: the students coming, the students graduating, and them being able to have an experience that will prepare them for what they want to do next.”

Thomas Taylor is a staff writer for The Spectator. He can be reached at edinboro.spectator@gmail.com.

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