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Patricia Telles-Irvin, compassionate champion for students, dies at 63

Nationally recognized student affairs leader was relentless in efforts to enhance the student experience
Patricia Telles-Irvin
Patricia Telles-Irvin came to Northwestern in 2011. Photo by Jim Prisching

Patricia Telles-Irvin, vice president for Student Affairs and a compassionate champion for Northwestern University students and the campus community for nearly a decade, passed away early in the morning on Monday, June 3, 2019 after a long battle with cancer. She was 63.

Members of the University community described Telles-Irvin as a strong, caring and innovative leader who was relentless in her dedication to make Northwestern a more diverse, inclusive and humane campus and to enhance the student experience. They spoke of how her love for students showed through in the best of times and mattered all the more in difficult moments. 

Celebration of Life, June 14 

A Celebration of Life event in honor of Patricia Telles-Irvin will be held at 3 p.m. on Friday, June 14, at Alice Millar Chapel on Northwestern’s Evanston campus. It is an opportunity for family, friends and colleagues to pay tribute to a national figure in student affairs and a beloved member of the Northwestern community. Please see the tribute site “Remembering Patricia Telles-Irvin” for details of Patricia’s career as a leader, mentor, fierce champion for students and friend — and to share your memories of Patricia.

“Patricia was a beautiful person,” Northwestern President Morton Schapiro wrote in a message to the campus community sharing news that Telles-Irvin had passed. “From the day she arrived at Northwestern in 2011, she was deeply committed to improving the lives of all of our students, especially those who came from underrepresented communities. She worked tirelessly to create a Northwestern in which every single student, regardless of background, felt at home. This was not easy work as the world became increasingly stratified and uncivil. When I think of the finest of Northwestern values — humility, empathy and humanity — I picture Patricia. She gave us her heart, and we will always be in her debt. She never wavered in finding the best in all of us.”

During her tenure at Northwestern, Telles-Irvin worked to invest in the future and make the student experience more inclusive, welcoming and successful for all students, including the increasing numbers of first-generation students, low-income students and underrepresented minorities that the University enrolled in recent years.

She championed efforts to transform the residential experience, create stronger ties between students and the campus and led efforts on acculturation and diversity, as well as women's concerns and student development. 

She established the office of Campus Inclusion and Community (CIC), which works with partners across the University to develop inclusive learning environments, and the office of Student Enrichment Services, which supports first-generation, low-income and DACA/undocumented students. 

A psychologist by training, she guided the University’s expansion of programs for student mental health and well-being. Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) and other units supporting well-being grew significantly during her tenure.  

Telles-Irvin took a deeply personal interest in working closely with colleagues to ensure the University helped mentor students to maximize their potential and to sustain a safe and healthy Northwestern community — especially at a time when mental health issues emerged as a national public health crisis.

She oversaw the Division of Student Affairs as it enhanced the residential experience and renovated or constructed new residence halls on the Northwestern campus, including a stunning new building at 560 Lincoln Street with views of the lakefront.

The new building and others were part of a vision Telles-Irvin had for the campus: To build community connections and help students thrive in distinct and robust “neighborhoods” with expanded options to engage, learn and build a personalized sense of home.

“Even before I arrived at Northwestern in 2017, I admired Patricia for her national leadership in Student Affairs,” observed Provost Jonathan Holloway. “Working with her on a regular basis for the last 20 months has reaffirmed the high esteem I held for her. Patricia built a great team of dedicated professionals who will carry her work forward, but we are diminished with her passing.” 

“This is a loss not only for Northwestern, but for the entire field of student affairs, because she was a giant within this field,” said Julie Payne-Kirchmeier, associate vice president and chief of staff for Student Affairs. “She was a mentor and friend to so many of us, teaching through her grace, wisdom and example. She deeply cared for each one of our students, worked tirelessly on their behalf and ensured that everyone on her team did the same.” 

Before Telles-Irvin had accepted the University’s offer to come work at Northwestern in 2011, she served as vice president for Student Affairs at the University of Florida. She held that role for seven years.

At the University of Florida, Telles-Irvin already was a national leader in student affairs, holding the role of president-elect of NASPA, the national association of student affairs administrators in higher education.She also was a Pillar of the Profession award recipient for NASPA. During her tenure at Florida, she increased student engagement while enhancing the sense of student community and academic class identity. She also led the university’s efforts to address the problem of binge drinking. 

Prior to her tenure at the University of Florida, she served in multiple roles at Florida International University, including director of the Student Counseling and Psychological Services Center and assistant and associate vice president for Student Affairs. She concluded her service there as senior vice president for Student Affairs and Human Resources and vice provost for Academic Affairs.

She received her bachelor's degree in education at Duke University and a doctorate in counseling psychology from Boston University. She was a licensed psychologist in the state of Florida.

Before Telles-Irvin’s death, the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund (MALDEF) announced it would recognize her with its Excellence in Community Service Award for providing outstanding leadership and service to the Latino community. The award will be given to Telles-Irvin posthumously at the MALDEF Chicago awards ceremony on Friday, June 7.

Telles-Irvin is survived by her husband, Donald Irvin; a son, Daniel Irvin; her sister, Cynthia Telles (Waz), and brother-in-law Joe Waz; a granddaughter, Isabella Irvin; and many nieces and nephews.

In lieu of flowers, the family has asked to honor her by contributing to the American Cancer Society or Northwestern’s Student Enrichment Services