This year, a record 12,422 students enrolled at UCCS are hoping to earn a bachelor’s, master’s or doctorate degree at the 52-year-old university.

In 1976, Susan Szpyrka was just like them — a student working toward a degree. Now she has two from the school and has worked at UCCS for 33 years in various leadership positions. Szpyrka is currently the senior vice chancellor of administration and finance and the first female chief financial and business officer, as well as the most senior female on staff at the university.

Through her many roles, Szpyrka’s focus was always the students.

“The biggest accomplishment for anyone who’s worked in higher education, especially as long as I have, is truly the success of people we’ve been able to help and influence,” Szpyrka said. “Our job is to help build great futures and give students the tools to build great futures.”

Her first job at UCCS was in law enforcement, and Szpyrka served as the chief of campus police from 1999 to 2006. She was the second female police chief in Colorado at the time, and after she earned her master’s degree in public administration in 2006, Szpyrka became the senior associate vice chancellor of administration and finance. She was promoted in 2013 to her current position. As CFO, she handles the school’s $250 million budget and the campus capital fund, which exceeds $150 million.

When Szpyrka moved into her current role, she immediately made an impact by switching the campus food service from Sodexo, an international food service company, to its own, which has brought 200 jobs to students.

In UCCS Chancellor Venkat Reddy’s Women of Influence nomination for Szpyrka, he said, “Susan’s influence is truly profound and so extensive that it is challenging to describe in one letter,” Reddy wrote. “There is virtually no aspect of the UCCS campus that has not benefited from her leadership.”

No matter what part of her job — remodeling old buildings, constructing new spaces or working with student employees — Szpyrka said she has been able to mentor staff and students by being present and with small gestures such as handwritten thank-you notes.

Two significant mentors in Szpyrka’s career are former UCCS Chancellor Pamela Shockley-Zalabak, who she has known for 40 years, and Brian Burnett, former senior executive vice chancellor for UCCS. How she mentors others is similar to how Shockley-Zalabak and Burnett mentored her, she said.

“A mentor who’s also your leader will see things in you that you may not see in yourself,” Szpyrka said.

She has also served as a mentor and donated to the Karen Possehl Women’s Endowment Scholarship Program, which aids women students in difficult circumstances.

Everything she’s accomplished is due to others, Szpyrka said, and after 33 years of leadership roles and mentoring staff and students at UCCS, she plans to retire to Hawaii in December with her husband to be with her son and his family — he is stationed there with the Army. She said she will return to Colorado after her son’s tour is over, but hasn’t decided if she will return to higher education.

Looking back on her career at UCCS, Szpyrka said it’s important to know that everyone is going to make mistakes.

“Analyze [your mistakes], correct them and move on and don’t beat yourself up,” Szpyrka said.

To other women leaders, Szpyrka said not to compromise who you are.

“Don’t lose the fact that you are a woman, you do not have to act differently,” she said. “I learned that when I was in the law enforcement. … I learned putting on the uniform did not take away from who I am.”

— Audrey Jensen