When Mary Finger interviewed for the presidency of Seton Hill University, she met a student from Bogota, Colombia.
“We had a wonderful conversation in Spanish,” Ms. Finger said.
That’s because Ms. Finger, as an undergraduate at now Mount Mary University in Milwaukee, studied in Bogota for a January term and loved it so much she went back for more than a year and a half of independent study, followed by volunteering.
Ms. Finger, 55, last week was named president of Seton Hill, effective July 1, to succeed JoAnne Boyle, who retired in June 2013 and died in November.
Ms. Finger has never been a college president before. In fact, she had never been in Greensburg until her job interview in recent weeks.
Founded in 1885, Seton Hill is a Catholic university with about 2,700 students.
The Chicago native brings a background of nearly 30 years in higher education administration. Her experience includes teaching writing, nonprofit grants administration and English as an adjunct at several colleges.
She was not a strictly traditional student.
Her interest in Bogota delayed her completion at Marquette University, where she graduated in 1985. She earned a master’s degree from Mount Mary University in 2005 and a doctorate in higher education management from the University of Pennsylvania in 2013.
“It certainly helps me to understand students who have had to stop and start and other things have come up in their lives, and they have taken a path that has not been a direct one,” she said.
Her undergraduate degree is in journalism. But after returning from Bogota, she used her Spanish as a paraprofessional in the Milwaukee schools while she completed her degree.
“It changed my trajectory. I became much more interested in the Latin culture and in the education of Latino students,” she said.
After graduating, she taught for a year in Milwaukee — teaching primarily Spanish-speaking students — and then went into higher education fundraising.
“I had spent time seeing really talented kids who did not think postsecondary education was an option for them,” she said.
She decided “one of the things I’d like to see in my life is securing resources for students who might not normally be admitted to and represented in colleges and universities.”
Along the way, she said, she picked up skills in marketing, enrollment management and strategic planning and “got a deeper understanding and interest in higher education as a transformative force in our world.”
She worked at Cardinal Stritch University in Milwaukee and Mount Mary and Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., before going to DePaul University in Chicago, where she has been senior vice president for advancement for nine years.
That job included leading and implementing the school’s first comprehensive capital campaign.
Seton Hill is in the midst of a capital campaign to raise money for the JoAnne Woodyard Boyle Health Sciences Center, and Ms. Finger is glad to join that effort.
Ms. Finger said she is drawn to Catholic higher education because of “the respect for the individual, the belief in social justice, the consistent mission of providing high-quality education to people from all backgrounds — socioeconomic, ethnic and racial.”
When she visited for the job interview, she said, she saw the beauty of the campus and “the community could not have been more welcoming. There’s a real sense of camaraderie.”
She believes Seton Hill is well positioned.
“It’s on a strong trajectory. It has very strong momentum. … The sense of purpose is very strong.”
While she said she feels “very prepared,” Ms. Finger added, “I think that there will be components to learn. I will rely heavily on the expertise of the trustees, of the Sisters of Charity, of the leadership team, of the faculty.”
The university’s relationship with Greensburg also is important to her. She met several community leaders in the interview process.
“They’ve obviously had very strong relationships with the community that have been mutually beneficial. I do want to continue those relationships and build on those relationships,” she said.
Ms. Finger, who is divorced, likes to run and hike. She has a grown daughter who studied in Spain and lives there with her husband and two children.
Education writer Eleanor Chute: email@example.com or 412-263-1955.