For Debbie Koliba, moving from the socially, racially, and economically diverse city of Houston, Texas, to Kokomo, Indiana—a small, predominately white, rural community in North Central Indiana—was an eye-opening experience.
“The same country can feel so different depending on where you are,” she recalls.
She said it was a culture shock to leave behind what she knew as a child in her home state of Texas and move to Indiana as a high schooler. But she wasn’t alone. She, her mother, and grandmother created their own circle of support.
Koliba’s mother is a nurse. Her mother’s mother was a teacher. Caring for others is in her DNA.
“I was surrounded by strong women who raised me to help people,” she explains. “I saw my mom helping people in the medical field, and every summer I went to school with my grandma to get her classroom ready. I knew I wanted to do something to give back.”
Her experiences eventually led her to pursue a degree in sociology—something she wanted to use to help others.
“I always wanted to be the person who could give people a space to talk safely about what they’ve been through and work through it so they can live their best life,” Koliba says.
After earning her undergrad and master’s degrees, she moved to Chicago for her first job.
“National Louis University, this is Debbie. How many I help you?”
A university call center was her first step into higher education. After only a few months, the university opened an advising center. It was the opportunity Koliba had been waiting for.
“I knew higher education had direct resources I could use to help people reach their educational goals,” she explains.
After she got married, she and her wife wanted to move back to Indiana to raise a family—this time living and working in Indianapolis.
Koliba spent five years as an academic advisor at Ivy Tech Community College. That’s where she learned about its partnership with IUPUI. When she saw an opening at the O’Neill School, she decided to make the move.
“I purposefully picked O’Neill—I wasn’t sure if I wanted to be in higher ed anymore, but when a position became available in this specific school, that was where I wanted to bring my talents,” she says.
For her, it was the perfect opportunity to support students who want to make the world—and the Earth—a better place.
That’s because she’s not only supporting students who want to make a difference—she’s also doing the work herself. Koliba is a passionate supporter of sustainability efforts. She serves on the university’s Tree Bee USA Campus Advisory Board, ensuring that IUPUI has plenty of trees for everyone to enjoy and bees to pollinate the campus’ urban garden. She also works with Keep Indianapolis Beautiful and other local organizations to plant trees around the city.
Koliba says she enjoys working with students who are looking to both increase sustainability and even the grounds of equity while making sure she also is advocating to even equity within the O’Neill School.
She was appointed to the O’Neill Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Committee, and serves on the university’s Student Transfer Council to develop best practices to ensure transfer students can be successful. She also helped relaunch O’Neill’s student organizations.
“I was pretty proud that we could empower students to lead, make their ideas heard and execute them, and grow,” she says. “It was great to be a part of that process.”
She says helping students find their own strengths is what drives her to keep doing her best to guide them as they take their own first steps toward their future careers.
“My motivation has a lot to do with working for the O’Neill School,” she explains. “Anyone pursuing one of our degrees is doing so because their heart wants to give back and make this world a better place. If I help O’Neill students, there will be a ripple effect on our surrounding community. I’m able to empower them to live out their passion—and that give back to us all as humans.”