Emily Messer ran into a small problem on the first day of classes at Texas Wesleyan University: She couldn’t help a student.

The student asked Messer, the new president of the private college in east Fort Worth, where a specific room was. Messer had some help ensuring the student found their way. However, the incident reminded her why she works in higher education.

“It’s working for the students and making a difference in their lives, and it all starts when classes start,” Messer said. “I told them I’m new as well. We’re all in this together, trying to figure it out.”

Higher education has always been a focus in Messer’s life. Her parents encouraged her to become the first in her family to graduate from college. Now, she is working to ensure Texas Wesleyan students — who are predominantly first-generation as well — persist and earn a degree.

Messer, who is in her third month of leading Texas Wesleyan, is still forming a vision for the new era of the university. Her plans include fundraising, improving student retention and charting the next chapter of the Rosedale Renaissance, a neighborhood revitalization effort. She plans to develop her priorities hand-in-hand with students, staff and the surrounding community.

Messer, 40, succeeded former President Fred Slabach, who left Texas Wesleyan after 12 years to become the dean of the University of Mississippi School of Law, his alma mater.

“We are very pleased with our selection,” said Glenn Lewis, chairman of the Texas Wesleyan board of trustees.

‘Whatever it took’

Messer grew up in a one-stoplight town in Alabama. Her family, as she describes it, was very blue collar. No one in the family had attended college.

Her parents wanted to change that. They wanted to provide their daughter the opportunity to seek higher education.

“They did whatever it took to make sure I had that opportunity,” Messer said.

Messer earned her bachelor’s degree in English from Jacksonville State University in Alabama.

She didn’t stop there.

Messer also earned a master’s degree from Jacksonville State and a doctorate from the University of Alabama.

Emily Messer

Occupation: President of Texas Wesleyan University

Relevant experience: Vice president for advancement and enrollment management at Jacksonville State University in Alabama; vice president for enrollment management at Jacksonville State; vice president of enrollment management, assistant dean of students and director of student life at Shorter University in Rome, Georgia.

Education: Bachelor’s degree in English and a master’s degree in public administration from Jacksonville State, and a Doctorate of Education in higher education administration from the University of Alabama

Family: Her husband, Chris, is a lawyer. They have two daughters.

“It’s surreal that I’ve gone from the first person in my family to graduate from college to completing a doctorate and, at this point, becoming a university president,” Messer said. “It’s hard to fathom.”

‘More than just a leader’

Terry Casey has known Messer for nearly a quarter of century. 

He first met her when she was a freshman at Jacksonville State and, eventually, they became colleagues once she joined the university’s administration as vice president for enrollment management. Casey is the vice president of student affairs and enrollment management at Jacksonville State.

He first recognized her leadership potential when she was elected student body president. Casey saw Messer making hard choices with her team, not alone.

“That’s when I started seeing her develop into something more than just a leader, but she was also a team player,” Casey said. “She’s very analytical. She doesn’t make quick decisions. She tries to look at everything and analyze the situation or the data from all sides.”

Finding out Messer got the job as president of Texas Wesleyan was a bittersweet moment for Casey. He was losing a colleague, but Messer was achieving a longtime dream.

Texas Wesleyan gained a president who has a heart of gold and high expectations, Casey said.

“I think she is going to take Texas Wesleyan to the next level because she wants to always improve,” Casey said. “She’s going to be a leader for her team. She’ll lead with integrity and she’ll lead with those folks and she’ll stand beside those folks.”

‘We’re able to help’

Messer sees Texas Wesleyan — and herself — as being in the business of changing lives.

Not all institutions are like that, though, she said. Texas Wesleyan is, because nearly 6 in 10 students received a federal Pell Grant, which are only available to those with “exceptional financial need,” according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

“They have a need, and we’re able to help them with that. Obtaining a college degree is changing their life, changing the lives of their families, changing the lives of their communities that they go back to — it changes the trajectory of their future,” Messer said.

As a first-generation college student, Messer knows the transformative nature of higher education. 

She tells students her story to show them they can succeed. She reminds them that she faced financial hurdles, including difficulty filling out financial aid forms. She went to student orientation by herself because she didn’t know her parents could attend.

“But I figured it out,” Messer said.

Before classes started in August, Messer met with a group of about a dozen student leaders who give tours of Texas Wesleyan. All but two were first-generation students.

“I want students to hear that even though there may be barriers or uncharted territory, they can do anything if they put their mind to it,” Messer said.

‘A goal that I wanted to achieve’

At Jacksonville State, Messer was a member of a sorority. During her junior year, she attended a mixer with a fraternity.

The party required attendees to dress as what they wanted to be when they grew up.

She knew exactly what she wanted to be.

“It’s strange for a junior in college to think that, but I did,” Messer said. “I’ve been very ambitious and intrinsically motivated throughout my life, and I knew that that was a goal that I wanted to achieve.”

Messer wore a pantsuit and a name tag. 

She was a university president.

Disclosure: Texas Wesleyan University has been a financial supporter of the Fort Worth Report. At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.

Jacob Sanchez is an enterprise journalist for the Fort Worth Report. Contact him at jacob.sanchez@fortworthreport.org or via Twitter.

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Jacob Sanchez is an enterprise reporter for the Fort Worth Report. His work has appeared in the Temple Daily Telegram, The Texas Tribune and the Texas Observer. He is a graduate of St. Edward’s University....