Boldly embracing the unknown

Kerwin poses for the cameraAmy Kerwin, ’90, earned her bachelor’s degree in accountancy, summa cum laude, from UWL. She now manages Great Lakes’ philanthropic strategy to help more low-income families, students of color and first-generation students earn post-secondary degrees.

Alumna builds one of the nation’s largest philanthropies in higher ed at a time of rising student need

Hunter Chadwick doesn’t want a future living paycheck-to-paycheck. That motivated him to return to school this year to earn a bachelor’s degree.

Chadwick, a UWL sophomore majoring in accountancy and information systems, says his dream of higher education wouldn’t be possible without loan service through Great Lakes Higher Education Corp.

Chadwick is not alone in needing financial assistance. About 70 percent of U.S. college graduates leave with debt.

At a time when college education is financially or otherwise unattainable for some, one UWL alumna has stepped up to make a difference.

Amy Kerwin, ’90, is vice president of community investments at Great Lakes Higher Education Guaranty Corp., a non-profit organization that helps students of color, low-income students and first-generation students overcome barriers to college graduation.

Kerwin’s position and the non-profit grew out of Great Lakes desire to develop a philanthropic strategy to help more underrepresented students achieve their goals of higher education.

Kerwin built her division from the ground up into one of the nation’s largest philanthropies focused on higher education. She helped to create $73 million in new grants that support research and regional funding related to higher education achievement goals in a little over a decade.

“Our strategy is not to give scholarships,” she explains. “We help colleges and institutions change their policies and practices to help more students.”

Philanthropy provides the time, space and freedom to innovate, iterate and scale, says Kerwin. That can lead to identifying promising student success practices that aren’t able to attract funding because they haven’t yet been proven.

“Through our grantmaking, we hope to see fewer underrepresented students drop out of college with debt but no degree,” she says.

Kerwin lectures in front of a large lecture hall full of students.

Amy Kerwin spoke as part of the College of Business Administration Citizens State Bank First Friday Lecture Series in April.

Lecture highlights embracing the new, unknown

Kerwin was eager to create a Philanthropy Department — in addition to an Internal Audit Department — at Great Lakes because no one had done it before. In that sense, she knew she couldn’t do it wrong, she says.

That bravery to chart new waters is what impressed many students who attended Kerwin’s lecture at UWL Friday, April 6. Kerwin spoke to a packed auditorium in Centennial Hall as part of the College of Business Administration Citizens State Bank First Friday Lecture Series.

UWL student Maria Carrara, a junior physical therapy major, says Kerwin’s words made her more strongly consider her career goal of doing equine physical therapy. “It is a very new, niche area, so, in my head, I’ve kind of discredited it … but it is my passion,” says Carrara. Kerwin’s story made her less afraid to try something new. “It is good to hear this from someone who is a successful, independent woman,” she says.

Nicole Zander, a sophomore majoring in accountancy, liked Kerwin’s positive approach when presented with a new opportunity. “My inclination is to think, ‘I don’t know how to do it… or how do I start?’ But, like she said, if no one has ever done it, you really can’t go wrong.”

Kerwin’s start at UWL

“Great professors helped bring the subject to life for me,” she says. “They prepared me for a great accountancy career.”

Kerwin started as a physical therapy major at UWL, but she later changed to accountancy. Following her interests paid off. She loved accountancy classes where professors brought the news from the daily paper into their studies. “Great professors helped bring the subject to life for me,” she says. “They prepared me for a great accountancy career.”

After graduation, Kerwin became an auditor for Ernst & Young. One of Kerwin’s least favorite clients while working at Ernst & Young was Great Lakes Higher Education Corp. because the company was unlike any other that she had audited and it challenged her professionally. To her surprise, leaders of the company invited her to join them and create a new internal audit department. She did, building that department from scratch and then, years later, creating a philanthropic strategy for the company.

Jaimi Hagen, a UWL junior and president-elect of Beta Alpha Psi, says Kerwin’s talk showed all of the potential doors that can open in the accounting field, as well as the importance of adapting as they open.

“I’m thinking that may be a personality trait you need to be a successful risk taker,” she says.


The College of Business Administration was recently reaccredited by AACSB International — The Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business. AACSB alumni are among the world’s most influential leaders, innovators, and entrepreneurs impacting business, government and non-profit sectors. Read more about the CBA accreditation.