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Guiding Through Change: Susan Tolbart

Published: Thursday, February 16, 2023

Susan Tolbart, right, accepting the "Leave the Ladder Down" award at the 2022 University Awards Convocation.

Higher education veteran Susan Tolbart, director of graduate recruitment and scholarships at OSU-Tulsa, recently received the university's "Leave the Ladder Down" award at OSU's University Awards Convocation for her nearly 35 years of mentorship and encouragement on the Tulsa campus.

“It was a total surprise,” Tolbart said. “I feel like there are a lot of people on this campus that would be very deserving of this award, and I feel very honored that people nominated me.”


Tolbart’s expertise and mentoring spirit were forged by decades of experience in Oklahoma higher education.

She started her career at Rogers State College in Claremore where she worked in continuing education, handling everything from hiring instructors, setting up the classrooms and sending out press releases. She transitioned from that role to a recruiting and academic advising job, which she fell in love with.

“It helped me learn a lot about the academic side. Being in recruiting and advising at the same time helped me be more realistic with prospective students.”

Tolbart remembers a woman from California who was eager to enroll in a Native American studies program she saw in a catalog. Susan realized from her academic experience that the program was likely to be canceled, so she reached out to the woman to offer guidance.

“I called her and said ‘hey, I’d love to have you here but I’d hate to have you pick up your life and move here and the program doesn’t turn out to be what we thought it was going to be,’” Tolbart said. “She didn’t wind up coming. But she did send me flowers.”


When Rogers became part of the University Center at Tulsa – the consortium that originally existed on what is now the OSU-Tulsa campus – Tolbart started working with other programs at Northeastern State University and The University of Oklahoma. She eventually transitioned into a position with OSU-Tulsa after its creation in 1999, gaining expertise in guiding and advising others as she went.

Over time, recruiting, career services and campus life were all brought into one area working together, and Tolbart was promoted to be the director.

“There were some fast and easy things, but then there were some hard lessons along the way.”

Several campus reorganizations have caused Tolbart and her team to shift focuses and adapt to new ways of doing things.

“It’s a hard thing to go through, to try to deal with your own emotions about the change but also help others deal with their emotions. I think that was a hard lesson for me, understanding how to navigate that.

“I feel like I didn’t do that well in the beginning. But when we got into it, I did learn how to help everyone feel better about change.”

As OSU-Tulsa's academic mission evolved, Tolbart’s area of specialization shifted to graduate recruitment, along with scholarships and financial aid. What has stayed the same, however, is her reassuring guidance to help her team and colleagues embrace and grow through change.


Through her mentorship, Tolbart has shaped a generation of student services professionals at OSU-Tulsa and other campuses including Stillwater and the Center for Health Sciences, and in progressively senior roles.

“Susan has also been a mentor and inspiration to employees outside of her department,” her award nomination letter reads. “She is the first person that employees in other departments go to in order to learn about the recruitment, admissions and scholarships and financial aid process. She is a patient teacher and an encouraging guide, yet never afraid to ask for help or to collaborate.”

Tolbart was tricked into attending the University Awards Convocation in Stillwater as she and some coworkers made the trip for a “meeting,” but she started to figure out something was off when she encountered too many familiar faces.

“I was running into people who I worked with years ago, then I walked in the door and the whole back row was filled with all these people I know and I was like, ‘oh my gosh.’”

She was shocked and beyond humble to be presented with the award.

“I was like, ‘I don’t deserve this,’” she said. “I’m retiring soon and I was just thinking earlier that week, ‘I wish I would have been a better mentor.’”

But when reminded of the familiar faces in the room and all the successful careers that have moved through her department, Tolbart will agree she has helped grow plenty of Cowboys through the years.

“We’ve built a culture of helping one another out,” she said. “I’m always looking for people that are stronger in certain areas than I am, or have talents that I don’t have.”

The latest change for Tolbart is perhaps the biggest yet – retirement.

“I've been so fortunate really to have such great people to work with, and I just I feel like I learned more from them than anything.”

Fortunately for OSU, Tolbart has left the ladder down for so many, leaving the university in excellent hands.

See the full list of honorees from the University Awards Convocation on the OKState news website, including Dr. James Smay’s appointment as the C. F. Colcord Chair in the College of Engineering, Architecture and Technology, Dr. Jentre Olsen’s appointment as Brock Chair in Innovative Educational Leadership in the College of Education and Human Sciences and Dr. Amanda Morris’ appointment as George Kaiser Family Foundation Chair in Developmental Neurosciences in the College of Arts and Sciences.

A shot from the crowd of Tolbart, walking down the aisle of the 2022 University Awards Convocation after accepting her award.

Media Contact: Aaron Campbell | 918-594-8046 |