3 questions with president Carmen Twillie Ambar
Ohio Life

Carmen Twillie Ambar Discusses Fitness and Leadership

Oberlin College and Conservatory’s president used her quest to get fit as a way to connect with students.

What started out as a personal fitness journey for Oberlin College and Conservatory president Carmen Twillie Ambar has turned into a rallying cry for students to get fit, support one another and cheer her on.

Walking across campus one might see students wearing “My president is stronger than your president” T-shirts — a nod to Ambar’s quest to get back into shape and the fun YeoFit fitness boot camps she hosts for Oberlin students.

“A few short years ago, I was 90 pounds heavier,” says Ambar. “I think it’s this pride point for our students. They see me out there working out and giving my best and trying to overcome in the gym. It’s just a fun way for them to express it.”

While she can deadlift 225 pounds, Ambar has also been doing some heavy lifting on campus since becoming president in 2017. In 2020, she launched the Presidential Initiative on Racial Equity and Diversity, a 21-person commission that seeks to address issues of violence, police-community relationships and racial injustices.

We talked with Ambar about bonding with students, being a force for change and what advice she has for future leaders. 

Why is fitness a great way to connect with your students?
I think from the beginning it was about a holistic approach to my own life. But the life of college students includes all these academic classes, and for conservatory students, all of this practice that you have to do. I want to make sure that students are thinking about their whole selves, and fitness and wellness are a part of that. It was another way to connect with all types of students no matter what their major is. 

What kind of change do you foresee with the Presidential Initiative on Racial Equity and Diversity?
We’ll have students who are fellows and who will do research around those issues. We’ll also be thinking about mentorship programs for faculty and staff. I think what happens for faculty of color and students of color is that we all need images to look to and to know that what we want to achieve is possible. Having a mentor helps us think through our career progressions.

What is one piece of advice you would give to female leaders or someone who is aspiring to be a leader one day?
One of the things that I think is misunderstood about leadership is that people think it’s all natural and none of it’s learned. But there are things you can learn. And that’s good, because if you can learn it and do it, then you can achieve it.

For more information, visit oberlin.edu.