Hawk to Watch: Shannon Portillo, professor and campus leader

Why Shannon’s a Hawk to Watch:

How to describe the stellar career trajectory of professor Shannon Portillo? Reading back through articles about Shannon on the web and in print, a picture of a prodigious student emerges. “A model student” and “Ph.D. at 23” are just a few of the headlines marking Shannon’s impressive student days. Shannon completed high school in three years and repeated the feat at KU, polishing off degrees in political science and international studies in 2004. As a student, Shannon was also dedicated to more than just her studies, working as a teaching assistant, the program coordinator for the Emily Taylor Center for Women & Gender Equity, and organizing several community events. Juggling research, teaching, learning, and community engagement with mastery continues to define Shannon’s academic career at KU, via five years at George Mason University. Shannon is now Associate Professor of Public Affairs and Administration and is KU’s first ever Assistant Vice Chancellor for Undergraduate Programs at the KU Edwards Campus. And her impact on campus has been deeply felt by students, winning Shannon multiple awards for mentoring, including the McNair scholars Mentor Award, the K. Barbara Schowen Undergraduate Research Mentor Award, and the Kathleen McClusky-Fawcett Women Mentoring Women Award. Shannon has already achieved so much, but she remains as dedicated as ever to making higher education more inclusive and accessible through her work. We are thrilled to have this Hawk to Watch right here at KU.


Tell us in a sentence or two what you do for a living:

I’m the Assistant Vice Chancellor for Undergraduate Programs at the KU Edwards Campus and an Associate Professor in the School of Public Affairs & Administration at KU.

Shannon Portillo Assistant Vice Chancellor for Undergraduate Programs at the KU Edwards Campus Associate Professor in the School of Public Affairs & Administration

What do you feel is your biggest achievement so far?

When I first started as a faculty member in 2008 I said my goal was to be the professor I never had. That wasn’t a dig on my faculty, I had some of the most amazing educators and mentors in the world. But, the entire time I was in undergrad and graduate school I never had a class with a Latina professor, and I rarely see women in my field who look like me. I was always going to interdisciplinary spaces to find mentorship. A few years ago a Latina student of mine was graduating and going on to a PhD program in Public Administration. She wrote me a really nice note saying that she could never say that she wanted to be the professor she never had because she had me, now she just has to keep paying it forward.

Shannon Portillo (right) with Senior Nicole Humphrey (left). Nicole Humphrey was an undergraduate student, and McNair scholar, in Public Administration and Political Science. During that time, Nicole worked closely with faculty mentor Shannon Portillo, and won two UGRA scholarships. Nicole is now a Ph.D. student in KU’s Public Administration program and recently won a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship.

What’s your lowest career moment and how did you pick yourself up and move on?

Early in my career I was at an academic conference and had attended a networking dinner. After the dinner I was invited to go out for drinks with a number of senior scholars. At the end of the evening, when I was going back to my hotel, one of the senior male scholars made an inappropriate advance. While that moment was easy to shut down, the effects lasted for a while. I spent a lot of time questioning my ability to do academic work at this level, and whether I was able to navigate a field dominated by older men with reputations for not taking women seriously and trying to take advantage of women. I realized that I needed to be one of the people who was senior in the field so I could work to make sure that same experience doesn’t happen to women in future generations.

"I’ve been incredibly fortunate to work with groups like Academic Women in Public Administration, and I’ve seen a proliferation of discussions about equity in academia."

Where do you hope to be in 10 years?

I have my dream job, but half of it didn’t exist 10 years ago. I am first Assistant Vice Chancellor for Undergraduate Programs at the Edwards Campus. Ten years from now I hope that I’ve continued to move forward with my academic career, publishing work that makes a difference. I also hope that I can continue to be a campus leader pushing to make higher education more equitable, inclusive, and accessible. I am not sure what that title or role looks like, but I am excited to find out.

What’s your best career pro-tip?

Don’t be too scared to ask for help, know that you’re worth helping, and pay it forward when you can.”

What do you know now that you wish you could tell your 18-year-old self?

When I was 18 I was convinced I was going to go to law school, because I had no idea what going to graduate school meant or what faculty really do. I would say remain curious, and be open to changing plans and new experiences.

How did your KU degree prepare you for your current job?

"The PhD program in Public Administration at KU is purposefully small, so I had amazing access to faculty and individualized mentorship that was truly meaningful."

I was prepared to face the rigors of research, had the opportunity to create and teach my own classes, and really saw what it meant to be a good departmental citizen and colleague. I appreciate the balance my education gave me, preparing me for the multifaceted aspects of my career.

What’s your best KU memory?

Every year when I see a new class walk down the Hill at graduation, and when we sing the Alma Mater at our School of Public Affairs & Administration graduation banquet I can’t help but think about the joy of my own hooding ceremony. My grandparents and parents met my advisor at my hooding ceremony, and seeing the look on their face when he called me Dr. Portillo at that ceremony was wonderful.

Shannon (second from the right) with her family outside Strong Hall.  Also pictured: Julian Portillo (Shannon’s brother, who graduated from KU in 2007 with a BS in Finance), Julia Rowe (sister in law), Josephine Kreiser Portillo (mom), Jerry Portillo (dad), me, Kris Beckland (husband).

What do you do after you’ve clocked out?

I love to cook. When I was in graduate school I realized that research is something that really never ends and your friends are never quite as into your work as you are, so I wanted a hobby with a discrete end that would be easy to share with friends. Bringing friends and family together over a good meal and delicious cocktails is important to me.

What is a fun fact about you that surprises people?

I’ve had the incredible privilege to travel to five continents, in dozens of countries. I love to travel, but I can’t imagine a better place to call home.


Be like Shannon. Here’s more information on studying  Political Science, International Studies, and Public Administration at KU.


Hawks to Watch are disrupters. They’re poised for greatness, inspiring their colleagues and excelling in their professions. Basically, they’re killing it. Having recently graduated, they are just starting to leave their mark and we can’t wait to see how their story unfolds. These Jayhawks span all industries including business, non-profits, tech, healthcare, media, law and the arts.