Abraham Swee/University of St. Thomas

Dr. Ernie Owens: Building a New Generation of Diverse Leaders

If you spend more than a few minutes with Dr. Ernie Owens, be prepared to talk motorcycles.

The Opus College of Business professor attended his first motorcycle convention in 2001. Since then, he’s not only learned how to ride, but he’s also spent countless hours tinkering away, building antique bikes in his garage.

“And that’s how I can buy more motorcycles,” Owens recently explained to students in his MGMT 384 project management course.

For Owens, building motorcycles is a personal passion project – one that he loves to share far and wide. But this professor is known for building much more than bikes.

Dr. Ernie Owens prepares his project management students for their next exam. For 20 years the course has brought together business students with project leaders across the community. (Abraham Swee/University of St. Thomas)

For two decades Owens has taught MGMT 384. And for two decades he’s used the course to build relationships between budding project managers and leaders within visionary communities that have long had to grapple with underinvestment.

Each semester the class is split into groups, with each group of students working on a real-life project from a community “sponsor.” Sponsors are selected from area nonprofits and government agencies, and they take the class for free right along with students. Sponsors attend lectures, do the homework, and even take the exams — and upon passing the course exam earn the Certified Professional Project Manager (CPPM) designation from St. Thomas.

“I haven’t been in class for a long time,” said Patricia Ogbeide-Ihama, a sponsor in the class this fall and director of human resources at the YWCA St. Paul. “Coming back to class was something that I struggled with. I was like, ‘oh, I have an exam!’ How am I going to study for this?”

Ogbeide-Ihama and her team of St. Thomas students are applying what they learn in class to a project that she’s brought from the YWCA. The organization is developing an employee engagement program aimed at enhancing services at its Health and Fitness Center.

Students in Dr. Ernie Owens' project management course work together with a community sponsor on a real-life project. Sponsors take the course alongside students. (Abraham Swee/University of St. Thomas)

“Working with the young folks in the class has really strengthened me and made me feel younger, too,” Ogbeide-Ihama said. “This is very refreshing to me. Learning from their energy has just kept me going.”

The YWCA St. Paul is just one organization in a long line of community partners who have sent representatives to take part in the class. Students have worked previously with Catholic Charities, Pillsbury United Communities, the Saint Paul Public Library and many others.

“You’re taking students primarily from the dominant white community and putting them in touch with leadership of primarily disadvantaged communities, LGBTQIA, and women-owned businesses,” Owens said. “This gives students a chance to engage with leadership that they’re going to encounter before they leave St. Thomas.”

Over the years, the course has evolved from a focus solely on project management to creating a new generation of leaders better prepared to serve their future organizations.

“We’ve sort of pivoted to answering the questions, ‘How do you create belongingness? How do you create a sense of equity?’” Owens said. “The class started out being more of a conversation on the technical aspects of project management. But now it’s the idea of empowering people to be good leaders.”

Students in Dr. Ernie Owens' project management course work with sponsors from organizations all over the Twin Cities, including the Boy Scouts, Optum, and Pillsbury United Communities. (Abraham Swee/University of St. Thomas)

Cristina Archila is a sponsor this fall from Bolder Options, a nonprofit focused on youth mentoring. Archila felt encouraged to see St. Thomas students working with and learning from the diverse communities that surround campus.

“The majority of the students are white, so they’re getting that exposure to working with Black and brown and queer leaders,” Archila said. “St. Thomas isn’t just talking about DEI work, but they’re actually living it and providing opportunities for the community and for their students to better from it.”

With each completed project, the course also delivers real-world impact, and in many cases that impact has spawned an even larger network of good. When former Vice President for Mission Father Larry Snyder was co-leading the strategic task force that inspired the creation of the Center for the Common Good at St. Thomas, he took MGMT 384 and relied on students to help plot its future. When a new system was needed to connect the campus community with volunteer opportunities, MGMT 384 was called in to help create the Tommies Together Volunteer Center.

Dr. Ernie Owens and students helped create the Center for the Common Good. Here they are making a presentation to former President Julie Sullivan and her cabinet.

Kelly Sardon-Garrity, associate director for the Center for Common Good — which coordinates and supports not only volunteerism among students, staff, and faculty, but also community-engaged courses and research — now partners with Owens to funnel new community sponsors into the class.

“Dr. Ernie has been really influential in the shaping of the university in a lot of different ways and oftentimes kind of quietly behind the scenes,” Sardon-Garrity said. “So there he is, leaving his mark on not only the Center for the Common Good, but our whole volunteer effort on campus and it’s all through this project management class.”

For Owens, he’s happy to see his idea from 20 years ago continue to create lasting change on campus and beyond.

“For students and the sponsors … they get a toolbox that’s portable that they can take with them,” Owens said. “That’s why this entire idea is viable. It’s not just about talking theory. This course is about creating understanding and taking advantage of it.”