It was nearly 4:20 p.m. Monday when Tisa Mason walked into Stouffer Lounge. She was just 10 minutes away from a big step in her career, and there were only a handful of people in the room.

If Mason was nervous, she didn't show it. She needn't have worried anyway.

Within the next 15 minutes, more than 75 people crowded into the second-floor room of Fort Hays State University's Memorial Union for a meet-and-greet of the first of five finalists for the university's next president.

Following a search for a replacement for Edward Hammond, who is retiring from that position this summer after 27 years at the FHSU helm, it was announced last week five finalists would be brought to Hays throughout the next three weeks to check out the campus and meet FHSU staff and community members.

"We want to show off Fort Hays State," said Denis Miller from Phillipsburg, chairman of the presidential search committee.

"We want to make them very welcome and appreciated for Fort Hays State," Miller said, "show it's a well-managed and successful university and ready to move forward with the challenges of the future."

The first finalist didn't have far to travel, and those aforementioned attributes of Fort Hays are ones which Mason already is well aware.

That's because she is in her sixth year as vice president for student affairs at FHSU. And, she told Monday's audience, she would like nothing better than to continue leading at Fort Hays, only now from the top rung of the ladder.

"I stand here as one of you, and that's a real good feeling," said Mason, who said she "has an understanding of presidential transition."

At her previous job before coming to Fort Hays, at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, Mason worked under three chancellors in four years.

During her 30-year career in higher education, Mason has shouldered a multitude of responsibilities, ranging from teaching and student learning to fundraising, lobbying and finance.

That's one of her strengths, said Jeff Brull, advancement director at Thomas More Prep-Marian Junior-Senior High School.

"She didn't grow up around here, but she landed here, and we're lucky she landed here, and she has a lot of experience from a lot of other universities," said Brull, who worked with Mason when he was director of communications and marketing for the FHSU Foundation before going to TMP in 2011.

"She is very well-connected with a lot of people outside of Hays," Brull said.

That's what drew Mason's right-hand assistant to Fort Hays last summer.

Keegan Nichols heard about FHSU, and Mason, while working as vice president of student affairs at Colby Community College

Nichols successfully sought the position of assistant vice president of student affairs at Fort Hays and now works directly with Mason on a day-to-day basis.

"She is an incredible inspiration," Nichols said of her boss.

That's because Mason listens to others, Nichols said.

"Listening to people is something I highly value," Mason said. "This is not about me; this is about us."

"It's our collective talents that will propel us into the future."

A group of faculty and staff huddled with Nichols after Mason's talk, and the consensus was positive feedback.

"She would be an incredible president," said Susan Dumler, an instructor in the allied health department at Fort Hays. "She works so hard; she loves the university."

Mason was to be introduced to local and area media at a Tuesday morning press conference.

The next reception is scheduled for 4:30 p.m. Thursday, with the name of the finalist to be released at noon Wednesday. Receptions for the final three finalists will be April 1, 7 and 10.

The search committee will submit its candidate recommendations to the Kansas Board of Regents at the conclusion of the campus visits. The board hopes to name the ninth president of FHSU by late April.