Debra Saunders-White, who led North Carolina Central University for more than three years as chancellor, died Friday at age 59.

The university said in a statement that Saunders-White was diagnosed with kidney cancer in 2015 and had been on medical leave since Aug. 8.

She made NCCU history in February 2013 with her appointment as the school’ first permanent female chancellor, a role she assumed in June of that year.

UNC President Margaret Spellings described Saunders-White as a “great leader” and a “valued colleague and friend.”

“Deb loved NCCU with all her being and treated each of its students as her very own,” Spellings said in a statement. “She called them her light and her inspiration as she waged her battle with cancer.

“Deb will be remembered for her positive outlook on life, her unwavering faith and determination, and her commitment to Eagle Excellence,” Spellings continued. “Our hearts go out to her family and the entire NCCU community.”

As a first-generation college graduate, Saunders-White “understood the rare opportunities that higher education can provide, as well as the challenges so many young people face in accessing and affording college,” Spellings said.

Saunders-White joined NCCU from the U.S. Department of Education after working in higher education at Hampton University and the UNC Wilmington, as well as in corporate marketing for IBM.

Saunders-White is survived by two children, Elizabeth Paige and Cecil III; her mother, Irene Saunders; and her brothers, Roger, Ralph and Kyle Saunders and their families.

In a statement sent to the NCCU community, Johnson O. Akinleye, acting chancellor, provost and vice chancellor for Academic Affairs, said the impact of Sounders-White’s death was “nearly immeasurable to our community.”

“Chancellor Saunders-White was a powerhouse of energy and wit,” he said. “She spent her life passionately executing on her visionary and transformative strategy of using education to create opportunity.”

Founder and publisher of Qcitymetro, Glenn has worked at newspapers including the Los Angeles Times, St. Petersburg (Fla.) Times, Philadelphia Inquirer, Wall Street Journal and The Charlotte Observer.