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New campus leadership position seeks to enhance the student academic experience

Aurelio Manuel Valente

Aurèlio Manuel Valente will be the primary contact for academic colleges and departments for undergraduate programs of study and will work to support retention and graduation initiatives.

By Matthew Cimitile, University Communications and Marketing

As the new regional assistant vice chancellor for undergraduate studies at USF St. Petersburg, Aurèlio Manuel Valente will be in a unique position to use his professional knowledge and personal story to help students flourish during their college experience.

Born in Portugal to a large family, Valente immigrated to the U.S. as a young child. His family settled in a small town in Massachusetts where most people, including his mother and many of his extended family, worked at a local factory known to employ many new immigrants. Valente wanted to pursue a different path.

After going to trade school to study drafting, Valente decided his extroverted personality wasn’t made for “having a cubicle, a drafting table and only talking to surveyors.” He enrolled as a first-generation student at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth, where he worked full time to pay his way through school, though his parents always found a way to pay for his books even while he earned his doctorate in his 40s. 

His college career was an enriching experience of learning and mentorship, leading to an undergraduate degree and MBA from UMass Dartmouth; a master’s in education from Suffolk University; and a doctorate in higher education from Florida State University. Each degree along the way developed his love of higher education and a desire to help others succeed the way he was in his journey.

In this newly created role at USF St. Petersburg, Valente will be the primary contact for academic colleges and departments for undergraduate programs of study. He will supervise the director of the Debbie Nye Sembler Student Success Center, the academic advocates and the advising and professional staff in the Academic Advising Opportunity Center. Valente will also work to support retention and graduation initiatives and ensure that campus personnel are using university-wide data and analytics platforms. 

We spoke with Valente – who previously served in leadership positions at National Louis University and Governors State University – about his research into the success of first-year students, the value of being engaged at college and his vision for his new role.

What drew you to the world of higher education as a profession?

As an immigrant, I was always drawn to the best of this country. No place captures the potential of the American dream more than a college campus. Learners arrive on our campus with dreams, and when we do our work at its fullest potential, we help them achieve those dreams. For me, the spirit of the American dream can’t be captured better than a college campus. 

A perfect example of this was when I became an American citizen during my undergraduate days. The dean of students at my college came to my citizen swearing in. It had a profound effect on me and a reason why I was drawn into that work and eventually became a dean of students myself.

For your dissertation, you studied first-year initiatives pertaining to 12,000 college students. What did you learn about their experiences?

Florida State University had three anchor initiatives for a first-year experience. A first-year experience seminar, a living learning community and a freshman interest group. I studied what impact these anchor initiatives had on student engagement and eventually their academic performance and graduation rates. 

What I found was students’ decisions to participate in these experiences led to higher student engagement rates, which directly contributed to increased levels of academic performance and persistence rates. Of the three initiatives, the first-year interest groups – which consist of students in a particular major who take a common seminar or a service-learning initiative as a course - was the most impactful, because of the coordination between in-classroom and out-of-classroom experiences as well as relationships built with faculty.

Furthermore, all the anchor initiatives had a disproportionately positive impact on underserved students, such as first-generation and students of color. Such initiatives contribute to my belief that a rising tide lifts all boats. When a program lifts up a student population, all students benefit.

Why is engagement so important for students at colleges? 

For me, campus engagement is the “classroom outside the classroom.” It can provide students a deeper learning experience for what they are absorbing in their studies. Being engaged brings to life exercises of learning – that adage of when you do, you learn. You naturally amplify learning when being engaged in the community, in student organizations, in leadership positions through student government or in residence life, in student media, and on and on. 

What is your vision for this new role in strengthening undergraduate studies and student success at USF St. Petersburg? 

It’s a new position and comes at a pivotal point for the campus as it pertains to three significant changes. The first is consolidation. How do you tap into the scale across the entire University of South Florida while still maintaining the sense of community on the St. Petersburg campus? The second is the decentralization of advising. The advising model here has moved from a central advising office, which cultivates a community of practice model among advisors, to a subject matter expertise model where advisors are based in the colleges. How do we enhance the content expertise model without losing the community of practice approach? And the third is what we all face, which is what higher education looks like in a post-COVID world and balancing in person education with remote learning. 

My role will try and maximize the value of all three – of being part of a larger university while keeping our sense of community, of moving towards a content-specific advising without losing a community of practice and advancing technology and adaptable learning through a post-covid environment.

What are you most proud of in your professional career working in higher education?

At the micro level, it is when individuals cross that stage and fulfill their goal of earning a degree due in some small part to my individual work or the work of our team. And that support doesn’t just impact the graduate, but by proxy their families too. The value of higher education is not limited to just the person who earns that degree.

At a macro level, it is the impact of moving an institution forward, achieving new heights of excellence and establishing new processes or programs that contribute to greater levels of student success. At Governors State University, (where Valente was vice president for student affairs and enrollment management) I was hired to help transition it to a four-year institution. In two years, we had to build in the general education academic components, transition from a commuter to residential campus and launch athletic programs. We achieved all of it. As a result, that university is a stronger institution and contributing to the Chicago southland community in ways that it didn’t previously. 

When not working, what do you do in your free time?

Travel is my vice. My motivation to unplug is to travel and experience as much of this country and the world has to offer. There is nothing more rewarding to me than meeting new people and exploring new cultures. Part of that comes from my own personal experiences growing up. For me, it provides a greater worldview and personal growth. 

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