Conversations with Leaders: Aurélio Valente
Ask Governors State University’s Vice President of Student Affairs and Dean of Students Aurélio Valente about his career in higher education administration, and the conversation quickly swings to golf.
Growing up in a town where most people graduated high school and then went to work at the factory where Titleist golf balls are produced, Valente was likely expected to work there, too. “Everybody in my family makes golf balls, and the irony is nobody golfs,’’ said Valente, whose parents and their siblings immigrated from Portugal beginning in the 1960s and settled in New Bedford, Massachusetts.
According to Golf.com, which profiled the extended Valente family in 2012, Aurélio Valente’s family was part of an ten-sibling so-called chain migration to the U.S. One after the other, they went to work at Titleist.
Among the 11 family members who have worked at the rubber factory, Valente’s only brother has been there since 1997, and his mother retired recently after for more than 25 years. “My mom doesn't even have fingerprints anymore. She worked with rubber casings so long that she has no prints.”
Valente wanted to make his own mark. He followed a path that led him to first earn a bachelor’s degree and then two advanced degrees in higher education administration, as well as an MBA.
Prior to joining GSU, Valente spent nearly 20 years studying strategies of first-year students and deepening the engagement of university students at six institutions, mostly on the east coast. He has a baseball cap from each one proudly displayed in his office.
He arrived at GSU in 2012 just in time to help launch the university’s first freshman class, part of a transformation from an upper division institution to a full-service university that includes student athletics, clubs, and organizations.
And while his mom may not have fingerprints, Valente’s prints are stamped across campus.
Among the higher profile programs he helped launch: Intercollegiate athletics, which today boasts seven teams, including the champions men's basketball team; the bustling Prairie Place dorm; the serene Meditation and Interfaith Room; the Student Leadership Institute’s robust portfolio of leadership initiatives; and a global service learning group that allows students to study abroad with the Office of International Services. Earlier this year—the third in a row—students visited Nicaragua as part of Valente’s vision for broader learning.
He prides himself on helping to create a student experience that will ultimately better prepare them for the workforce.
“Before, GSU was more transactional. Students came to campus, went to classes, and went home. They were getting a quality degree—but not necessarily a full educational experience. That’s what we tried to change here—really providing students a comprehensive and meaningful educational experience that delivers on the transformative potential of a college degree. That way, when one of our students interviews alongside the student from Loyola, for example, they can be just as competitive.”
For all the first-year student programs and services, Valente said the most promising students are those who answer affirmatively to two simple questions: “Do I belong here?” and “Can I succeed here?”
“If we can get a student’s inner voice to say ‘yes’ to those questions, the more resilient they are when they have that roommate argument, or when they get their first bad grade."
Resilience has been a constant for Valente, an immigrant who says, “By any measure, I shouldn’t be here.”
He came to the U.S. at age 12 and lived a secluded life, surrounded by dozens of other Portuguese-speaking immigrants. Valente found himself stifled by expectations of his tightly knit community.
Like his cousins and their parents before them, Valente went to trade school and studied commercial art and drafting, “the trade shop discipline that was least disagreeable,’’ he said.
After attending Greater New Bedford Regional Vocational High School, Valente went to work as a draftsman in a civil engineering firm. But by age 20, he was laid off and listless. At the urging of co-workers, Valente enrolled at University of Massachusetts and commuted to classes.
Like many GSU freshmen taking developmental courses, Valente need extra help with college classes, inspiring Smart Start years later. He points out one huge difference. “Our students are in Smart Start for two weeks. I had to do a year of developmental work.”
By the time he finished his undergraduate degree, Valente was well on his way to a new life he discovered as a resident assistant his senior year. “It took me out my bubble – away from my family and the immediacy of the Portuguese community into a space where I could question my own identity and values.”
Despite having spent six years earning a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering, Valente pursued higher education administration. For his doctoral thesis, Valente studied the first-year experiences of 12,000 students and confirmed what he already knew. “Campus life is more than pizza parties and movie nights. It can have educational outcomes, as well. I learned that universities, at their best, are ‘dream factories’ for students. They come here with dreams and we help students achieve them.”
Valente brought that promise to GSU in and went to work implementing programs and initiatives to deepen school experiences and improve outcomes. On campus, he’s as high profile as his programs, frequently lunching with students, one on one, and a mainstay on Twitter (@GSUDean).
His drive to connect and engage has earned him a reputation, though. “People say I’m pushy. I say, ‘I’m pushy with a purpose.’ ” Student success is urgent.
“I’ve always felt like what we do matters. That’s especially true here. If not for GSU, many of our students would not have a degree, which means they wouldn’t have an education, which means they can’t transform their life. Our students are here now and they don’t have time to wait."