Moving Boldly

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West Michigan Woman sat down with newly appointed Grand Valley State University president Dr. Philomena V. Mantella to get her take on the future of higher education, her goals for GVSU as its first female president, why she's excited to live and work in West Michigan, and more.

She comes here following her role as senior vice president and chief executive officer of the Lifelong Learning Network at Northeastern University, a private research university in Boston.

Did you know she has a black belt in Tae Kwon Do? Read on!

Did you always know you wanted to work in college and university administration?  
I knew I wanted to make a positive impact in people's lives, helping them find meaning, purpose and capacity to achieve their goals. I began in social work and one of my first internships during my master's degree was working with first-generation college students to support them in their career development. I knew I was hooked.

What makes you passionate about ensuring students—the leaders of tomorrow—get the best education possible?
Education is a propeller for social mobility, economic prosperity and even wellness. In addition, the plethora of new information, experiences and perspectives through association with diverse communities creates enormous growth opportunities. As a leader in education, I embrace the responsibility to ensure not only quality programs and teaching but also the opportunity to create the conditions for learning and growth. One thing that has impressed and drawn me to Grand Valley is how everyone—faculty and staff—embrace a personal responsibility to assure the best conditions for learning.

What lessons from your previous areas of work have prepared you for your new role?
I have learned to be mindful of two fundamental principles: Your actions should always be centered first on what's best for students. Second, they simultaneously must be what is in the long-term interest of the institution. Anyone can make a decision look good in the moment. The big question is, will my successors look back and say, "Boy, I'm glad President Mantella took that action or made that decision" or "My heavens, how did she miss that opportunity?"

Being the first female president of GVSU is exciting! Do you hope your accomplishments will inspire other women to also pursue their goals, even if they seem impossible?
Absolutely! I hope I will be seen as a strong, authentic, and compassionate leader that can inspire women and men to higher levels of achievement. I also look forward to engaging with many people at Grand Valley and in West Michigan from whom I am sure I will learn a great deal from.

Share why you decided that GVSU would be a good fit for you.
Well, I shared with you both my passion for an education that builds pathways to inclusive prosperity for students and my drive to secure opportunities for first-generation students of great promise. GVSU is abundant in opportunity and success in both of these areas.

GVSU also has the right blend of liberal education and professional studies for the 21st century. It's in touch with the needs of the community and is committed to making a difference locally, as well as statewide, nationally, and globally. This strong foundation will secure our future. However, there's always the opportunity to do more. We need to bring lifetime value to learners, enterprises and communities.

Outside of your new role, what about Grand Rapids and West Michigan made you want to relocate from Boston?

People! The individuals I have met inspire me with their warmth and commitment to their families and community. I love the level of energy and engagement that is in the heartbeat of West Michigan.

What strides do you hope to make as president of GVSU?
First and foremost, I am committed to preserve, protect, and enhance the character and essence of this great university. However, no one can stand on one's success today in this fast-paced world. Our young people will increasingly be required to be agile and adaptable to rapid changes in AI, technology, and the global context over their lifetime. They must be principled leaders with compassion and discernment. Our educational models must build this intellectual and emotional muscle and be available to those alumni when they will need us to refresh their skills, strengthen their competencies, or consider new ethical dilemmas.

In the realm of higher education in general, what gives you hope for the future?
Never has higher education been more in demand. People of all ages are going to train and retrain over their lifetime. We need to consider new ways to create access and supports to those with promise and potential who have not had the same means and opportunity to pursue college. Higher education simply has to be willing to challenge itself, experiment, craft new models, assess rigorously, adapt and move boldly. GVSU is a place that's rapid growth and evolution has created a people and culture prepared for that challenge and that embraces the opportunity within it.

What's something people would be surprised to learn about you?
I have a black belt in Tae Kwon Do and love a challenge!

What do you like to do for fun?
There is nothing better than an intense bike ride followed by an Americano coffee and putting my feet up in the back yard on a beautiful West Michigan summer day.

Edited by Sarah Suydam, Staff Writer for
West Michigan Woman.

Photo courtesy of GVSU.

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