DeLaine Priest wants students to believe that nothing is unattainable – you just need a plan.

As the associate vice provost for Student Success and Advising, Priest is spearheading efforts to innovate academic advising at UCF. The foundation of this new advising structure is a collaboration between college and university advising offices working in tandem to help students select and complete their degree programs.

To support that effort, the newly renamed and re-envisioned Knights Major Exploration and Transition Center serves students with undeclared majors and students exploring degree programs. The center merges First Year Advising and Exploration with Transfer and Transitions Services.

DIVERSE: Issues in Higher Education recognized Priest as a ‘Leading Woman in Higher Education.’

Earlier this year, DIVERSE: Issues in Higher Education recognized Priest as a “Leading Woman in Higher Education,” one of only 35 professionals in the nation to receive this distinction in 2020. The award spotlights women who are tackling some of higher education’s toughest challenges, exhibit extraordinary leadership, and have made a positive difference in their communities.

DIVERSE recognized Priest for being an “unwavering champion” for student success, retention and completion, throughout her more than 25-year career at UCF. Since coming to UCF in 1994, she has played an integral role in raising the university’s retention and four-year graduation rates to all-time highs. Additionally, Priest has served as the principal investigator for a series of federally funded TRiO Program grants, which have been key to the university’s efforts to better serve first-generation and Pell Grant-eligible students.

Recently, UCF Today sat down with Priest to learn more about her work and what fuels her passion for student success.

Tell us about UCF’s new approach to advising? 

Now, college and division advisors work in lockstep to create a nurturing student experience. We help them identify a major and then ensure they are taking the appropriate classes and participating in the right educational experiences that will allow them to achieve their academic and professional goals. Students with a declared major will be advised by the college of their major and the Knights Major Exploration and Transition Center will assist undeclared students.

How does Student Success and Advising fit into this new model?

I would describe it as a hub. Student Success and Advising collaborates with campus partners to develop and implement strategic academic initiatives that foster student success. It was established to develop a coordinated network of support that assists students as they transition to college, helps them discover pathways to academic success, and connects students to campus resources.

Student Success and Advising supports students’ progress towards graduation. Our organization includes Data and Strategic Projects (formerly Office of Student Success), the Knights Major Exploration and Transition Center, Pre-Health and Pre-Law Advising, and the Advisor Training and Development team.

Why was the Knights Major Exploration and Transition Center created?

UCF noticed a disconnect. Students had a place to go for degree-program guidance. If they didn’t have a major or felt that the one they chose wasn’t for them, there wasn’t a centralized resource. Data showed us that these students tended to “drift” and were more likely to leave or not graduate on time. It was not acceptable.

This center is a place where students can go to explore. Advisors and coaches help them answer the question, “What do I want to be? And how do I create a road map?” The team also assists students’ transition to the university. Once students declare their major, they work with their college’s advising office.

Before joining UCF, you worked in the private sector. Why did you decide to change course?

Education is in my DNA. Both of my parents were educators. My mom worked in education for more than 40 years, and my dad was in the military before becoming an educator for over 20 years.

Ironically, I initially thought that I belonged in the world of business. After undergrad, I started my career in sales with a national corporation. However, there was just something about the field of education that spoke to me in a very real and personal way. I enjoy the richness of the education field. More importantly, I enjoy helping young people navigate their way into the real world, and leading Student Success and Advising allows me to do that every day.

What do you love most about UCF?

There are so many aspects of this university that I love that it would be impossible to pick just one. Allow me to share a few things.

I look at the diversity of our student body, and I see a community that’s representative of our region, state and nation. I take pride in being a part of a university that champions diversity, inclusion and paving a path forward for students from all walks of life.

I marvel at how UCF has evolved. There was a time when I would attend national conferences, and many of the people I’d meet had never even heard of UCF. Today, we’re one of the largest universities in the country, and we’re nationally respected for our innovation, research, scholarship, online learning, and our commitment to student success. Playing a part in that growth has been extremely gratifying.

Lastly, what embodies the very essence of this university for me has always been the UCF Creed: Integrity, Scholarship, Community, Creativity and Excellence. Those are the core values that have guided this university and my work here. I believe in them, and I stand upon them.

How did it feel to be recognized by Diverse: Issues in Higher Education?

No one who works in the education field does so for the accolades. With that said, I am both elated and humbled to have received such a tremendous honor.

My time here at UCF has always been about the students, our UCF Knights. My passion for higher education and helping young people has been a consistent theme throughout my career. The recognition speaks to that devotion as well as to my efforts toward expanding educational opportunities for all students.