Few titles stand out the way Paul Dosal’s does: senior vice president for Student Success. It’s an all-new position at UCF and, as everyone can clearly see, it spells out a gigantic expectation.

“This is what my parents wanted for my brothers and me, to graduate from college with minimal debt and a path into a professional career,” Dosal says. “It’s the same thing my wife, Lisa, and I want for our two sons and it’s what we all want for every student here at UCF.”

Dosal recognizes the canyon-wide difference between parenting two college-bound teenagers and being the person charged with the success of a diverse community of Knights. Yet he’s quite convincing when he says, “It can be done.” He led the nation’s largest increase in on-time graduation rates during his previous role at the University of South Florida — a 17% increase between 2011 and 2015. He is now applying a similar gameplan to UCF, centered around one major theme.

“Every student needs to know, without question, there are people on campus who care about them and want to know their stories.”

“Every student needs to know, without question, there are people on campus who care about them and want to know their stories,” he says.

Dosal likes stories. It’s why he prefers narrative versions of history. Nonfiction. The real deal. His favorites subjects? Lincoln, Eisenhower, and his own ancestors who moved from Spain to the Canary Islands to Cuba to the Tampa area.

But let’s focus on this one: Paul Dosal. Unfiltered, his story gives us clues about why he can be both a realist and an optimist about delivering results to match his title.

On growing up in one of Tampa’s first suburbs.
My parents moved out of Ybor City and into a suburb called Seminole Heights before I was born. Ybor City had been a multi-racial, multi-cultural, multi-lingual enclave for nearly 70 years. My great grandfather immigrated there from Cuba in 1889 to work in the cigar industry.  By the time I was born, the cigar industry had collapsed and the people had begun to migrate to other parts of Tampa.  So, I, along with my two brothers and sister, grew up in what had been a white, middle-class neighborhood. My two brothers and one sister grew up speaking English as our first language — just like my entire generation. It was part of the acculturation process for us. I vividly remember hearing people say derogatory things about me or my family, but mom and dad showed us how to rise above it all.

On the significance of his Little League Baseball team.
My father exemplified how to treat others through his actions. He coached my baseball team, and years later I looked back and realized that he was the first coach to bring Black players into the league. He never made a big deal about being the first coach to integrate the league, but I’m sure he took great pride in what he had done because of the prejudice he experienced himself.

On why he has a buffet of degrees (bachelor’s in international politics, master’s in Latin American studies, Ph.D. in history).
History is the common thread through all my degrees. Mom and dad instilled an appreciation for history. I studied Latin American history largely because I had such a strong interest in learning more about my own cultural heritage. My parents weren’t able to go to college themselves. Dad had to work his way out of poverty, which is why he and mom placed such a high value on education. They made it clear that I would go to college and have opportunities, despite any financial limitations.

On his personal struggles in college.
I graduated seventh in my high school class and earned a scholarship to a prestigious university. I thought I was prepared for success. But my first semester away from home was tough. I was lonely, disengaged, depressed and my grades suffered. I needed help, particularly with my writing, but I didn’t ask for it — and no one on campus seemed to notice or care. When I came home for Thanksgiving, Reverend Holmes, our family’s minister and my father’s best friend, gave me a thirty-minute tutorial on writing and turned my academic career around. He took out a yellow legal pad and showed me how to write with an active voice, fewer prep phrases and no run-on sentences. I’ll never forget that.

On why the 30-minute writing lesson shapes what he does today.
The big takeaway is this: Our minister cared enough to do something. In my role today, I reflect and think, “Why didn’t anyone at that great university do anything?” The English instructor could see I was struggling. I could have been referred to the tutoring center or counseling services.  An resident assistant (RA). lived two doors down, but he didn’t seem to care either. I’d been assigned a roommate with whom I had nothing in common. I wasn’t involved in intramural sports or any student organization. I turned my grades around, thanks to Rev. Holmes, and after one year I transferred to another school, joined the soccer team, made friends and enjoyed the experience. That college cared for me, and I’ve never forgotten that.

On the task of guiding thousands of success stories.
First, I can’t do this alone. I’ve spent my first two months here meeting people throughout the campus. Student success is a team effort. It’s the Recreation and Wellness Center group, academic advisors, instructors, counselors, coaches, RAs, people working in food services, librarians, maintenance personnel, tech support. Student success is everyone’s responsibility. By focusing on the development of an institutional culture supportive of student success, we can accelerate our impressive progress. Without that culture of care, the adoption of predictive analytics or new technology platforms won’t make a difference.

“By focusing on the development of an institutional culture supportive of student success, we can accelerate our impressive progress.”

On the biggest obstacles to student success.
Almost everyone, somewhere along the line, will face challenges. Our first-year retention rate at UCF is approaching 93%, which is phenomenal. Now let’s translate that to our four-year graduation rate. For the first-time-in-college class of 2018 the rate will likely be above 55% — a significant improvement, but still shy of the 60% rate we want. We should hit that by next summer if we launch an all-out campaign to graduate the 2019 cohort by August. Our strategic objective is to hit 65% within 5 years. Then we can take it to 70% and beyond. But to do it, we need to coordinate all our efforts fully utilize all the tools available to us. We can identify the students who need extra support. We can identify the courses they need and make sure that they’re available to them. What kind of financial aid can we make available? Do they have personal problems and need counseling? Are there signs of food insecurity? With a team at every corner of the university, we can be proactive to keep students on track.

On why graduating on time is so important.
There’s a heavy cost when you don’t graduate on time. If it takes two extra years to earn a degree, the cost can be at least $120,000. That’s adding the cost of attendance for two extra years and the foregoing of a salary. Students who leave school with overwhelming debt probably will not consider their college years a success.

On why he doesn’t sound overwhelmed himself.
I’ve been at this student success work for nearly 15 years. I’ve made some mistakes along the way, and I’ve learned from those mistakes. I know we can tailor the care management approach to the unique needs and interests of UCF, and it will work. The culture of care is already evident. The tools we need are already here. I’m not simply going to pick the USF care management approach off the shelf and deliver it to UCF. That won’t work. It’s about believing in the potential of every student and creating a care network that will provide the right student, with the right support, at the right time — like the minister who cared enough to take 30 minutes to turn my life around.