When my mother, Cecilia Avalos, died several years ago, the priest officiating at her funeral asked family members to jot down a few memories about Mom for his use. My two sisters and I independently recalled the same thing about her – how devoted she was to caring about others.

A first-generation Mexican-American, my mother was born in the mining town of Jerome, Arizona, the youngest of a fairly large family. Her mother’s dying wish was that she attend college.

At the age of 16, Mom went off to Northern Arizona State Teachers College (now known as Northern Arizona University) and later became an elementary school teacher and administrator, spending 40 years working with young children. She just loved teaching kids, and was a pioneer in bilingual education.

My mother believed in serving others, especially those less fortunate. When people looking for work came to our house, she would always feed them. She set up a table in our carport and served them with the same silverware we used. Nobody ever left our house hungry.

My dad, Manuel Avalos Sr., was the same way. Born in Tucson, he started out as a bartender, joined the Army during World War II and afterward got his degree from the University of Arizona College of Law. As a county attorney and justice of the peace, he loved traveling around to small towns and presiding at adoption hearings.

I acquired two important concepts from my parents: The call to serve others and a belief in the transformative power of education. As the dean of the College of Arts, Humanities, and Social Sciences, I intend to rely on those concepts as we navigate these difficult times at the University of Southern Maine.

One reason I was attracted to this position is that I have lots of experience with the kind of student who chooses USM. Many are older, nontraditional students, often working and with families. School has not always been a high priority because of their demanding lives, but at some point, they realize they need an education to improve themselves.

They may not have had the best preparation for college, but they are motivated and dedicated. When they get here, they know why they’re here.

We need to provide these students with the best education we can, as well as the opportunity for employment. We need to expose them to the world of ideas that they never would have known if they weren’t here.

Through my own college education, I had the opportunity to hear guest speakers such as Bernadette Devlin, William Kunstler, Angela Davis and Cesar Chavez. I know how transformative new ideas can be.

With my background in political science, I am committed to supporting the liberal arts. Our students should expect us to train them to have strong communication skills, to teach them to think critically and to expose them to a broad range of academic disciplines regardless of what they want to do in their lives. Everything we teach them must prepare them for what they may encounter. That’s what colleges are for.

When I began my career as a university administrator, I quickly realized that mentoring was one of the most important things I could do for faculty. Helping our faculty to be successful teachers, scholars and researchers is crucial. In previous positions, I developed faculty-mentoring programs, and I want to do the same now.

Among my goals for our college is to create a vision statement to keep us focused as we face our many challenges. My hope is that we can develop a unified vision that celebrates and allows the liberal arts to flourish within the context of the “metropolitan university” concept, with appropriate programs to support that vision.

I have spent more than 16 years developing interdisciplinary programs, and I think we need to do more of that at USM. We must collaborate across colleges and create interdisciplinary approaches to post-secondary education. It is a way to make USM thrive and to set us apart from what other institutions do.

Once we clearly define our vision and decide what we want to be, then we can work to attract more students to USM. We have a lot to offer. We have outstanding faculty who are committed to students and many creative people already making strong connections through their community work. We just haven’t told our story very well.

Despite all the problems at USM, I see a light at the end of the tunnel. We have an important role to play in both serving and educating our community, not only for the Portland area, but for all of Maine.

— Special to the Press Herald

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