Philomena Mantella was one of four siblings who were first-generation college students. Courtesy GVSU
When Philomena Mantella started attending college, she said she originally planned to stay on the narrow track that was expected of women at that time.
But after she got a social work degree and began working, Mantella realized her interests and abilities encompassed more than solely what was expected of her. This is what led her down a path of educational leadership to her latest role as the new president of Grand Valley State University.
Mantella is one of four siblings and was a first-generation college student at Syracuse University.
“It was my parents' dream to send their kids to college because they didn't have the opportunity to go,” Mantella said.
The first clientele she worked with after graduating college were first-generation, low-income college students seeking support. Though she and her siblings were first-generation college students, she would consider her family middle class and said some of the students she worked with had much bigger gaps to fulfill than she did.
Working with those students is what inspired and continues to inspire a career that seeks to make education accessible to everyone, Mantella said.
“Being sure that college opportunity isn't a privilege for the elite but is broadly available at a quality that can create the kind of inclusive prosperity we need,” she said.
Part of that discovery came from working with the students with various needs, whether assessing any educational gaps they need to make up, helping deal with heavy family obligations or providing support for other emotional needs.
Working with students on these different issues required familiarity in many areas, but that exposed her to new topics she was able to think about and explore.
Mantella started working in the finance area because it was necessary to help support the students, for example.
“The more I learned about how financial aid funding worked at the federal, state and grant level, the more able I was to support all those learners,” she said.
As she learned more, she became interested in the bigger picture and policies that affect those students and how advocacy could benefit them.
Mantella realized during her education leadership career that she is equally interested in the business side of a university and how it runs, which is why she chose to have an emphasis in business affairs as she pursued her Ph.D. in college and university administration.
“I can remember that journey very vividly in those first couple of jobs and finding that it was important to do the work I wanted to do, but it struck a chord in my own interest in passion, as well,” Mantella said.
So, she said she left that traditional background to pursue that passion, which is part of the reason she said she came to GVSU.
She said she became committed to a “system-thinking” approach.
“I really wanted to understand how enterprises work to fulfill their mission,” Mantella said. “And so that took me on a journey where I wanted breadth in my institutional experience because I wanted to understand the system, and that guided the way I thought about my own leadership journey.”
So, her journey to become a university president was not a traditional one, which she said typically goes from faculty to department chair to dean to provost to president.
She would consider her higher education experience as more of a 360-degree view, working in a variety of areas.
Mantella spent the last 20 years at Northeastern University, a private research university in Boston. She spent 10 years as a senior vice president and then added her role as CEO of the Lifelong Learning Network for the next 10 years.
Lifelong Learning Network was the school’s response to the economic downturn in 2008. It included internationalizing the experiential program and establishing international campus systems. This work brought Mantella throughout North America and overseas as she co-led the establishment of these campuses.
She was previously executive vice president for enrollment management and student life at Pace University and associate vice president for enrollment management at Fairleigh Dickinson University.
She also has served as vice president of student affairs for State University of New York’s College of Optometry, as well as assistant dean for enrollment services and director of scholarships and financial aid at Ferris State University.
“I think having walked in a variety of those shoes broadened my perspective and appreciation for difference in perspective,” Mantella said. “I think leadership that encourages people to examine complex issues from different perspectives is stronger; it's the basis of creative leadership.”
She said those experiences have influenced her leadership style and made her feel more comfortable taking risks and challenging convention when trying to solve problems. She said the experiences have helped her become a person comfortable with ambiguity and diverse opinions, embracing an open culture and seeking input from people involved at every level.
That type of approach is needed today in higher education, she said, because of all the changes and the questions of its relevancy.
“I think what higher education needs today is to challenge convention,” Mantella said. That means considering why those questions of relevancy are being asked and what can be done to better serve students, she said.
In some ways, Mantella said she already was exactly where she wanted to be, professionally and near her family, when the GVSU president role opened. She said the search firm reached out to her, which she said happened “frequently” because Northeastern was “getting known for its innovation” and had moved from a tier-three to a tier-one school.
Mantella said she remembered when GVSU was young, and she was curious about how it looked now.
“I was blown away by what I found: the level of growth, the level of momentum, the entrepreneurial character —the exact things that I valued in education,” she said.
She said she was excited about GVSU “trying to take on education a little bit differently” in multiple locations, its first-generation student impact and the integration of liberal education and professional studies — all at around $14,000 in tuition, much lower than some.
That lower tuition cost creates a much greater opportunity for impact, she said, especially for students like the low-income, first-generation ones she worked with early in her career.
Even early in her tenure as GVSU president, Mantella said the university will need to focus on the value of its services first and foremost as it adapts to quickly changing fields.
“A university education needs to bring value over a lifetime, not a first job value, not a career starter value,” Mantella said.
She’d also like to elevate GVSU on the national and state stages and extend the university’s reach to more people. That could mean reaching more people from traditional college-age groups, as well as people at other points of their lives.
Mantella said she wants to ensure GVSU approaches education as an ecosystem, making connections with high schools and community colleges to provide more access and opportunity, rather than simply pushing students through to the finish line.
Finally, she said it’ll be important for GVSU to maintain its “entrepreneurial spirit.”
“To not have an institution in its 60th year become satisfied with where we are but continue to press and have that be part of its culture,” Mantella said.