The University of South Florida’s multi-pronged approach to student success is attracting attention from the U.S. Department of Education.
Aaliyah Samuel, deputy assistant secretary for Local, State and National Engagement, visited the Tampa campus to learn first-hand about USF’s initiatives to help close the achievement gap and ensure timely graduation, and its emphasis on attracting transfer students as well as professionals who want to continue their education mid-career.
Samuel earned her master’s degree from USF in 2003 and was appointed to the U.S. Department of Education under the Biden-Harris Administration. During a roundtable discussion, she heard from leaders within the USF office of Student Success about a range of issues impacting students, such as how data is being used to monitor retention concerns, mental health issues and financial challenges.
“USF takes great pride in its efforts to support student success. We are honored to have Dr. Samuel here today for us to share some of our best practices,” said Allison Crume, dean of Undergraduate Studies. “As a USF alum, we appreciate her excitement and interest in truly understanding our initiatives and how the federal government can further assist in seeing USF and our students live up to their full potential.”
The deputy assistant secretary shared how the Biden-Harris Administration is collecting data from institutions about how they are utilizing Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund dollars, funded by the American Rescue Plan, to support students. Grants are in the process of being administered to USF students who have been negatively impacted by COVID-19. Samuel spoke with one dozen students, some of whom received these grants, to hear how they’ve been affected by the pandemic. The students also shared more about the numerous hurdles they’ve faced in applying for federal financial aid and its associated impact on their mental health. She called USF a model in demonstrating the value of investing in higher education.
“As I think about USF and examples of institutions that are using federal funding well, USF is definitely an example for how it has addressed smaller class sizes, distance learning and PPE,” Samuel said. “I think one of the things that I heard that can serve as a model for other institutions, was the alternative calendar and how USF has utilized federal funding to help support alternative schedules to bring as many students back – and not just bring them back, but lead them towards completion.”
“I hope this conversation will light the fire under politicians in D.C. and make them aware of the significance of what students are struggling with right now, especially coming off the heels of a terrible pandemic and all of the mental health implications of that as well as the financial implications of the pandemic,” said USF Student Government President Julia Cunningham, who participated in the roundtable discussion. “I hope they’ll really realize that there are people and students who are struggling to try to get their education and I hope hearing these conversations and hearing from real students will inspire them to take action.”
Samuel spent 10 years in K-12 education, starting her career as a special education teacher in Hillsborough County. Upon graduating from USF, she served as assistant principal of Sheehy and MacFarlane Park Elementary Schools in Tampa, later advancing her career into public policy.