From First-Generation College Student to Vice President with Jose Aviles

September 30, 2021

President Tate and Jose Aviles

President William F. Tate IV sits down with Dr. Jose Aviles to discuss his journey from growing up in a low-income housing development in New Jersey to the vice president for Enrollment Management at LSU. They discuss Dr. Aviles’ passion for serving students, what keeps him motivated, and his ability to consistently build the largest, most talented and diverse classes in the university’ s history. Over the last two decades, Dr. Aviles has intentionally served eight different institutions, ranging from the most selective institution in the country to a community college.

Full Transcript

Interviewees Biography

Dr. Jose Aviles is the vice president for Enrollment Management at LSU. Currently in his fifth year at LSU, Dr. Aviles has built some of the largest, most talented and diverse classes in the university’s history. Over the last two decades, Dr. Aviles has intentionally served eight different institutions, ranging from the most selective institution in the country to a community college. His inspiration to serve students comes from his own experience as a first-generation college student.


President William F. Tate IV:[00:00:00] Welcome to "On Par with the President." On our podcast today, I'm excited to be talking with Dr. Jose Aviles, Vice President for Enrollment Management at LSU. Currently in his fifth year at LSU,  Dr. Aviles has built some of the largest and most talented and diverse student classes in the university's history. Over the last two decades, Dr. Aviles has intentionally served eight different institutions ranging from our country's most selective institutions to a community college. His inspiration to serve students comes from his own experience as a first generation college student. We're teeing off with Dr. Aviles, so let's get to know him a little better right now. Welcome. Good to see you. How are you?

Dr. Jose Aviles:[00:00:59] I'm doing well. Good to see you as well.

President William F. Tate IV:[00:01:01] Let's get started from the beginning. You have an inspirational story because you are a first generation college student. When did you realize you wanted to go to college?

Dr. Jose Aviles:[00:01:11] Well, you know, it wasn't necessarily a straight line for me. I think I came to terms with the fact of going to college pretty late in my high school career. In fact, I was in my senior year when I finally really made that commitment. And part of that really was the fact that I didn't know anyone in my family, no one in my family had gone to college. And I didn't know anyone really in my neighborhood who had had that journey. So it's not like I had any models around me of success. I would characterize my high school years as largely being adrift, but enough to keep my head above water. And it wasn't until I met one of my most significant mentors at the college that I ultimately attended in New Jersey, Mr. Myers, who inspired me to think about, you know, this journey of going into the academy and what it meant, and what it means to be a college educated person in this country.

President William F. Tate IV:[00:02:02] Amazing. So there was one person who made a big difference?

Dr. Jose Aviles:[00:02:06] Yeah, it's no question. I subscribe philosophically to the perspective that no significant learning truly happens without a significant relationship. You know, because again, I went to an under-resourced, largely under-resourced school in New Jersey, and I would say that guidance counselors largely would look at, at the potential of who we were at, perhaps certainly students that were coming from my neighborhood, which were a low-income housing development in New Jersey, as students that largely would be tracked into some vocation. If we were lucky, perhaps going off to be a barber or a mechanic or something of that nature. And it was Mr. Myers, that was the first person in my life who, you know, within the first few weeks of meeting him, said to me, "Jose, you're bright. You know, you're someone who should, you know, should pursue not just your bachelor's degree, but you, I expect you to be a doctor someday." And there was, you know, significantly different messages than what I was used to. And certainly, I would say up to that point, I don't remember anyone calling me bright.  But it was something that, that kind of set in motion, a relationship with this mentor that ultimately led to having extraordinarily high expectations of me as a student, perhaps higher than what I even had of myself at the time and place a different level of value on education. Then I had experienced other places, you know, certainly at home. You know, my mom was largely trying to keep, you know, food on the table and working, you know, multiple jobs. Wasn't necessarily, you know, involved in my educational experience throughout high school. So it was, you know, my mentor, Mr. Myers, that probably, not probably, I can absolutely credit with, with bringing just a whole different way of looking at all of this in terms of an educational pursuit into perspective for me.

President William F. Tate IV:[00:03:59] A big part of golf is after you tee off, you want to be able to get to the green as quickly as you can with fewer strokes. It means you're going to be a better scorer. We want to understand how Dr. Aviles is actually a pro. How did he get to where he is right now? So you mentioned Mr. Myers, and I just want to understand, and I want other people to understand what has kept you driven all these years?

Dr. Jose Aviles:[00:04:24] You know, 24 years into this work, I say to the staff that I've been a part of, and I've had the fortunate opportunity to lead, that you can see yourself as a simple admission counselor that goes and puts a banner on a table and spends two hours at a college fair a night. Or you can see yourself as an educator, responsible for students that you are working and serving in the larger pipeline of education in the larger system of education. And if you see yourself that way, there's a responsibility and accountability that goes with the work that we're doing.

President William F. Tate IV:[00:04:54] So I understand that you're a big relationship person, and that's a big part of how you think about the world. Help us understand the role of relationships in your current role and how you frame that as a value in your activities day to day.

Dr. Jose Aviles:[00:05:08] What I recognized early on in college admissions is that what made me different as a recruiter even, was the fact that I would spend the kind of time, inordinate amount of time, working with students, especially students who don't have access to good information, who often see the process of college admissions as incredibly complicated or overwhelming. And the difference that I found was always relationship. It was, can you spend time? Can you build trust? Can you show students and families that this process doesn't have to be complicated? It doesn't have to be overwhelming. Relationship is everything. It's not about what you put in a brochure. It's not about what you're putting on a website to these families. It's about helping them see a picture of success that includes them in it.

President William F. Tate IV:[00:05:58] The Double Eagle. Really outstanding performance on a golf course. When did you know, as a professional, you made it? You realized, I'm here.

Dr. Jose Aviles:[00:06:11] You know, that's an interesting question. I don't necessarily feel that I've, I've made it even now, to be honest with you. I feel like there's still so much work to do that I feel that that sense of anxiety sometimes where time is running out. I think if there is a moment, it could be probably, I think at the point of being conferred my doctoral degree. I remember starting that process, that doctoral journey and kind of journaling at that time, like how did I get here? Like how does that happen? And I'm trying to make sense of that.

President William F. Tate IV:[00:06:45] Well, I'm not going to ask you the secret sauce of all your strategies. I know that you have to keep those confidential, but tell us broadly how you developed the concepts that drive your recruitment and enrollment strategies.

Dr. Jose Aviles:[00:06:59] I'm probably known most for telling directors that I'm not interested in hiring technicians in our world. Like I'm not, I can teach somebody to do admissions work. What I can't teach them to do is to care and have a love to serve students. Like you either have that, or you don't. And if you're not passionate about making a difference in the life of a young person, you're probably not going to work in my staff for very long, because the work that we're doing is really, really hard. You know, when you think about the things that we've done at LSU, in terms of the historic nature of the gains, it's exhausting. It takes a significant lift on the part of, you know, very talented staff that are part of our team. You're willing to do that if you believe in it. If you really are willing to run through a brick wall to impact the life of a young person and their community, this makes sense to you. But if that's not really what you are deeply passionate about, then this work becomes way too hard to add up to making sense. So I think it's about recruiting talented staff members who have a passion to serve students and it's about digging into the research to inform practice. And it's about using data to inform every aspect of the work we do before we start delving into strategies. I think those are the pieces that really make us successful.

President William F. Tate IV:[00:08:21] Minding the flag. A big part of golf is the ritual of supporting others. Making sure they are able to score as high as they can. It's not just about your score, but it's about the other person. How does these notions that I'm hearing in literature about resilience and grit fit into what you're trying to do when you try to bring a class together

Dr. Jose Aviles:[00:08:47] Yes, you know, that's the exciting part of the time that we're living in. I think COVID has probably accelerated even the conversations around things like, these characteristics of students that exist outside of a standardized test score, for example, or other areas that are, have been the hallmarks of the admission process. And so that's something that we can all get around, right? You know, someone who's getting up every day and fighting and pursuing and pushing, you know, despite how many times they get knocked down. You know, grit is made up of two basic characteristics or variables, right? It's one part passion, one part perseverance. I see that in the students that we're bringing to LSU, you know, consistently over and over again. These passionate young people that are coming into this environment and, you know, LSU is not an easy place. This is a place where you're going to be challenged. Where expectations are high, and our faculty are looking at you to really meet that expectation that they have of you academically. And so it's going to take you getting up every day and finding a way in which you're going to be able to push forward no matter what that expectation is. And you do that because you are passionate about what you're studying. You are passionate about what you're pursuing. So a gritty student, I think, is oftentimes, in many ways, probably missed through the traditional admission processes. But if you start looking, you start kind of pursuing a new way of thinking about the way that you're evaluating the student or providing access. I think not only will you expand access, but you're going to find that the community of scholars that you're bringing to the institution you're serving are so much richer than what you would have had otherwise.

President William F. Tate IV:[00:10:29] Wow. That was the best explanation of grit in that whole literature resilience that I've heard. Thank you for that. It's Hispanic heritage month, and you've been seen as a leader in expanding Hispanic growth in our student population here at LSU. What does that mean to you?

Dr. Jose Aviles:[00:10:49] You know, again, when you talk about points of pride, here's another one. The Hispanic number from 2017 to today has grown by over a hundred percent. I think we were bringing in like maybe 300 Hispanic students back in 2017. This year's freshmen class, we're close to 700 Hispanic students who are part of the entering class that just started here in fall 2021. Amazing. Those numbers are astounding, but to me, it's, it's those, those interactions that happen within the process that make up those numbers and make those numbers become real. And I just think about, again, across the state of Louisiana, the rapid growth in the Hispanic number across the state of Louisiana is, is just alarming. It's crazy. As a flagship, you know, how can we continue to be that beacon of hope for those families? How can we be a place where those families, those students who have earned the right to participate and are prepared to be successful on this campus, how can they included in the freshman classes? It has to be a very intentional thing that we're doing to be able to reach and serve those students. And we've done that successfully. And when I look at the numbers that of growth, I just think about, again, those families, I think about the communities that they are part of. And then I think about our state, right? The challenges in our state, I think they're rooted in education, you know, how do we get more students to participate? How can we serve them better? Because they go back and they're members, they make their families stronger. They make their community stronger. And I think over a generation, we'll see that the state is stronger by virtue of the things that we're doing on this campus. And I think that the Hispanic community is a good example of that because of the growth. And it's just inspiring. It's just inspiring to see, to see what's happened.

President William F. Tate IV:[00:12:38] Thank you. I'd like to turn to some questions that aren't as serious as the ones we just had that cause we stay focused on some pretty serious matters. In your travels around Louisiana, can you give me a couple of favorite places you've visited?

Dr. Jose Aviles:[00:12:57] Well, that's an easy one. There's no question. Listen, before I got to LSU, I remember when I visited LSU, I said to my wife, I said the best conference city I had ever been to was new Orleans. Every time there was a conference in new Orleans, I would be the first to sign up. I just, it was just a remarkable place that is truly authentic in so many ways, and I know I'm preaching to the choir here and the folks that are listening to today that they know their city and they know their state, but as an outsider, I just thought, man, this place, Like take any other place in the USA, and it's like just a truly American city that feels maybe a little nuance. It's a little different, but you still feel like, yeah, it's, you know, in the character of what a U.S. major city is. New Orleans is just distinctly different. It's just so different and it's, it's just been great to explore the culture, the food, the music. So, yeah, new Orleans, I would say, and I know that's the easy answer, but that's the truth. Favorite place.

President William F. Tate IV:[00:13:55] What is your daily routine? What's life like for you everyday?

Dr. Jose Aviles:[00:14:00] Yeah, you know, I mean, I get started pretty early. Generally try to get up and just get the pulse on the day. I'm responsible at home to drop off my son who is an eighth grader at U-High. And then generally, I'm the first in my office or in the building to get in. And, you know, the first thing I do is, I just open up the dashboard and I want to see what the data is telling us, you know, what can I make sense of the day? Is there anything that, again, from my perspective, jumps out as something to, to kind of, you know, double down on, and that's so critical for us, because admissions especially, we don't own the timeline. Admissions happens according to the admission calendar, and if you miss a window, you're probably going to be dead in the water. So on a daily basis, you have to kind of take a look and, and get to understand what's happening, especially according to the time of the calendar that we're in. You know, generally have a pulse check, just check point with some of the direct reports, again, to kind of reinforce what, you know, what I'm seeing on data, but, also to hear what they're dealing with on the day, keep my thumb on the pulse. And then you're off to consuming sets of meetings throughout the rest of the day. Although, you know, a few times a week, generally around three times a week, I try to get in a four to five mile run. I love to do it at high noon, because... Pres, this, this is the way I'm wired. This is the way I'm wired. And my staff, even my wife, my wife had this, my wife had this conversation with some of my staff members over the summer. 'Cause when we were running, she was like, there's 108 degrees advisory out there. And my point is, yeah, I'm not running in the morning or in the evening. I want to do hard things. I want to run in that 108-degree heat advisory, and we're going to do four or five, and if you don't want to join, that's fine, but I'm going to do it. And to me in my mind, that just reinforces that, yeah, hard things. You can do hard things. There's no such thing as can't. You know, there's a difference, right? There's some things you're going to come up to in life that you can't do, but often it's not that you can't do things. It's just that things are hard. And so it's just going to mean you got to double down the effort and your resolve, your commitment, to get it done. So that's why I try to run every, you know, every day or not every day, three times a week, four to five miles, high noon. And then I, you know, round out the evening, I, you know, my son plays basketball. So I try to get home somewhere between 530 [to] 6, to get some, you know, get some basketball in with him. Generally, you know, try to get through some drills, but also just play some games with him, and  then do family dinner. And then back, it's back to work, you know, generally around eight or nine at night, just to round out the day, you know, and that's just a normal day. You know, obviously in our work, and again, during times that where COVID isn't necessarily present, I'm doing a lot more. You know, out and around the state or on national conversations and that kind of stuff.

President William F. Tate IV:[00:16:48] Understood. And finally, what's your favorite location on campus?

Dr. Jose Aviles:[00:16:54] Favorite location? I have to say, I have to say lakes. 'Cause that's, you know, I love getting out there and get my run in, and just, you know, I think it's real serene, in fact, I would say that of all the campuses that I've been a part of, I think that's probably, this is probably the best running course that I've had, because I've been a runner for quite a while now. And so I try to get out at lunch 'cause it breaks up the day nicely,but the lakes definitely probably the best course that I've had to run on for sure.

President William F. Tate IV:[00:17:21] Well, I want to thank you, sir, for being "On Par with the President." I told you earlier that, of course, you've earned the right to be called doctor, but, you know, in the true spirit of Michael Jordan, you know, you should go by one name 'cause you're making it happen. So I appreciate you so much. Thank you for joining us.

Dr. Jose Aviles:[00:17:41] It's been my honor, and thank you, thank you for having me. And, I'm just, I'm just excited to continue the work that we're doing here and to do it under your leadership. I'm looking forward to it, so thank you so much for the opportunity.