Tuesday, May 5, 2020
By Claudia Zequeira
Melissa Alicea, assistant director, financial aid services, always admired Valencia College, but COVID-19 brought her admiration to a different level.
“When this crisis happened, it all became real,” she said. “It really hit home when I saw the College under this crisis and they still held true to their values, which align with mine. They really made staff a priority. I thought, this is a place I want to work for because, for me, it doesn’t matter what kind of problem is in front of me, I am always going to align with myself and what I believe in.”
And it’s that culture of care that has kept Melissa here for most of her professional life, informing many of her day-to-day decisions.
Melissa started as a financial aid and veteran affairs federal work study student at age 19 and worked her way up, first as a financial aid specialist and veteran services representative, then as student services advisor and later as a financial aid coordinator. She also earned her Associate in Arts from Valencia before finishing a bachelor’s degree in international and global studies and a master’s in public administration, both from the University of Central Florida.
Today, as assistant director, she oversees financial aid in the West Region and Veterans Affairs at the Downtown Campus. As such, she is responsible for several direct reports and for making sure the region stays on track with overall department goals. She also helps train staff in financial aid matters and supports all Student Affairs departments to ensure good communication and good service to students.
True to herself, the projects she says she’s most proud of are those involving collaboration and communication. Specifically, she mentioned several efforts involving revamping the Satisfactory Academic Progress (SAP) form, which students must fill out when they wish to have their financial aid reinstated, and the preparatory loan form. After the revamp, the forms became more streamlined and user-friendly.
“The way we communicate financial aid is huge, because that language can determine whether a student will attend college,” she said. “I am always looking for ways to articulate what we need in more simplified, inclusive way.”
She also prides herself in modeling both inclusiveness and good communication among employees and departments.
“I am trying to create a culture of openness and to make sure the language we are using is inclusive, because that can determine access,” said Melissa. “But it’s more than establishing a culture, it’s me representing that; being consistent with that behavior.”
Tamika Martin, director, student financial aid services, and Melissa’s supervisor, confirmed these are traits that have made Melissa a standout employee.
“[Melissa] has the ability to listen and see what is needed, and she finds ways to make it happen,” said Tamika. “She empowers her team to make well-informed decisions regarding our students and processes and they have a strong sense of trust in her ability to lead them. Trust and vulnerability are not easy things, but Melissa understands the importance of having both of those invaluable qualities with her team. Melissa leads with compassion, understanding and mindfulness. These are all wonderful qualities that all great leaders should embody.”
Although she has been at Valencia from a young age, Melissa does have an adventurous streak. She once went to Taiwan to study Mandarin for several months, a trip that turned her into a pescatarian and increased her cultural awareness. And, she also left Valencia College briefly to start her own business, a bathing suit boutique she opened at a local mall. Some of those business principles, such as marketing and customer service skills, have served her well at Valencia, she said.
But a position she couldn’t resist opened up at the then-new Poinciana Campus. Her decision to come back was made, in part because of Valencia’s values and because of what she feels the college represents to the community.
“Valencia represents hope,” said Melissa. “I worked at the College back in 2008 when the housing crisis happened … a lot of industries went down but Valencia boomed because a lot of people felt getting an education would change their lives for the better. I think we’re going to see that with the COVID-19 crisis.”
In her free time, Melissa likes to connect with people, be it through book readings, podcasts or yoga.
“I love being around people who are optimistic and love improving themselves,” she said. “Any event that helps me reach a different level and become a different individual is an event I like.”