CHEYENNE – Few people are able to appreciate the value of a quality education quite like Frank Sanchez.
Born in Cheyenne to a mother who immigrated from Mexico and a father who’d dropped out of high school – though both would ultimately go on to earn degrees of their own – Sanchez has been entwined with the world of education for much of his life.
“My entire K-12 was in Cheyenne, through my senior year in high school at Central,” Sanchez said. “I started out at Goins Elementary, and we moved to the north side in fifth grade, then I went to Jessup (Elementary) and then McCormick Junior High School. The quality of education in Wyoming was very good.”
Sanchez has learned a thing or two about quality education since he left Cheyenne for college in 1986. He has spent much of his professional career in academia, working for numerous universities and colleges in the area of student support.
And just a few months ago, Sanchez’s years of experience in looking out for students landed him a position as the college president for Rhode Island College in Providence.
“The student experience is exactly why I was interested in Rhode Island College. They have a philosophy that’s incredibly student-centered,” Sanchez said. “Their goal is about supporting our students, and the history of the college has been about the student experience. And I think that’s where the very best colleges and universities are headed. … Students need the skills to be successful in the global economy, and the way to do that well is to provide mentoring, coaching and opportunity for students to grow by exceptional faculty and staff willing to take the time and energy needed.”
Sanchez’s interest in the student experience began while he was still a student at the University of Nebraska, where he earned his bachelor’s degree in psychology.
“As I got more involved in student clubs and organizations, I wanted to improve the college experience at the University of Nebraska,” Sanchez said.
“As I made it to my sophomore and junior year, I noticed a lot of my friends weren’t around anymore, and I’d wondered what happened to them. What were the policies and programs and services supporting students to succeed? How did the administrators become administrators?”
Following his time at the University of Nebraska, Sanchez’s continuing post-secondary education sought to answer those questions, and in turn change the college experience so that more students were sticking around to complete their degrees.
He went on to earn a master’s in Student Affairs in Higher Education from Colorado State University, as well as a doctorate in Higher Education Administration, preparing him for a series of jobs at colleges aimed at improving the student experience.
Early on in his career, Sanchez said he actually did a stint at the University of Wyoming, where he helped to create an academic housing co-curricular system.
“I was also there during the Matthew Shepard crisis,” Sanchez said, referring to the gay student who was beaten and left for dead near Laramie in October 1998. “I was part of the emergency response team as interim director of housing at the time.”
From there, he went south to Adams State University in Alamosa, Colorado, where he served as the vice president of student affairs.
“That was about six years as a vice president working on policies and programs and support for student success,” Sanchez said. And his strategies appeared to work, as the graduation rate for Hispanic students at the college rose from 15 to 51 percent in the three years Sanchez held the position there.
He later worked for the University of Colorado at Denver and the Anschutz Medical Campus in Aurora, where he set about consolidating student support services between the two campuses. That helped lead to his biggest break prior to the Rhode Island College presidency, when in 2011 the City University of New York, the single largest urban public university in the nation, tapped Sanchez to serve as vice chancellor for student affairs, leading the expansion of student services for some 500,000 students.
In his time at CUNY, Sanchez helped to expand financial aid and health insurance availability, particularly to low-income students. Within four years, the amount of financial assistance students received jumped more than 200 percent, to $40 million.
Sanchez said his efforts have always been concentrated on the memory of those friends of his that never completed college, and the recognition of how students, given proper motivation and resources, can reach potential even they weren’t aware of.
“There’s a lot of talented, brilliant people who never finished college,” Sanchez said. “And it seems to me we should design institutions that support them in their success. How can we design a better collegiate experience to help students succeed?”
That’s going to continue to be the question he tackles as the newly installed president at Rhode Island College, which has a large proportion of lower-income students and a four-year graduation rate in the teens. But one advantage of Sanchez’s long tenure in higher education is that technology has begun to provide new avenues for him to innovate his approach to student engagement.
“Technology is changing how we do our work today; there’s new analytics where we can provide much better services,” he said. “When I was going to college, you had to seek out and find tutoring or health services. Today, there’s apps that will give you access right in the palm of your hand – you can know fairly quickly where those services and resources are.”
It was his resourceful thinking and focus on the student experience that landed Sanchez his latest position, according to comments from Bill Foulkes, who headed the Council on Postsecondary Education that ultimately chose Sanchez from more than 40 applicants across the country.
“Specifically, we were impressed with his track record in implementing effective student success and enrollment management initiatives, as well as his history of leadership in supporting innovative teaching and learning efforts while expanding financial resources for students,” Foulkes told the Providence Journal last month. “The council feels confident that Dr. Sanchez will have an equally positive impact on RIC students.”
Sanchez said that in his brief time at Rhode Island College, he’s already begun a listening tour with faculty and staff and met with hundreds of alumni. As he sets about his work in planning for the college’s future, Sanchez said he can’t help but remember how his own education in Cheyenne helped pave the way for the course his life has taken.
“As someone who grew up in Wyoming, with the mentoring, coaching and care that teachers in the public school system gave me, it shows it can have a profound impact,” Sanchez said.
“It’s exciting to think about, going from where I grew up in Cheyenne to president of the first public college in all of Rhode Island; it’s really a privilege and a wonderful opportunity.”