Farewell to a leader: Celebrating the career of Rosa Jones

Vice President of Student Affairs Rosa Jones retires after 40 years of service to the FIU family and South Florida community.

By Sissi Aguila ’99, MA ’08 | Photos courtesy of FIU Libraries, Special Collections and Rosa Jones

Rosa Jones grew up in Miami during the ’50s when the city was reinventing itself. African-Americans were beginning to move out of the cramped confines created by segregation into white neighborhoods. Waves of Cuban refugees were arriving every day, changing the city’s demographics. And even as the city was in flux, Jones graduated from Mays High School, then a segregated school.

As a young social worker at Jackson Hospital, Jones wanted to be responsive to the needs of her diverse, rapidly growing community. In 1972, at a community meeting, she learned of a public university being built out west. She was offered an assistant professor position and the opportunity to develop the Department of Social Work’s field work curriculum. For Jones, it was an opportunity to engage the community and to help meet the need for higher education. “Teaching and higher education administration were not part of my original career plan. But two years into it, I knew it was what I was meant to do.”

Jones retires this year after 40 years of service to FIU as a founding faculty member. In that time, she has been a professor, department chair, dean and for the last eight years, vice president of Student Affairs. Her legacy as the university’s steadfast and most respected student advocate is unmatched, as is the reach of the student-focused initiatives created under her leadership: Freshman Convocation; model for increasing ratio of academic advisors; Partners in Progress and Invitational Scholars Program; FIU’s participation in National Student Exchange Program; Common Reading Program; parent programs; and expanded student building and facilities.

“Dr. Jones is one of the most thoughtful and passionate advocates for students whom I have ever known,” says President Mark B. Rosenberg, who has worked with Jones since the inaugural years of the university. “Her selfless dedication to FIU and our community set the highest standard possible. She is an exemplary professional and one of the most decent people I know.”

Innovative spirit

For Jones the early days at FIU were invigorating. The founding faculty were mostly young professionals who were open to new possibilities and methodology and believed the university could be great. “There was this innovative spirit to create something great,” says Jones. “We were going to be different.”

The university instituted a pass/fail grading system rather than relying on letter grades; classes were offered four days a week instead of five to allow faculty time to develop infrastructure; and it was not rare for professors to hold classes in their homes. Jones’ office was on the second floor of the abandoned control tower at the center of the old airport that today is Modesto A. Maidique Campus. She could see the old runway lanes from her window. There were few phones and scarce furniture.

“There was a spirit of camaraderie because we were starting from scratch,” she says.

With only about 150 founding faculty members, the FIU community was very close. Founding President Charles “Chuck” Perry encouraged faculty to go out into the community and be of service.
“We wanted to let the community know that we were here and that we were a part of the community.”

For the community

Jones served seven years as the director of the Department of Social Work, during which time the master’s program received initial accreditation. In 1987, she was named associate dean of undergraduate education.

Going from professor to administrator was a natural transition. The McDuffie Riots of 1980 hastened the move. One of the worst race riots in United States history, the McDuffie Riots broke out in Overtown and Liberty City after police officers were found not guilty of killing Arthur McDuffie following a high-speed chase. As a social worker, Jones was asked to assist in working with Dade County Public Schools to increase FIU’s minority student enrollment and build strong relations.

“My new role spoke to my knowledge of the community,” she says. Even today, Jones says FIU’s continued success depends on how responsive the university is to South Florida’s needs and whether the university reflects the diverse community it serves. “I’m excited about the engagement programs I see with President Rosenberg. It goes back to an original mission.”

In its short history, FIU has gone through many phases. “I’ve been at the same institution, but that institution has not been the same,” she says. FIU’s world view has evolved, helping the university transition to a global marketplace. “I get excited when I see what is going on with FIU in China and the continued growth in international students and international programs.”

Student advocate

During her tenure at FIU, Jones has made relationships with students her priority. She’s proud FIU has remained committed to providing students with access to a high-quality education.

“I still get chills at graduation watching students achieve their goals,” she says.

Former Student Government Association president Helena Ramirez ’11 worked closely with Jones when she was a student and says she was a great mentor to her and to many SGA executive board members.
Ramirez says, “There were many nights when student government would be hosting events or working late, and Dr. Jones was still in her office, working. She was always committed to the students. That was her number one priority.”

Ramirez still seeks Jones’ advice. “She is always available for conversations and to write recommendations on my behalf to programs nationwide. She’s been a huge support to me and I’m truly grateful to have had her leadership during my years as a student leader.”

Those late nights in the office produced many positive initiatives for students. In the early days, student programming was limited to a few programs and activities. In more recent years, Jones has led a shift in the focus of student programming as the student base has evolved from older transfer students to traditional college-age students with busy lives. Under her leadership, Student Affairs programs have been tailored to students’ schedules in an effort to more deeply engage them in the life of the university. There are now 300 clubs and organizations as well as more than 35 Greek organizations.

Former Panther basketball standout and aerospace engineer Marlon Bright ’10 first met Jones when he visited FIU as a high school student. He says she made his decision to come to FIU from rural Tennessee easier. “Dr. Jones remained a close and trusted mentor, adviser and mother figure. There were countless scenarios when she was there to lend a helping hand when it seemed my options had run out. I can’t say enough about her and what she means to me and more importantly FIU as a whole.”

Jones admits retiring is bittersweet. “FIU is an integral part of who I am. To some degree, I feel like I grew up here.”

The success of students like Ramirez and Bright are her proudest achievements. “I’d be truly comfortable and satisfied if people characterized me as being responsive to students. I would hope that they’d believe that no matter what position I’ve held, I’ve always been an advocate for students. Period.”