How care, community, and career rescued Mamta Accapadi, Rollins vice president for student affairs, from her lowest point—and became the recipe for student success at Rollins.
The eldest child of Indian immigrants who settled in Houston, Mamta Accapadi was raised in a lower-income home and pushed to become a medical doctor—a path she never really questioned, despite her budding love for education.
Her father held computer-lab-tech and administrative-support jobs at the University of Houston and Prairie View A&M. In the summers, her mother, a former teacher who did data entry for the school district, would bring home the next year’s curriculum, then tell her to master it and teach it to her little brothers.
“I started raising my siblings when I was 8, so I learned how to navigate things at a young age,” says Accapadi. “Because of my parents, I grew up around all kinds of education systems. The whole campus has always been my playground.”
After high school, Accapadi had accumulated so many AP credits that she entered the University of Texas needing only two years to graduate. Ironically, that success came with a price.
Dropped into 400-level classes during her first year of college and without a close peer group, she felt out of place, unprepared, and overwhelmed. It wasn’t long before she sank into a deep funk.
“Talking about your weaknesses was taboo,” says Accapadi. “My parents just told me to figure it out like I always do. I couldn’t even tell people I was struggling because that would be seen as harming the reputation of my family. So I fell apart and had a breakdown by Thanksgiving, and it only got progressively worse.”
Her second year of college, she stopped attending classes. On the verge of failure, no one seemed to notice her pain or isolation. Or at least no one reached out.
Saving grace came in two forms: The Indian Student Association provided “a space to land, a space to breathe … a place where I could be around other kids who had the same family expectations without it feeling weird.” And finding work as an orientation advisor—which provided a paycheck and a place to live—meant she had to go back to class, raise her GPA, and maintain a B average.
“People were telling me ‘good job’ and ‘you can do this,’ and I had never experienced that kind of affirmation,” says Accapadi. “They helped me develop a plan. Eventually, that pulled me out of my rut and I started to turn it around.”
Graduating with a major in microbiology and biology, Accapadi opted against med school in favor of getting her teaching certification. She stayed at UT for graduate studies, becoming a certified mediator and the university’s ombudsman. She went on to work in the university’s Office of Multicultural Affairs before earning a PhD in higher-education administration.
While dean of students at Oregon State, Accapadi heard about Rollins at a national conference and applied for the position she now holds. That was 2013, and ever since she’s been helping the College reimagine how it can best align student affairs with Rollins’ mission of educating students for global citizenship and responsible leadership, empowering them to lead meaningful lives and forge productive careers.
“We took a collection of 15 offices and went to the students, faculty, and staff and interviewed folks to ask, ‘what do you like and not like?’” says Accapadi. “With that feedback, we restructured the entire organization around three clusters: care, community, and career.”
All of this, she explains, goes back to her own experience navigating college and the lessons learned along the way. It also ties in to her philosophy as an educator, which is, “I’m either going to be the last place you go for help or the second to last because I’ve just sent you to the right place.”
The job of “sending students to the right place” on campus is going to be a lot easier come fall 2019. That’s when Mills Memorial Hall, centrally located on the lawn, will reopen as Kathleen W. Rollins Hall following an extensive renovation and a transformational gift from Rollins Trustee Kathleen Rollins ’75.
The new state-of-the-art facility will bring together 10 curricular and co-curricular programs at the center of campus and at the heart of the student experience. Five student affairs entities—the Center for Career & Life Planning, the Center for Leadership & Community Engagement, the Office of International Student & Scholar Services, the Social Innovation & Entrepreneurship Hub, and Student Media—will be among the center’s most influential tenants.
Rollins Hall’s fluid, open-concept environment is designed to foster interdisciplinary collaboration, and the co-mingling of like-minded programs promises a greater-than-the-sum-of-its-parts synergy that helps students connect the dots from their experiences inside and outside the classroom.
“It’s a student realizing that, ‘I have all the ingredients to bake brownies, but if I don’t put them together, it’s just going to be a bunch of eggs, flour, and cocoa sitting there,’” explains Accapadi. “It’s integrating the ingredients. It’s a metaphor for making meaning.
“Take the Center for Career & Life Planning, for example. As a student, how do you take the entirety of your Rollins experience—things like sports and study abroad and internships—and tell your story to a potential employer? Maybe you just want to have a conversation with an alum. Or exploratory conversations about life in general. Or maybe you just want to refine your LinkedIn profile and get recommendations on your resume.
“For that office to be in the middle of campus, it’s just like going to the library—you don’t just go at the end of your senior semester. Every student should be in this building multiple times a week.”
These days, Accapadi has a daughter of her own—motivation enough to ensure the next generation of students is well-equipped for the future. Her daughter is only 10, but before long, life will come full circle and she’ll be the one making an important transition.
With this as a backdrop, not a day goes by that Accapadi doesn’t reflect on how a confused teenager, with little support and seemingly nowhere to turn, almost gave in and dropped out of college.
Then she smiles, remembering how care and community got her back on track, planting the seeds for a productive career in service to others.
“No student should be invisible or fall through the cracks,” says Accapadi. “As an educator, I think about that every day. How do we make our system better? How can we help kids navigate the process? That keeps me up at night, and that’s what helps me wake up every morning.”
Photo by Scott Cook
The National Association of Student Personnel Administrators (NASPA) has repeatedly recognized Accapadi as a leader in her field.
NASPA’s highest honor recognizes outstanding contributions to the profession.
Recognizes NASPA members who have demonstrated a commitment to the advancement of women in higher education and student affairs.
Recognizes individuals who have made an outstanding impact on the Asian/Pacific Islander/Desi American community and the student affairs profession through leadership, service, and scholarship.
Recognizes individuals who have made outstanding contributions to the Asian/Pacific Islander/Desi American community and the student affairs profession through mentoring.