Divina Grossman’s favorite word is “partnership” — a word that may be the stuff of slogans for some, but that for her represents a serious commitment. It has guided her journey from being a nurse in the Philippines to a college president in Massachusetts.
The engaging Grossman, 56, was recently installed as chancellor of the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth, where, she said, she plans to strengthen the ties between the campus and the economically troubled Southeastern Massachusetts community it serves.
Grossman came to UMass Dartmouth from Florida International University in Miami, where she had served as vice president of civic engagement, after being dean of the nursing school.
She was born and raised in the Philippines, where her father had fought for the United States Army in World War II. One of six children, she completed a degree in nursing in the Philippines and was working as an entry-level college instructor when a mentor advised her that the only way to pursue an academic career was to go to graduate school in Europe or America.
She enrolled in graduate school at the University of Miami and took a nursing job in Miami Beach to pay for it. She would eventually earn a doctorate from the University of Pennsylvania.
The seeds for her commitment to learning had been planted in childhood.
“I grew up in a house with no television, no telephone, no refrigerator, no anything,” Grossman said last week. “But I had many, many books.” Her mother was a teacher, and also had access to books that her school was discarding. “Whatever I wanted I could have. I read voraciously, and I thought “Little Women” was [based on] my family. I thought I was Jo because she was a little bit rebellious.”
In Grossman’s years at FIU, her signature achievement was an ambitious collaboration between the university and a long-troubled local high school, Miami Northwestern. She did everything from persuading foundations to invest in the school to arranging for companies to donate computers for teachers. Eventually, she persuaded FIU to accept some of the high school students in a program designed to help them succeed in college.
I know something about the neighborhood Northwestern serves; I grew up less than a mile away (though I attended a different high school). Poverty and crime are both rampant on a scale most Bostonians would barely recognize. The collaboration with FIU, Grossman says, enabled Northwestern students to dream of a future outside the world they had grown up in.
“There were students there whose test scores or grades didn’t quite make our standards but were close,” she said. “But when we researched programs at other schools, what we found was that if you provide enough support they are as successful as other students, or even more successful.”
Grossman had spent some time in the state before UMass came calling. One of her daughters attended Wellesley, and she had been here as an awestruck tourist, marveling at Louisa May Alcott’s desk and taking in Walden Pond and the site where Henry David Thoreau’s hut once stood. Still, it is with a sense of wonder that she has arrived in Massachusetts to realize her dream of becoming a college president.
“Little did I know I would be moving to Massachusetts,” she said. “This was in the stars for me. I’m happy to be in the education state. But we have to catch up. We kind of lag behind the Commonwealth both in education in economic development.”
Already, she is busy lining up partners for her goal of ensuring that UMass Dartmouth plays a bigger role in the communities of Fall River and New Bedford. She has met with mayors, school superintendents, and principals.
“I think the link between education and economic development is powerful, and I think we can harness all of the resources we have,” Grossman said. “I think there is a concerted effort to make good in the South Coast, and I’m excited by the prospect.”
Adrian Walker is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter:@Adrian_Walker.