As one of its founding faculty members, Maria Roca takes parental pride in Florida Gulf Coast University, programs she has nurtured to maturity and two decades worth of alumni who still keep in touch with their mentor and role model. Some of them even work for her now.
“This is my baby,” she says, like the true FGCU Champion she is. “My blood, sweat and tears are in every corner of this university. This isn’t a job for me — this is a calling. I believe in who we are.”
That passion shows clearly in Roca’s eyes, as anyone who spends any time with her can see, and in the intent way she listens. She lives by her commitment to helping students find their path in life and embrace core FGCU values such as civic engagement and sustainability. By example, she inspires them to give back to the institution that shaped them; Roca has supported annual giving at FGCU since she was hired to launch the communication program in the College of Arts & Sciences — one of the university’s biggest degree generators. She continues to do so as an associate professor and chair of the rapidly growing integrated studies program, which will graduate 100 students this spring.
As usual, she practices what she preaches. Roca has been an active leader in the community in over the years, as a parent-teacher organization president, a Girl Scout troop leader and an Odyssey of the Mind coach. She remains active in GreenFaith International, a nonprofit that inspires, educates, organizes and mobilizes people of diverse religious and spiritual backgrounds globally for environmental action.
Roca’s influence as “a guide on the side” rather than “the sage on the stage,” as the higher education saying goes, has benefited legions of undergrads searching for their own calling or their place in the community on campus and off.
The key to her success in reaching students? Listening.
It’s a tool Roca has learned to use well. She wrote her doctoral dissertation on the listening behavior of college students and is a former president of the International Listening Association, a nonprofit that promotes the study, development and teaching of listening.
“Probably the most important skill we have as communicators is listening,” Roca says. “I believe in bringing your full presence to interaction with other people. When students come in, they know they’ve got my undivided attention. I don’t tell them what to do. I say, ‘Tell me who you are, what your passions are. Find a path that makes the most sense.’”
The same advice holds true, she says, to alumni who want to give back to their alma mater, either by giving time to FGCU programs or supporting them financially.
“Find something you care about and get involved — you can effect change,” Roca says. “Take a minute and reflect on your years here. How did they shape you? How did they contribute to who you are today? We were a part of shaping you. If you’re in a position to do the same for the university, to give back to the place that gave to you, that would awesome.”
She doesn’t have to look far to see how many of her former students already are helping shape the future of FGCU and its graduates. A handful of them work alongside her in the Department of Integrated Studies. Integrated studies is a unique major that allows students the flexibility to shape their scholastic journey based on their individual interests. This adaptability also opens the door to a diversity of immersion experiences outside the classroom, each centered on a student’s specific goals.
“We offer a wide-ranging collection of courses that are very responsive to what’s going on in the real world,” Roca says. “We have a lot of things for students who need a place to explore who they are, and we have faculty that wants to do that with them. That’s one of the appeals of the degree program. We are very much a keeper of the flame of the core mission of this institution, to advance civic engagement and sustainability and to put students first.”
That mission is part of what attracted Roca to FGCU in the first place. After earning her bachelor’s degree in interpersonal and public communication at Purdue University, she went on to New York University, where she earned a master’s in performing arts management and a doctorate in media ecology. Roca then taught at the State University of New York-Oneonta for eight years. She thought she’d work there for the rest of her career.
“Several things attracted me to FGCU, top among them was the opportunity to be part of an exciting new venture,” she says. “When else in life are you going to get the opportunity to start a university from scratch, to do it a little differently, maybe do it better?”
Champions like Roca help ensure that FGCU will continue to “do it better” for generations of college students to come.
ABOUT FGCU CHAMPIONS
They are the FGCU Champions — proud advocates for the university, mentors to students and alumni alike, and dedicated educators. They are tried-and-true Eagles. And they back up their loyalty to FGCU by committing their financial support as well as their passion. Follow their lead by becoming an FGCU Champion and be the difference that makes a difference. Over the next few weeks, read about other FGCU Champions at FGCU360.