Vallejo retires from PBSC, leaves lasting impact
Fatima Cajas was mixing up coffee drinks at Delicias Cuban Bakery when she first met Dr. Maria Vallejo from Palm Beach State College.
She had a desire to go to college, but before that chance meeting with Vallejo 10 years ago, she couldn’t see past the barriers she felt as an immigrant from Ecuador. While frequenting the eatery inside a Lake Worth gas station, Vallejo slipped her a business card and encouraged her to enroll at PBSC.
“I always wanted to study, but all I could see is all of the obstacles. I felt like she was my angel since the first day,’’ Cajas said of Vallejo, PBSC’s vice president of growth and expansion and provost of the Belle Glade and Loxahatchee Grove campuses, who is retiring effective March 29. “For me, it was like a baby step for every single process, and she always directed me to a good place.”
Cajas, who received an Associate in Arts degree from PBSC in 2016 and is now pursuing her bachelor’s degree in communication and journalism at Florida International University, was among attendees at Vallejo’s retirement celebration on the Lake Worth campus March 25. Vallejo, who worked in higher education for 43 years, including 20 at PBSC, was lauded for her outreach efforts to enhance diversity at the College, particularly raising the number of Hispanic students, and drawing the community and businesses to the campuses. She also was praised for mentoring aspiring higher education leaders and supporting students like Cajas and many others who needed help finding their way.
Since her arrival at the College in 1999, the population has become increasingly diverse, shifting from 11 to now 31 percent Hispanic students. Dr. Dennis Gallon, former PBSC president who initially hired Vallejo as Lake Worth campus provost and was among the celebration speakers, highlighted her involvement in helping the College earn its designation as a Hispanic Serving Institution, which is reserved for those with enrollments of at least 25 percent Hispanic students. Gallon described Vallejo as a “person with a big heart” who has done much for PBSC.
She partnered with the Excelencia in Education organization, which helped the College achieve its goal of becoming an HSI. Part of that required encouraging students to self-identify as Hispanic to give the College an accurate picture of its demographics as well as translating information for parents to help their children. Vallejo launched “Family Fun” days and other initiatives to get the community involved with the campuses and to drive enrollment. Through her involvement with the Puerto Rican Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, which honored her this week for Women’s History Month, she garnered support from local businesses for the College and students.
Among her many achievements, Vallejo was the driver of a scholarship launched by ASPIRA of Florida in 2008 that has awarded nearly $47,000. Then in 2016, Vallejo created an ASPIRA scholarship bearing her name that has awarded $11,500 to 13 students.
She has been a driver at the national level, serving as a past president of the National Community College Hispanic Council, through which she launched a workshop with other national groups specifically to help women and minorities interested in becoming community college presidents navigate the process. She has mentored many aspiring college leaders at PBSC and nationally. “I very much want to help people, especially people of color, to access education and positions of authority and power,” Vallejo said. “We can’t do it alone. My impact has been limited, but if I can help others move along the way and get to the point where they can have an impact, that is most important.”
Ava L. Parker, J.D., who became PBSC’s president in 2015, said of Vallejo, “the value and the difference that you made in the life of our students and the life of the College will be felt far beyond your time here.’’