By Deane Morrison
Opening students’ eyes to the wide world around them—and the world of possibilities inside them—fuels the dynamo that is Aurelio Curbelo.
Born to a family of Puerto Rican coffee farmers, Curbelo came to the U in mid-February 2016 as director of the Multicultural Center for Academic Excellence--“the experience for me professionally,” as he puts it.
At MCAE Curbelo leads an office where students receive individual and group counseling in a variety of academic subjects. He has put his considerable skills to work to bring MCAE students more scholarships, the most up-to-date computer facilities, and educational experiences second to none.
Long and winding road
Curbelo’s easy manner and ready smile belie the obstacle-ridden path that led him here. In Puerto Rico the lover of nature had outdoor classrooms, complete with horses and cattle. An FFA student, he learned how to talk to people and discovered his knack for taking leadership roles to get things done. In three years at the University of Puerto Rico, he earned an associate degree in tropical crop production while acquiring science and technology skills to help him continue his education abroad.
When he transferred to Iowa State, however, culture shock hit. So did the loneliness of being among just a handful of Latino students on the sprawling campus. Despite this, he shouldered the burden of representing Latino/a students to the dean’s office and asking for help
He lacked a computer and struggled with classes and finances, eventually dropping out of the university and entering a community college. Then things changed.
“I turned my life around, went back and became a high achiever,” he says. “I understood that I had to show that I had the leadership skills and persistence to succeed.”
He studied abroad in Costa Rica, helping rural farmers diversify, and, in the ‘90s, took Iowa State students to Cuba. Curbelo also discovered the centuries-old traditions of public universities in Latin America—academic powerhouses like the Autonomous Universities in Mexico and Peru and St. Thomas University in the Dominican Republic.
“I asked, why didn’t I learn before now that we Latin Americans had such a long history of higher education?” he says. “These universities are older than Harvard, and competitive with others around the world. I’ve learned to look at higher education from a global perspective.”
When he received a bachelor’s degree in agricultural education from Iowa State, Curbelo had no intention of going to graduate school. But even if he didn’t realize all the skills he possessed, his mentors did, and soon he was en route to a master’s degree, again in agricultural education.
“I researched the impact of secondary agricultural education on Latinos in Iowa,” he explains. “My research broke the stereotype that they didn’t have language, academic, and technical skills.”
While doing his research, Curbelo also coordinated the George Washington Carver summer program, which gave students across the country academic and research experiences.
“I did recruitment, retention and graduation work for students of color in the college before I got my M.S.,” he says. “We went from 20 in college to 200 or more.
“Afterward getting my M.S., I started working for the College of Agriculture as its multicultural liaison officer. The dean encouraged me to get a Ph.D”—in educational leadership and policy studies.
Along the way, Curbelo picked up a passion for Caribbean cooking.
“I hope to be a vice president for student affairs for a land grant institution, but if that doesn’t work, I want to retire to Costa Rica and run a bed and breakfast with a restaurant on the beach,” he says.
Curbelo is also writing an historical novel based on the beginnings of his family line on sugar cane plantations.
After receiving his doctorate, Curbelo worked for about two more years at Iowa; meanwhile, his wife, an organic chemist, landed a job in Minnesota. He commuted to their home in Stillwater, first from Iowa and then from Purdue when he was subsequently hired as director of the Latino Cultural Center.
Then the U of M opening came along. Turns out he had impressed his boss, Shakeer Abdullah, even before they met.
“I read about all of the work he had done with diverse students, and I was doubly impressed by his background in agricultural education in addition to his work in higher education,” says Abdullah, assistant vice president for equity and diversity. “In person, I was even more impressed with his personality and his ability to engage people, and his quick sense of humor. I'm grateful that we were able to attract Aurelio to the U, and he has been a joy to work with.“
“This university has the potential to lead as a national example of a diverse population of students," says Curbelo. "We have seeds to plant—we must water and nurture them in order to obtain their fruits.”