Valerie Patterson rode an innate drive to succeed academically to heights she never imagined and has since come full circle to positively affect the lives and careers of thousands. Raised in Coconut Grove, she attended segregated elementary and junior high schools where teachers whose names she still recalls pushed her to excel. Thrilled that FIU opened in time to take her community college degree to the next level, she pursued a health services major and eventually returned for a master’s in health services administration and Ph.D. in public administration, always finding “welcoming, encouraging” faculty and taking advantage of what she deemed a rich campus life. And the university experience only got better as she progressed, Patterson says: Even as she raised two small children and having left her full-time job – the latter unplanned but required by FIU to ensure her full participation as a doctoral student – she wallowed in the life of the mind, engaging with professors and peers in small-group dialogue and, most amazingly to her, meeting noted scholars as well as government officials, including two former Florida governors, when they visited her classes to deliver guest presentations.
“And I just stayed,” says Patterson in an understatement of her wide influence. Soon after graduating from FIU the third time, in 1995, she in quick sucession took a job as an interim director and then an assistant dean and soon started down a faculty track. (Today, notably, she is director of African and African Diaspora Studies.) “For me, it’s the giving back, creating the opportunity for others,” says the woman who remembers those who lifted her up and now hears regularly from alumni who thank her for mentoring them and for “representing” at a time when not many professors looked like her.
That fan base cannot praise her enough. “If I could, I would put up a Valerie Patterson billboard on I-95,” says Caryn Lavernia ’01, MPA ’13, who has maintained a relationship with her former professor and considers herself one of a legion of “Patterson evangelists.” Lavernia remembers walking into class to the sound of hip-hop music playing and Patterson checking in with students to ensure their wellbeing before sparking some “really healthy debate and discussion, much of it ahead of its time.” Such conversations frequently touched on how aspiring public administrators might view and treat all residents equally and with respect. “It’s so important that people are thinking about all the different lenses of all the populations,” Lavernia adds of what Patterson aimed to instill. “The students that she’s had an impact on over the years are out there, in the municipal governments, in the public sector, in the private sector, and I think she has helped us evolve into thinking differently around how we serve our communities.” Patterson’s contributions to countless local organizations and projects over the years and her continued support of graduates, many working at the highest levels, make her a true powerhouse, albeit one so humble that Lavernia insists on getting out the word: “She’s a Miami icon OG.”