Seated at a huge wooden round table, like knights in pursuit of their holy grail, seven Kansas State University students made their case for ways the school could make college life better.
They had the ear of Pat Bosco, vice president for student life and dean of students. Affectionately known to K-State students as Dean.
The dean, his jacket off, leaned in and rested an elbow on the table.
Sally Lopez, a freshman, said undocumented students need help “navigating their status.” Chris Hullaby, a senior studying psychology, chimed in saying African American young men need to meet college students “who look like me.”
Bosco nodded. He liked what he was hearing. He loved being surrounded by students.
In this intimate setting inside the Student Union on the Manhattan campus last week, Bosco was doing what he has done at K-State, better than most, for 50 years: listening to students so he could find ways to help.
“It’s his passion,” said K-State President Richard Myers, a Merriam native and former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
“Pat Bosco’s commitment to students has shaped our culture: to be a student-centric university. He knows everybody on campus and they know him,” Myers said. “Well, maybe he doesn’t know all 23,000 students. Then again, maybe he does.”
So finding a replacement for Bosco may be a challenge. Bosco, who has the longest tenure in the school’s history, is retiring this year, as he says, trading in his title of vice president and dean “for the title of Grandpa.”
Myers says he’s sure the staff that has worked with Bosco over the years will carry on just fine because Bosco’s students-first philosophy “is so engrained in our culture,” Myers said. “What we will have to try and find is someone who shares his enthusiasm.”
Enthusiasm for what Bosco said is his driving force: “giving a voice to those who have no voice.”
Students certainly recognized something unusually special about Bosco. In 2004 the K-State Student Governing Association renamed the area in front of the Student Union as Pat J. Bosco Student Plaza.
Bosco said that what he has always tried to do was give students a reason to want to come to K-State and then give them all the help they need to be successful, including social, emotional and academic support.
“This is not a school of convenience, this is a school of destination,” Bosco said. Nestled in the Flint Hills of Kansas about an hour’s drive west of Topeka, K-State is a school that students intentionally choose.
Bosco practices what he preaches, said Tommy Herrera a former principal in Kansas City Public Schools. “He has done a phenomenal job reaching out to undocumented students.”
Herrera recalled an undocumented student who in 2014 was valedictorian at East High School. He invited her to attend a banquet for Hispanic high school graduates, but she said she was too busy working to help her family. She believed that because they had little money, and because of her status, she couldn’t attend college, never mind her great grades. Herrera persuaded her to go to the dinner. She ended up seated next to Bosco.
Bosco heard her story and spent the next two hours of the banquet on the phone with K-State friends and colleagues, figuring out how to pay for her college. She left that night with a scholarship plan scrawled by Bosco in purple ink — K-State’s color.
“She was full of life,” Bosco recalled. “She wanted an opportunity to do something that was bigger than herself, and she needed help with her journey.”
Last year that student graduated with a degree in biomedical engineering, and now she’s furthering her education at Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Bosco sees a bit of himself in students and said, “I think many of my students see a little bit of me in them — hard working, not feeling entitled.
“I was given a chance, an opportunity.”
Rising at K-State
“I’m an unlikely person to be in this position,” Bosco claims.
He was born in upstate New York in 1949, the grandson of a ditch digger and son of a World War II veteran who had an eighth grade education. He was raised by a single mother in a poor neighborhood of Syracuse.
As a young man in the 1960s, Bosco worked a cluster of part-time jobs to pay his way through community college, where he was active in student government on a state and national level in the midst of the fight for the right to vote at age 18. He also lobbied against the rising cost of higher education and fought for more parking on his urban community college campus.
In 1969 he was nearly 20 years old the first time he flew in a plane as as a transfer student to K-State. He remembers flying from New York to Chicago and then into the old Municipal Airport near downtown Kansas City, then on a commuter flight over the Flint Hills into Manhattan.
“It was 8:30 at night and the sun was setting on the campus and I looked down and I saw what I thought was the most beautiful campus in the world,” he said. “And with all that land I thought, they certainly will not have a parking problem.”
As is true for a lot of students who come to study at K-State, when Bosco landed at K-State he didn’t know anyone in the state, much less on the campus. Five months after he arrived, Bosco was elected student body president by the largest vote total in school history.
“I was very lucky,” he said. “I was in the right place at the right time.” Perhaps the same can be said for why has stayed so many years. “Every time I had a chance to go somewhere else they would give me an opportunity for more responsibility here,” Bosco said.
But Bosco says his five-decade-long relationship with K-State was also one of love at first sight.
He was like his grandfather, who came to the U.S. from Sicily, worked hard and then brought the rest of the family over. Bosco graduated from K-State in 1971 and married his wife, Susan, whom he’d met back in Syracuse, and stayed put in Manhattan. They eventually lured their families, including their parents, to town. Susan Bosco earned four degrees from K-State and is now a retired K-12 educator. The couple’s two children are both K-State grads.
After getting his bachelor’s degree in early childhood education, Bosco landed a university position as director of student activities. Two years later, after earning his master’s degree at K-State, he began rising through the ranks, always in positions to watch out for students. Now he is responsible for everything related to students, including admissions, career and employment services, housing and dining, student crises; parent and family programming and student financial assistance.
Bosco has served in the executive cabinet of five K-State presidents. He’s learned a lot along way.
“Never say to a new president that we used to do it this way,” he said, and then chuckled as if he had a story he wasn’t sharing.
Bosco has a slew of sayings and bits of advice he has collected over the years.
He laughs when asked about his words of wisdom then pulls from a file drawer an overstuffed manila folder crammed with notes on notebook and legal-size paper from as far back as 1975. Among his teachings, what he calls “Boscology,” he tells students “how to address failure. To recognize that there is opportunity in the midst of failure. History tells us that some of our greatest leaders faced disappointment.”
And this: “I often tell students to pray every day whatever your faith is. Look for ways to thank your heroes.”
Bosco doesn’t hesitate to mention his mentor, the late Chester Peters, K-State’s first vice president of student affairs. All around his office Bosco has small reminders of Peters, including carvings and photos. That office is chock-full of mementos telling the story of Bosco’s journey at K-State.
“I’m glad that I came,” Bosco said. “This is an incredible place that gave someone like me a chance. “
With that in mind, when Bosco would meet the parents of students new to campus, he gave every one of them his home and cellphone numbers. He estimates about some 800,000 may have his personal number. And every once in a while he will hear from a nervous parent whose child is struggling, asking for help.
“It is part of my way of making sure every student has opportunity here and is not falling through the cracks,” Bosco said, adding that he only takes the call. Then he makes sure it gets to people on campus who know how to help.
“We have a bunch of people here who care as much as I do,” Bosco said.
“I’ve never thought of myself as a surrogate parent or a friend. I’m an extension of a lot of people who care. It can’t be about me.”
But it’s Bosco who has come to be known for having a special relationship with students. Stroll with him across campus and he’s bound to be stopped for a chat by students several times. His corner office, with windows on three sides, gives him a view of the main library and a footpath traveled by students all day long.
“I pinch myself every day,” Bosco said. “Vice president and dean of a school I love.”
He paused and stared for a moment out the window as a few students strolled by and threw up an arm to wave at Bosco. He waved back. “A slice of heaven.”