New Hiram College president Varlotta hails from Penn Hills

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Hiram College has named former Penn Hills resident and school district alumna Lori Varlotta as its new president — the first woman to hold that position at the northeastern Ohio college.

She succeeds the retiring Thomas V, Chena and is the 22nd president of the small liberal arts college, which was founded in 1850. She will start in Hiram, located in a small town of the same name, in July after leaving her job at California State University in Sacramento.

"I was always drawn to women’s rights issues as a girl and was a Woman’s Studies major. It is important to me, both personally and professionally, that women rise up to the top of the field to be role models for someone who is like I was, the first generation in my family to go to college.'' she said.

Ken Moore, chairman of Hiram's Board of Trustees, said Mrs. Varlotta, who has a doctorate, has the credentials and energy to fulfill a position of distinction.

“She will sit in the same seat as James Garfield, the 20th president of the United States, who taught at Hiram and was also one of its presidents,” Mr.Moore said. "Lori Varlotta is an experienced and accomplished college administrator and we are delighted to welcome her to our community. She possesses enormous energy and creativity that will allow her to be a highly effective president.”

Mr. Moore said Mrs. Varlotta was the unanimous choice of the board..

This doesn’t come as a surprise to her father, Anthony Varlotta, who with his wife, raised a daughter and three sons in a small home on Universal Road.

"I’d seen it from day one. She pursued every avenue she could, from the time she was in grade school. She had a drive of her own, she was an aggressive and very responsible person,'' he said.

Mr. Varlotta, 82, now takes care of his wife, and said he is glad that his only daughter was coming closer to home. “I am very grateful and very proud of her.”

Mrs. Varlotta’s educational journey began as a student in Penn Hills where she said she thrived in a large, vibrant and diverse school system.

“I was at Penn Hills in its heyday. At that time the school district was so big that the senior high had only the 11th and 12th grades,” Mrs. Varlotta recalled. "I came from a modest family. My father is a first generation Italian-American. I was raised with tough love, no excuses. Neither of my parents went to college, but my dad always worked two jobs. All three of my brothers went to college and are teachers in the area.”

Mrs. Varlotta, who graduated as a class valedictorian, attributes much of her success in life to her parents and the teachers who helped shape her desirie for excellence.

“There was a strong sense of accountability and high expectations. They were old school and the bar was high, ” she said of her days in Penn Hills schools.

That high bar led Mrs. Varlotta to an undergraduate degree from the university of Notre Dame, a master’s from Syracuse University and a doctorate from Miami University. In 29 years as a college administrator, she said she has wrestled with the challenges of managing student recruitment, enrollment and retention, building student body diversity and championing education for student veterans.

In the intervening years a lot of things have changed. In 1981, Penn Hills had a half dozen elementary schools, a junior high and a high school. Next year the district will have three school buildings.

Mrs. Varlotta graduated at the top of a class of 1,200, while about 400 diploma recipients walked out the door on graduation day in Penn Hills last year. In the world of higher education, today’s college students are older and the amount of time it takes to complete a degree is rising. The median age of a student at a private university is 27. Only 39% of first-time, full-time students at four-year institutions complete a degree in four years. And then there is money.

Mrs. Varlotta places issues of affordability at the forefront of a student's success.

“The cost of a college education has outpaced the salaries and wages that most people make. But it is important for high school students to know that the list price is not the same as the out-of-pocket cost. There are federal and private funds available for school. You must learn how to access financial help. I still believe that college is the single most important investment we make in a lifetime. It is the one that appreciates in value over time,” she said.

Mrs. Varlotta serves as the senior vice president for planning, enrollment management and student affairs at California state. She will leave a team of 500 faculty and staff to enter a small liberal arts college with 1300 students and 85 faculty members in a small northeastern town.

“I have a natural longing to get back to a small, liberal arts college where you really get to know the students and staff. Those personal relationships are important. They mirror the type of attention I received in Penn Hills,'' she said. 

“The challenges for a small liberal arts college are tremendous,” Mr. Moore said. “The number of 18-year olds has decreased from 3.5 million to 2.8 million since 2010. This means competition between institutions for those students is fierce.”

As a result, Hiram relies on maintaining a diverse student body. According to Mr. Moore, Hiram was the second school in the nation to start an adult education program and is one of the first to offer a student veterans residence hall.

Under Mrs. Varlotta’s hand, he expects that Hiram will continue to participate in the Yellow Ribbon program, a federally funded program providing financial support for student veterans going to private colleges and universities. .

Mrs. Varlotta said she wants to recruit veterans from the tri-state because they are more mature students. She says veterans have a greater sense of service from their experience in the military and that they will benefit from Hiram’s service learning orientation.

Tim Means, freelance writer:

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