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'Father figure' leaves USF

TAMPA - Like thousands of students he recruited, mentored and watched graduate from the University of South Florida in the past 27 years, it is time for Samuel Wright to bid farewell to the Bulls campus. "I have been a father-figure to a lot of these young people," Wright said. Wright, an advocate for student rights and cultural diversity in the Tampa area, is leaving his job as the university student ombudsman on Feb. 15. He plans to pursue opportunities in consulting or a related field. His retirement from USF has been a part of Wright's long-term plan for years to carve a new career path before he turns 60.
Wright, who has a thick mustache and often wears an African-inspired kente cloth around his neck, said proudly last week that he is 59. His birthday is July 7. The university is honoring Wright with an invitation-only reception in the USF College of Education at 2 p.m. Feb. 15. A Boynton Beach native, Wright considers his time at USF and the lasting relationships he established with students, administrators, professors and staffers over the years to be major life achievements. He cherishes the opportunities he has had to counsel and mentor students through challenges and cheer on their successes. "In terms of milestones, it has been an honor to be pivotal in the lives of many young people who took advantage of the mentorship and Godly counsel," Wright said. "The beauty is to see them soar." In the past two years, he has counseled more than 1,000 students on a wide range of issues. Some students are seeking financial assistance; others are having problems navigating the registration process. There are those who are facing academic challenges or just in need of someone to listen. Many students consider Wright an icon, an unapologetic supporter of cultural diversity and ethnic inclusion in all areas of campus life. He has mentored some former students who are leading professionals in fields such as medicine, law, business and education. "He was the main reason I went to USF," said Stephen Davis, a 1999 USF graduate who now is an ob-gyn physician in Oklahoma City. "He believed in me from the beginning." Ray Cobb, a USF graduate who is an underwriting sales representative at a National Public Radio station in Atlanta, said he considered Wright a mentor in college. "But really, he has been much more than that," Cobb said. "He was kind of like the Wizard (in the Broadway production of the Wiz). He was able to help us see a side of ourselves that was already there." Wright has been an agent of change since he arrived at USF. He was hired in 1985 to plan, create and coordinate student programming for minority students. "My very first job (at USF) was a full-time position in the Marshall Center," Wright said. "Dr. Wanda Lewis-Campbell is the one who hired me to work as an adviser to minority student organizations." Lewis-Campbell, who now is the assistant dean for Student Life at Temple University Ambler (Penn.), recalled being impressed by Wright's energy and enthusiasm for the job. "I wanted someone who was approachable, knowledgeable, a friendly-type person who students would want to go to for advice," Lewis-Campbell said. "He was engaging and loved to talk to people." Wright recalled black students at the time accounted for less than 5 percent of the student population. It became a personal crusade to improve student enrollment for people of color, especially blacks, at USF, Wright said. In 1986, Wright left USF for a job at the Greater Tampa Urban League but returned 10 months later. "When I left USF, I knew I had to be back on this campus," said Wright, a 1974 University of Florida graduate. "It was a place I had to be." For the next 13 years, he served as the university's assistant director for multicultural admissions, a job that allowed him to recruit, enroll, mentor and retain minority students. "When I left that job, the black student population at USF had risen to almost 12 percent," Wright said. His tenure has included stints as associate dean of student relations and director of multicultural affairs. As the USF student ombudsman, Wright's job requires him to be a good listener, unbiased mediator and effective communicator to help students solve problems. He and his assistant, Tina Van Zile, work in a two-room, first-floor office in the Allen Building in the cul-de-sac on Leroy Collins Boulevard. The office is sprinkled throughout the day with a stream of students waiting to see Wright. Van Zile, who has worked with Wright for four years, is in awe of his ability to connect with students and quickly access their needs. "Many of his former students come back to see him," Van Zile said. "He stays in contact with many of the students he has mentored." Wright's departure will mean changes for the student ombudsman office. The university plans to close the office and consolidate it with student affairs. Van Zile will be assigned to a new department. Wright's impact on the community extends beyond USF. He spearheaded the launch of the Tampa Bay Black Heritage Festival, a multicultural celebration held annually since 2001 in honor of black history and culture in the Tampa area. A community activist, Wright is a longtime leader of the Hillsborough County NAACP. He is seen as an African-American trailblazer at the university. Wright, a divorced father with two children, is an educator with an extensive background serving in public and community service. A former Boynton Beach city commissioner, Wright also has served on several commissions and advisory boards, including the Florida Fund for Minority Teachers. Wright has plenty to do when he leaves USF. He still is coming to grips with the death of his 85-year-old father, Samuel Louis Wright, in December. His mother, Rovina Victoria Beal Wright, who lives in South Florida, is in failing health. Wright said his immediate plans include spending more time being her caregiver. "I'm a momma's boy," Wright said, smiling. "She has been my pillar." Wright plans to cook her favorite Bahamian dish — fish, pigeon peas and rice — and other island entrees. He expects to be ready to re-enter the job market in about six months.

kknight@tampatrib.com (813) 259-7413
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