‘Irreplaceable’ Vince Cuseo, dean of admission and vice president of enrollment, to step down in June

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Vince Cuseo spoke at the Occidental College Department of Admission's Discover Occidental: Junior Open House event for high school juniors and their families on Feb. 19, 2019. Photo courtesy of Marc Campos, Occidental College Photographer.

The Office of Admission is currently holed up — reading and sorting through thousands of applications during the second stage of its admissions process. In the summer and fall of non-pandemic years, employees from the admissions office travel throughout the country, visiting and speaking with prospective students and high school counselors. In the winter, they must process thousands of applications before the office turns its focus toward welcoming admitted students and their families to campus in the spring. 

Halfway through his 22nd year at Occidental College, Dean of Admission and Vice President of Enrollment Vince Cuseo is closing in on the third stage of the admissions cycle for his last time. On Jan. 20, Occidental President Harry J. Elam Jr. announced over email that Cuseo would be stepping down June 30. While Cuseo said he plans to remain involved in a consulting role for the Office of Admission at the college following his tenure, he will leave his roles as dean and vice president this summer. 

Vice President of Enrollment and Dean of Admission Vince Cuseo. Photo courtesy of Marc Campos, Occidental College Photographer.

“I mean, there are times that are challenging in any job over 22 years, but it’s just been such a good proverbial fit for me,” Cuseo said. “I met my wife when I came out here, now I have two children that are 14 years of age being here. There are auxiliary things that have happened in my life that are associated with Occidental indirectly and directly. This has just been the right place for me and I’m just happy that I’ve been able to live out the rest of my professional career here.”

According to Charlie Leizear, senior associate dean and director of first-year admission, Cuseo has been at the heart of the college’s success for years.

“Much of Oxy’s success comes down to the simple fact that Vince has been the trusted face of Oxy for a generation of movers and shakers in the college admission field,” Leizear said over email. “Everyone in our field seems to know Vince, everyone has a hysterical story to tell, and everyone seems to have come to first know Oxy through him. He has absolutely been one of the most influential mentors in my career, plus he is a dear friend, a brilliant writer, and an out-of this world example of ethical practitioners in our field.”

Cuseo was born and raised in Queens, New York, on the border between Jackson Heights and Astoria, and spent his youth watching sports and hanging out with close friends in the area. He said he felt blessed to have spent his formative years in New York due to the city’s culture, food, 24/7 public transportation system and a closeness that forces one to get along with everyone. 

“The spirit of the city itself, it just seems like it’s always in motion,” Cuseo said. “I mean, my pace just picks up a certain percentage when in New York, that’s always been the case doing my work with Occidental and traveling in New York.”

According to Vice President of Admissions and Financial Aid at Washington & Lee University Sally Stone-Richmond, who formerly worked as a dean of admission at Occidental from 2006–2015, Cuseo continued to claim New York City as his region to recruit students. Stone-Richmond said it is not too common for deans of admission to continue travelling and recruiting students in the field when they are in charge.

Vince Cuseo participating in MSI bowl with members of senior staff, including Cuseo, at All Star Lanes bowling alley in Eagle Rock, July 27, 2018. Photo Courtesy of Marc Campos, Occidental College Photographer.

“That’s one of the things I think everybody really admired about Vince is that as he continued to climb the proverbial ladder, he stayed very grounded in the core of what admission is, which is recruiting great kids to your institution,” Stone-Richmond said. “He had ties to New York, that’s where he grew up and he knew it extremely well. He had ties to San Francisco, same thing, and you couldn’t pry it from his hands.”

Cuseo stayed in New York City through his college years, studying philosophy at Fordham University. Cuseo said he chose Fordham because it was a Jesuit university and placed a significant emphasis on discernment and philosophy, fields that had inspired him since high school.

Cuseo said his parents were none too happy when he chose philosophy as his major, preferring that he study prelaw or premed courses. 

“I wound up in the right place, I think. My undergraduate education, I really did enjoy it,” Cuseo said. 

After graduating with his B.A. from Fordham, Cuseo remained in New York for a few years, working as a paralegal in Manhattan in order to earn some money while mulling over whether or not to pursue a Ph.D. in philosophy. According to Cuseo, it was at this time a close friend and former peer who was working in Columbia University’s admissions office first got him interested in working in higher education.

“It just seemed fascinating to me, to be able to travel around the country, to evaluate applicants to the college, to be part of the college administration, to be on a college campus,” Cuseo said. “There’s always been a part of me that enjoys advising peers, and there was a sort of counseling aspect that I felt I could be potentially good at.”

Cuseo said his fascination with higher education inspired him to seek out a graduate degree at Teachers College, the school of education at Columbia University where he eventually earned a master’s degree in Student Personnel Administration. According to Cuseo, his philosophy B.A. prepared him to think analytically and carefully, and helped his admissions career. Cuseo spent his first six years in admissions working at Boston College before moving to Santa Clara University as an associate dean of admission for one year, and then working at Stanford University for six more years.

“It really was beneficial to me in so many different ways to work in different types of institutions in different parts of the country,” Cuseo said. 

After a director of admission position opened up at Grinnell College — a small school in Grinnell, Iowa with a student body of roughly 1,700 students — Cuseo sought the opportunity to work at the liberal arts college. 

“I was a student of higher education, my degree was in a liberal arts discipline, I always appreciated from a distance liberal arts colleges, but hadn’t really worked in one,” Cuseo said. “I hadn’t been at a college where all the students were solely undergraduates and of that size, and I so much appreciated being part of this — a little stereotypical, I understand — ‘tight knit community’ where I could walk across campus and I knew faculty members, I knew administrators and staff, I knew the students. That was so appealing to me.” 

Cuseo found a tight-knit community again when he took a position as associate dean of admissions at Occidental in 1999. He became the dean of admission in 2001 and vice president of enrollment in Jan. 2010. According to Cuseo, he arrived at a time in which the college was reimagining its identity and admissions process to better reflect the values of the school.

“In the late ’80s, Occidental decided that the composition of its student body and the entire staff in the administration wasn’t really reflective of California in general, and the City of Los Angeles in particular,” Cuseo said. “So it really made a courageous decision to sort of reimagine its mission to become a more diverse institution — and that’s what it did. There were some growing pains as a result of that, because it was the first liberal arts college to make that kind of deep commitment.”

One of Cuseo’s first tasks as associate dean of admissions was to grow the applicant pool and increase enrollment stability at the college. According to Cuseo, due to the 1994 Northridge Earthquake, 1992 after the Rodney King Riots, a weak economy and a high crime rate in the 1990s, the city of LA had trouble attracting as many students as it does today. 

“No matter what you’re always competing with other institutions, the cost of a private liberal arts college education is exorbitant, those challenges remain,” Cuseo said. “Enrollment went from 1,500 to over 2,000 students over that period of time, and I think Occidental is a far better place, not just because of the work that took place in enrollment, but the institution as a whole.”

Cuseo married his wife, Sharon Merrow Cuseo, while working at Occidental, a high school counselor who has worked at a private high school in LA for 25 years, and worked in Occidental’s Office of Admission from 1987 to 1993. Though Cuseo initially met her while working at Stanford, nothing came of their brief interaction. Something must have changed, because some time later, Cuseo said he spent his first few years at Occidental commuting from Pasadena to Brentwood with a stick shift in stop-and-go traffic to go see her. Since they kindled their relationship at Occidental, Vince and Sharon felt it was only right to get married there in 2002. The Cuseos have two daughters, 14-year-old twins Lina and Jenna, who are only four years away from potentially applying to college themselves. According to Cuseo, there are other challenges the two must overcome before they can consider whether or not Occidental is the right choice for them.

“Right now I’m just hoping they get through algebra,” Cuseo said. 

According to Cuseo, while the greatest success from his long career at Occidental was the hundreds of individuals he was able to meet and get to know along the way, many others would point to a recent Wall Street Journal (WSJ) article that put Occidental in the national spotlight. Cuseo made the front page of the Wall Street Journal on Nov. 6, 2019, for saying no to Rick Singer, the man at the center of the 2019 college admissions scandal. According to the WSJ article, Singer attempted to pressure Cuseo into reconsidering the application of the daughter of a wealthy family who had struggled academically. Cuseo said he did not hesitate to say no.

“I would have never thought twice about saying what I did because I knew it was consistent with the core values of the college,” Cuseo said. “Sure, it’s something that I would never feel comfortable saying yes to just from my own ethical standing, but I also knew that it was consistent with the manner in which the leadership of the college, faculty, alum, staff, everyone would have wanted me to do and say, under those circumstances, so I felt complete confidence I was doing the right thing, for lots of reasons.”

According to Maricela Martinez, senior associate dean and director of transfer admission and inclusion, Cuseo’s decision to reject Singer’s proposal is not surprising to anyone who has worked with Cuseo.

“I don’t think anybody who knows Vince was surprised to hear that,” Martinez said. “He is absolutely [it] when I think of integrity, and I would have been shocked if it had been the opposite. But no, I don’t think any of us were surprised.”

Although Cuseo was initially embarrassed about the attention, he said he was glad it brought the college the recognition it deserved.

According to Charlie Cardillo, vice president of institutional advancement, the WSJ article led to a surge in giving. Cardillo said that the college received many notes and gestures from alumni and others who were not even connected to Occidental. The giving surge even included two anonymous donations which totalled $125,000.

“You can imagine the pride that alumni felt, knowing that their institution operates that way and there were parents who also expressed that,” Cardillo said. “It’s fairly rare that there’s an article on the cover of The Wall Street Journal that’s positive. So when it’s both positive — and it just speaks to the wonderful way in which Vince conducts himself and conducts the work of the college — you couldn’t have asked for a more wonderful story that befall us.”

Ali Bhanji is the director of college guidance at the Collegiate School in New York City and is one of many high school counselors Cuseo worked with throughout his time in admissions since he was at Grinnell College. According to Bhanji, Cuseo is a unique individual in the world of college admissions.

“His unassailable integrity formed his authentic vision, always searching for lasting, durable access and equity and never settling for or joining the bandwagon for an easy fix,” Bhanji said over email. “Institutions move on from individuals too, however, and genuine places will find genuine leaders. Oxy will do just that, but the loss of Dean Cuseo cannot be understated—it is immense.”

According to Martinez, there are many aspects which set Cuseo apart in the field of college admissions. Among those, Martinez said Cuseo continues to personally sign every acceptance letter, a process which can take as long as three days.

“I think it’s because he loves the work and he is really proud of the work that we have done, but also really excited about each incoming class and he knows that even just something as simple as his signature is an example of how Oxy is distinct from other institutions and how we really personalize the education,” Martinez said. 

Vince Cuseo at an event honoring Men’s Basketball Coach Brian Newhall on Saturday, Jan. 26, 2019. Photo courtesy of Marc Campos, Occidental College Photographer.

Cuseo said that personally signing each of the thousands of letters is the least he could do to show respect to those who have taken the time to apply to Occidental.

“It takes a fair amount of time and energy to do, but I love it,” Cuseo said. “I mean, it’s the fruits of our labor over a course of complete admission cycle to students. And, again, the applicants have made the grade, they’ve done the things that allowed them to be in a position to receive this good news from Occidental and I feel the least I can do is write my name.”

Cuseo said he will miss the students, staff, faculty and administration at Occidental the most, as well those he’s worked with in the field. Morning walks on Occidental’s picturesque campus, especially on Sundays when the campus is still waking up, come in a close second. 

“In all my years at Occidental, all my interactions with Occidental students, I found them incredibly thoughtful, kind and curious souls. To be able to go to work every day and be surrounded by people across the college, people like that — but particularly the students themselves [who are] the heart of the institution, the students who attend — has brought me incredible joy and satisfaction,” Cuseo said.