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Q&A: Dr. Salvador Aceves shares vision for Regis University as first Hispanic and lay president

At the beginning of the year, Dr. Salvador Aceves took over the reigns as the new president of Regis University. Dr. Aceves is both the first lay and first Hispanic president of the storied 146-year-old institution situated in the heart of Denver. He previously served in the role of Senior Vice President and Chief Financial Officer since 2014.

Dr. Aceves’ history of both attending and serving in Jesuit Catholic educational institutions makes him uniquely qualified to lead Regis University. Furthermore, as the college’s first Hispanic president, it is a priority of his to reach out to and serve the ever-growing Hispanic population in Colorado.

Denver Catholic was privileged to speak with Dr. Aceves about what makes Regis University special, how they integrate faith into their academics and his vision for the future as the new president.

Denver Catholic: What would you say makes Regis University unique from other Catholic or Jesuit colleges?
Dr. Aceves: I have spent close to four decades in Jesuit Catholic higher education. And in many ways, my roles have been varied. I started as a faculty member, and that was certainly early on in my career, and slowly moved on to dean and vice provost positions. I really have been fortunate to be formed within and attend Jesuit Catholic institutions. There’s been a real love for our mission and our commitment towards what we call the Jesuit Catholic intellectual tradition in our leadership, and certainly focusing on teaching but also research and service. That really characterizes both our foundation and our humanistic education that we provide for our students. We emphasize the development of the whole person. That’s really at the core of who we are and our ability to link both the mind and the heart, which I think is something that is very, very special, because it’s not just educating students for for excellence within their discipline or profession, but also being able to have the empathy, being able to deliver the care, and being able to really anticipate the humanistic needs of our community. To me, that’s really what’s distinctive.

We see that particularly with our health care programs. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been in conversation with health care leaders who say, we’re very interested in hiring nurses, but we really in particular are very interested in hiring Regis nurses. What that tells me is that that important link between mind and heart is really there. We feel that that’s part of what is distinctive about our our education. And hopefully what we’re also doing is planting a seed within our students about the importance of living a life of purpose and meaning. I think that that’s reflected in in the way they live their lives, but also the way that they lead their profession.

DC: What kinds of mission and ministry opportunities are available to students?
Dr. Aceves: I’ll just give you some of the ones that are top of mind. We partner with our sister institution Arrupe Jesuit High School and we have the Arrupe science mentorship program. That’s a program where our biology students are partnered with high school seniors and they really spend time developing and reviewing and preparing and critiquing and strengthening their thesis project. We have a project of interfaith justice and peacemaking that really is an interactive sort of advocacy. These are projects that are advocacy projects within the local community. We also have refugee youth tutoring that brings both junior and high school refugee students to religious universities for weekly tutoring and mentoring. Those are what I would call in that co-curricular space.

Within our university ministry, there is a meaningful number of retreats, particularly the retreat for first year students, where they’re really able to get to know their fellow classmates. One of the most important things that students can do when they come to college is start to forge those early connections, that friendship and kinship. That is really something that becomes a lifelong part of their lives. We have something called the Hearts and Fire Retreat. And that’s really an opportunity for students to go deeper into their relationship with God. And it’s really viewed through the lens of Ignatian spirituality, the opportunity for students to come together and really be able to be in conversation with, but also to reflect on kind of their lives and what does the Eucharist mean to them and how do they deepen their faith? We also have the Kairos retreat. Again, it’s very much around students deepening their relationship with God. 43% of our students identify themselves as Roman Catholic. We have another 23% of students that identify themselves as having another religious affiliation. So we draw students that have a deep commitment to faith and we believe that that is therefore an important way for us to ensure that through retreats and conversation, through their co-curricular as well as their curricular experiences, they’re all thinking about how do we develop that link between the mind and the heart. 

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DC: Colleges are meant to be a place for open dialogue and exchange of ideas in pursuit of truth. What are the ways in which Regis provides a space to do this?
Dr. Aceves: You’re absolutely correct that at the university, we really are about the exploration and the pursuit of truth. That’s something that is fundamental to who we are as a university, recognizing that we are trying to teach a conversation, an open dialog that really does allow us to be able to create, in a civil and a respectful way, an opportunity to explore all views with the understanding that that really is the ultimate goal, and that is to seek and to further the boundaries of that which we have yet to understand. And so that happens obviously in the classroom, but it also happens through many of our student organizations, that happens through our retreats, that happens through the immersion experiences that we have. I would say within that setting and both through conversations as well as through a shared experience and even in liturgy that we create a space for those conversations to take place.

To me, we are at our best when we are able to capture the full value of what is really an opening of our minds and our hearts to be able to explore really what is true about God’s plan and God’s will, and do so in a way that really, again, inspires us to deepen not only our faith, but also provide that purpose and meaning to our lives. And I find that that really is what students come back and reflect on and that’s what’s transformative. We talk about Jesuit Catholic education as a transformative and a formative education, and for me, that’s what gives it the texture and the and the rationale for it for us to be able to speak in those terms.

DC: Colorado is home to a growing number of Hispanics. How is Regis reaching out to and serving this important demographic?
Dr. Aceves: We are pursuing becoming a Hispanic serving institution. Part of that is because we recognize that 28% of our full time traditional undergraduate students are of Hispanic descent. And the reality is that in some ways, I do believe and certainly I know for my own family, faith was a very important part of our culture, of my upbringing and in my whole life. The role that church plays in our formative years is a very integral part of who we are. Many families gather around after Mass and recognize that that is part of the broader community that really comes together. So one of the things that we’re very attuned to is the importance of not only acknowledging the fact that when we admit Hispanic students to Regis, we’re also admitting the family. We’re also meeting the extended family. So when we talk about becoming a Hispanic serving institution, our work right now is on the serving piece: How do we get to the families that are now not only Hispanic, but then also, how are they part of our inclusive community, which is really what Regis university is. We draw heavily from a certain number of high schools and in particular, Arrupe Jesuit high school is is an important partner for us.

Just to give you a sense, [Arrupe] is celebrating their 20th year. I was just at the campus, and one of the things that I was looking at is how many students have graduated from Regis university that came to us from Arrupe Jesuit high school. I counted 130 graduates. And I believe that they were in 146 degrees. We now have a course for what we call young entrepreneurs. Many of our Hispanic families have small businesses and they’re very interested in either growing their business or they’re interested in derivatives of their family business. So we have a class now where they take classes at Arrupe, but they also take classes here at Regis and and they will earn college credit. That really tries to inspire them to know that high school is preparing them for a successful college life. And the fact that they’ve started to earn college credit also makes that pathway a little less challenging, particularly for our first generation students. So the ability to be able to be in partnership with our with our college students to work with our college faculty, to be able to see potentially a small business, to me, that really is how we’re best serving our Hispanic students. And frankly, their perspective is also having a positive impact in the conversation with their classmates, because for us, it’s how do we live in harmony and how do we build community, a community that’s diverse, that’s supportive, that is engaged, and that really is interested in the common good.

DC: As the new president, what is your vision for Regis University for the future?
Dr. Aceves: I want to honor our past and our legacy. We’re an institution that’s been around for 146 years. So I certainly would say that there is a tremendous amount of wealth in the history and our traditions and our legacy and our Jesuit Catholic identity. I think that that’s really, really important that we honor that. But then I also think about the future, which is not just the future of Regis, but the future of Regis in community with Denver Metro, with the state of Colorado, with our Rocky Mountain region. And to me, that really is going to be most impactful if we continue to be responsive to the needs of our growing community. When I say need, it’s going to be their spiritual needs, but it’s also going to be how do we prepare the next generation of health care professionals, how we prepare the next generation of business and technology graduates, how do we prepare the next generation of liberal arts graduates that are going to go on and continue on to medical school or law school or any of the vocational professions as well. To me, it’s delivering that high quality Jesuit Catholic education.

In addition, how do we as a university also become an employer of choice and become a community that is a top-of-mind partner where we have to explore challenges? We have to figure out what those challenges are and I want to make sure that the university is viewed as an important partner in those conversations, because that’s really how we together can build the kind of community that we’re proud of, that we’d like to see future generations be able to enjoy. To me, that’s our social commitment.

Aaron Lambert
Aaron Lambert
Aaron is the Managing Editor for the Denver Catholic.

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