Dedication to student involvement, engagement and growth has earned Michael (Mike) Paestella, interim director of SUNY Oswego's Office of Student Engagement and Leadership, the 2023 SUNY Chancellor’s Award for Excellence in Professional Service. 

Paestella's work has been crucial for students because membership in student organizations comprises a large component of their out-of-class time and has enormous benefits, nominators wrote, as this leads to making lifelong friends, gaining valuable leadership experience and learning how to make a difference in their campus, the community and the wider world. 

Letters of support noted that in addition to his consistent excellence in recognizing, cultivating and supporting student leadership, Paestella continuously seeks innovative solutions, serves as a role model for colleagues and students, and finds any and every way possible to uplift the campus community. 

“As the campus has embraced and experienced changes and departmental shifts, Mike has taken them in stride, continuously using them as growth opportunities,” wrote nominator Kelsey Jones, SUNY Oswego’s program coordinator for civic engagement and community services. “Not only does Mike embody this principle himself, but he shares it with his team, much of which are new professional staff who follow Mike’s lead by example.”

Paestella joined the Oswego family in 2001 as assistant director of campus life for student organization services. In 2007, a campus transformation – both physical with the opening of Marano Campus Center and organizationally with expanded services – resulted in Paestella’s role growing into assistant director of campus life and director of student involvement and then associate director of leadership development before stepping in to fill the interim director role.

Ziyah J. Myers, who earned a bachelor's in public relations and is now in SUNY Oswego's strategic management master's program, has been very involved in campus student leadership and observed Paestella's work firsthand. Myers described Paestella as “a valuable asset to my growth as a student leader in the many organizations that I've been part of.” Paestella’s “Leadership Issues” course has helped Myers and many others learn how to tackle roles from their collegiate years well into their futures. 

Alumnus Justin Brantley credits Paestella with a “lightbulb moment” while taking his leadership class. “Through his instruction and interactive dialogue, Mike taught us the difference between management and leadership,” Brantley recalled. “This was one of the truly pivotal lessons and concepts that I learned; understanding what it takes to inspire others to make change as opposed to continuing an already long-standing tradition.” 

Spearheading involvement opportunities

For many years, Paestella spearheaded and grew a Student Involvement Fair that became a milestone event, allowing student organizations to showcase what they offer while inviting students to join, unlock their potential and often begin lifelong friendships. 

“I believe this event underscores Mike’s passion for problem-solving for our students during their time at Oswego from the very beginning,” said Brantley, who earned his bachelor's in accounting and MBA from Oswego and is now an associate at the Alpine Grove Partners firm. “I am a firm believer that one of the direct paths for students to become well-rounded individuals is through joining and taking leadership roles with clubs and organizations.” 

As shown by the evolution and increasing levels of responsibility, Paestella’s more than two decades on campus demonstrate a desire and willingness to keep learning and finding new ways to support students, colleagues and institutional goals. 

“Mike encourages those around him to take all opportunities and hardships as learning experiences, serving as a role model in our office, across campus and to students,” Jones noted. “As our department underwent construction and movement this past summer, Mike took on several duties that were not listed in his job description due to lack of professional staff available with the reorganization.” 

In the past two years, Paestella completed two certifications with the University of South Florida as well as an independent certification process to join the university’s QPR (question, persuade, refer) team to support mental health and prevent self-harm, while also participating in Safe Zone training for the sake of campus inclusion, belonging and well-being. 

Nominators praised how Paestella always finds time to help student organizations, either within his official capacity or by simply lending a compassionate ear or offering life advice. 

Paestella’s dedication has left a lasting legacy on his alma mater of SUNY Potsdam as well. He earned that institution’s Distinguished Service Award in 2020, and he has served as president of Potsdam’s Alumni Board of Trustees, and on the board for more than a dozen years. 

After finishing his dual bachelor's in philosophy and geology from Potsdam, Paestella earned his master's in student affairs and higher education from Indiana University of Pennsylvania. He also holds two executive certificates -- in leadership and development and in advanced intercultural management -- from the University of Notre Dame.

On the Oswego campus, Paestella earned the Outstanding Advisor Award from the Asian Student Association and Delta Phi Epsilon Sorority along with the Division of Student Affairs Student Engagement Award in 2022. 

In the Oswego community, he has served as vice president and board member of the Oswego City-County Youth Bureau and on the Oswego Children’s Center board of directors. 

Leading solutions

Paestella led an innovative improvement to town-gown relations in successfully implementing the “Good Neighbor” program, which found ways to build stronger and more beneficial connections between Greek organizations and local residents.

For this program, Paestella would work with Greek organizations to “bring the group's leadership, if not all the members, to a meeting with their neighbors where they would introduce themselves and get to know each other,” wrote Renee Landers Jennings, senior associate director of SUNY Oswego’s Residence Life and Housing Office. “I know some groups invited their neighbors to the parties/cookouts and communicated with the neighbor if there was a concern … This helped to change the town-gown relationship with fraternities specifically.” 

Paestella has developed other successful programs to recognize, motivate and elevate students, nominators wrote, such as the Student Involvement Awards. 

“Over the years, he designed, administered and facilitated the campus awards program for registered student organizations and student leaders,” Landers Jennings wrote, as the recognition grew from the seed of an idea to an annual celebration of outstanding and ongoing dedication among and on behalf of student organizations.

He regularly contributes his time to student-focused committees, including ones that do not fall within his regular job duties, with such involvements including the Student Conduct Board, Alcohol Other Drug Task-force Committee and Leadership Mentor Program Committee member. 

“Michael was a very active member and often took a leadership role and additional tasks to be completed outside those meetings,” Landers Jennings recalled. “I used to have Michael come into professional and student staff training to do sessions on Leadership and Development. Our staff talked for days after Michael's presentation because it was engaging, and he got them thinking.” 

In addition to training advisors, Paestella has stepped in to help clubs and organizations in need of an advisor at crucial times. The clubs he has advised over the years range from cultural organizations to business societies to club sports, garnering praise and awards along the way. He also spearheaded efforts to continue student involvement during the pandemic, making sure student organizations felt valued and connected with each other. 

He has been pivotal to the continued success of the ALANA (African, Latino, Asian and Native American) Student Leadership Conference –- an annual hallmark reflecting Oswego’s commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion. When personnel changes required somebody to step up and maintain the high quality and engagement of the event, Paestella gladly did so. 

“Mike took the lead and initiative on this conference and executed it fearlessly, going above and beyond to provide the opportunity for the students to still have this conference in general but to hold a conference they were proud of and that they felt represented them as students and orgs,” Jones wrote. 

“As his student, I have had an opportunity to observe his participation and interaction within student organizations and in the classroom to evaluate our knowledge and experience of the subject matter, which is leadership,” Myers said. “He is an outstanding professor and staff member in all respects. Michael Paestella has proven that through hard work, teamwork, vulnerability and initiative, anyone can accomplish tasks in a courteous and timely manner.” 

“As I reflect on what stands out about Michael, I see he cares about all he meets –- students or community members,” Landers Jennings added. “Michael Paestella is engaging and innovative in educating the students with whom he interacts to be good citizens within our community.”