University leaders talk courage, vulnerability and value of staff at APA event

While some may be feeling “Zoomed out” right now, participants at the virtual UF Academic and Professional Assembly (APA) Warm Welcome on Oct. 6 described the event as anything but mundane. With an attendance of more than 140, staff said they left the experience feeling enlightened, engaged, connected and refreshed.

To kick off the Warm Welcome, UFHR’s Training and Organizational Development team sparked connections amongst the physically distanced, yet socially connected, staff and university leaders by hosting introductory connection sessions that one APA member described as the “best breakout ever.” In addition, Noliyanda James, IFAS extension program specialist, shared, “The event helped build a culture of inclusion across departments and helps staff based outside of Gainesville to still feel as if they are part of the UF community.”

After the introductory connection session, Michelle Smith, assistant dean for inclusion at the College of Health and Human Performance and College of Law, dove straight into the virtual-leadership panel discussion featuring UF President Kent Fuchs, Vice President for Human Resources Jodi Gentry, Chief Diversity Officer Antonio Farias and Dean of the College of the Arts Onye Ozuzu.

UF leaders shared their perspectives and experiences on topics including motivation during adversity, infusing courage into leadership and the paramount role of staff in UF’s endeavor to Rise to Five. Key takeaways from the candid discussion included building motivation through intentionality and recognizing the greater purpose; harnessing courage to stand up for your beliefs; and realizing that we are all educators, regardless of our specific duties.

APA’s purpose is to enrich the professional lives of UF staff by fostering an inclusive community through advocacy, education and recognition. In 2019, APA launched the Warm Welcome Event at the F Club at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium, with goals of officially welcoming new staff, offering inspiration from university leaders and fostering belonging and community among staff. With the current pandemic and social distancing, the APA board strategized how to recreate the intimate, welcoming feel in a virtual environment. Krista Vaught, APA president, shared “Our gratitude to the leaders for being present to welcome and connect with staff and for being authentic and vulnerable, to staff for making space to participate in our community and to our APA board for their tireless efforts to serve, engage, and advocate for staff across the institution.”

Attendees raved about the Warm Welcome experience: some said it made them feel proud to be a Gator and that UF is more than just a workplace—it is a community working toward a common goal. One attendee commented, “By coming to events like today to soak up others’ energy and motivation, I am re-inspired and re-energized to work for our students, faculty, staff and the Gator Nation overall.”

Audrey Gainey, director of Talent Acquisition and Onboarding, said, “The engagement with senior leadership and their willingness to be transparent was awesome. It seemed to have ‘evened the playing field’ by introducing commonalities you can relate to in your work and life. That level of dialogue removed the ‘us and them’ stereotype created by titles.”

Staff can view or listen to the Warm Welcome on the APA website. For more information on upcoming APA events and how you can contribute to their vision of serving as an influential and inclusive community that drives meaningful engagement and advocacy for staff, please visit

— by Sarah Slysofski