The first moment that Dennis Vanasse stepped onto Anna Maria College’s campus, he immediately felt a sense of belonging. Fast forward 25 years later and Vanasse is an integral part of Anna Maria College and a familiar face to generations of students due to his role as Director of Student Success and his well-known passion for Hip Hop and Rap music.
Vanasse first toured the campus during a visit to see his brother who was an Anna Maria student at the time. Vanasse appreciated the natural beauty of the campus, but more importantly he recognized the institution’s focus on building a family-like community.
“As I walked around and went through classes and met with faculty, I recognized that there was a lot of individualized attention in that faculty would know who you are, and you would not be a number on campus,” he said.
Vanasse was so impressed by the college that he became an Anna Maria student himself and graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in Education in 1994 followed by a Master’s in Special Education from Fitchburg State College in 1997. His career journey has taken many interesting turns, but his focus on special education and student inclusivity has remained firmly rooted throughout the years.
After receiving his master’s, Vanasse began his career in the public school system when a professor at Anna Maria College offered him a position as an adjunct professor. While working as an adjunct, he was asked to become a staff member at Anna Maria’s Learning Center. Vanasse accepted the position but realized that the resource was receiving little traction from students who needed tutoring services; as a result, Vanasse decided to immerse himself in the campus and let students know that help was always available to them.
“I think the most important thing in education is building connections with students to try to break down walls. I connected with the athletes, I went into every residence hall, I tabled in the cafeteria, went into the library, and just met the students. I tried to make sure that I went to as many activities, sporting events, and music events just to get to know our students and let them know who I am,” Vanasse said about encouraging Anna Maria students to feel comfortable reaching out to the tutoring center for academic assistance.
Vanasse explained that often students are hesitant to utilize tutoring services because they are afraid of what others think. Vanasse’s goal is to break down these false perceptions and normalize tutoring for all students.
“When a student comes in struggling, their self-confidence is usually shot and it’s tough to get somebody to believe that success is attainable when they’ve struggled,” Vanasse explained, “However, once they start to taste success, they change their academic behaviors, and they change their way of doing things.” It is Vanasse’s job, and personal passion, to help students adjust to college life and let them know that success is attainable for those who are willing to work for it.
By making academic support services more accessible to students, the tutoring center grew exponentially throughout the years. The former Learning Center, which previously included Vanasse as a part-time employee and two tutors, became the Student Success Center with Vanasse as a full-time director and over 30 professional staff, graduate tutors, and student tutors on staff willing and able to transform the learning experiences of Anna Maria students.
“I think the success of the Student Success Center has always been the collaboration. Increased collaboration between faculty, staff, myself, and students and having that open communication that I saw 25 years ago on campus, which originally drew me to the campus, is central to the Student Success Center,” he said.
Throughout the years, Vanasse has worn many hats, oftentimes going outside of his department to lend a helping hand. In addition to his career in education, Vanasse is a published author writing children’s books focused on special education, biographies, and books about one of his favorite topics, hip hop.
Vanasse uses music as a tool to connect with students on campus through classes such as his First Year Seminar class, Evolution to Hip Hop. Not only does his interest resonate with students, but the topic also allows him to connect with the community at large. Through his connections, he has brought famous musicians, authors, and advocates to Anna Maria College for speaking opportunities that further enrich the experiences of Anna Maria students. Vanasse has brought high profile musicians such as Joyner Lucas, Parrish Smith, and Lil Durk to campus and even arranged speaking engagements from Rolling Stones editor, Laura Checkoway, and MTV host, Justina Valentine.
One of Vanasse’s proudest accomplishments was inviting famed hip hop artist Darryl McDaniels of Run DMC to campus where McDaniels candidly spoke about his personal mental health issues and his book, Ten Ways Not to Commit Suicide.
“One of the things I learned in the onset of being an educator is the importance of building connections, and everybody likes music. I use music and experiences to build connections with students and those connections, create conversation and suddenly people become approachable,” Vanasse said about using hip hop and rap to encourage students to open up.
This year marks Vanasse’s 25th year at Anna Maria College. Throughout the years he has seen many aspects of the college change and grow, but his commitment to the college and its students will always remain the same.
“It is a blessing that Anna Maria has given me. I am grateful for the opportunity to touch so many lives throughout the last 25 years, and I am still going,” he said.