Dr. Aswani Volety: UNCW’s new chancellor got an early start in education (‘1on1 with Jon Evans’ podcast)

For Dr. Aswani Volety, accepting the offer to become the seventh chancellor in the history of UNC Wilmington was like coming home again.
Updated: Aug. 12, 2022 at 5:30 AM EDT
Dr. Aswani Volety, the newly installed chancellor at UNCW, is the guest on the new episode of the '1on1 with Jon Evans' podcast.

WILMINGTON, N.C. (WECT) - For Dr. Aswani Volety, accepting the offer to become the seventh chancellor in the history of UNC Wilmington was like coming home again. Dr. Volety had spent five years at the university between 2014-2019, as the Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences and then as Executive Director for Center for Marine Science, before moving to Elon University to become Provost and Vice-President for Academic Affairs.

“First off, it was the opportunity of a lifetime to come back to this great institution,” Dr. Volety, now about six weeks into his tenure as chancellor, said during an interview in the WECT Studios. “Most importantly, it gave me an opportunity to give back to an institution that gave me so much and taught me so much. So, when this opportunity arose, I was ecstatic. even more thrilled that it worked out.”

That’s the professional perspective. On the personal side of Aswani Volety’s life, it’s also a benefit that he has returned to Wilmington. With daughters enrolled in New Hanover County middle and high schools, and their learning processes later complicated by the COVID-19 pandemic, the family had chosen to stay in Wilmington while Dr. Volety commuted to the Elon University campus near Greensboro.

“When this opportunity came up, I told my family, ‘I want to look into this position. What do you think?,’” Dr. Volety remembers. “My older daughter, she was at the (North Carolina) School for Science and Math, so she was already out of the house. She said, ‘I’m out of the house and I’ll be in college, I don’t really care what you do.’ (laughs). My younger daughter, I told her, ‘If I get the job, obviously I will be coming back. If I don’t get the job, you’ll be moving to Elon.’ Her response was, ‘Then you better get the job!’ (laughs). They were very pleased (that he got the job) because now the family will be in one place as opposed to three places, and my wife said it helps for both of us to be in one county in terms of kids drop offs and pickups.”

The new position also represents another achievement in Dr. Volety’s continued climb up the career ladder in higher education, which began in 1999 when he became an Assistant Professor of Marine Science at Florida Gulf Coast University, after completing his doctorate at William and Mary University. Dr. Volety spent 15 years at the Fort Myers-based university, adding administrative duties while continuing with his passion for marine research. He served as the Interim Dean of the College of Arts & Sciences at FGCU before accepting a similar position at UNCW in 2014. For the next five years, he developed the knowledge of the Wilmington institution and its community that would later impress the search committee looking for Dr. Jose Sartarelli’s successor. While confident in applying for the opportunity of taking over as chancellor, the 55-year-old also was realistic in his expectations.

“Well, the cocky self says, ‘I have a great shot,’” Dr. Volety said about his chances. “I know the place. I contributed. I put a lot of sweat equity into developing this institution, be it programs, students, grants, infrastructure, I know the Wilmington community, donors, etc. But the realistic part is, there are a lot of very qualified individuals such as myself. And so, as much as you think you have a great shot, one of my mentors said, ‘You don’t have the job till you have a job.’ So, going through the process was very educational. Of course, I’m very pleased with the outcome.”

Growing up in the coastal city of Visakhapatnam, India, where he developed a love for marine life, Aswani Volety’s education started early. Sent to school at the age of two, he finished high school by age 15, college by age 18, and had his Master’s Degree in Zoology from Andhra University at 20. As fate would have it, a single point in an exam made the difference in the young man’s life’s path.

“My mom’s sister was a (medical) doctor, and she lived in the United States for nearly 60 years,” Dr. Volety shared. “So growing up, she was a role model to me. Because I grew up in low income, I was a first generation student to go to college from my immediate family. I wanted to be like her, be a doctor. In India, you go into medical school after high school, after your twelfth grade. It’s a longer medical school. But I was three years younger to be able to take the medical entrance exam. So, I went to pursue my undergraduate degree. The first time I was able to take the medical entrance exam, was the same time as my finals of my Bachelor’s. Obviously, I took both exams, but I missed the medical entrance by one point. By that time, I was already in graduate school, and so at that point, the calculus was, do I really want to go back to right after high school and go into med school, or do I pursue higher ed going to graduate school? I always wanted to go to the United States for higher education.”

Volety made the trip, venturing to America for the first time to attend William & Mary for his doctorate, beginning a professional career that has since taken him around the world as a self-titled “perpetual student.” He acknowledges the challenges that lie ahead in the ever-changing world of higher education, in a leadership position calling on him to use his experiences to improve the experiences of today’s Seahawks.

“It’s really education, whether it happens to be inside the classroom, outside the classroom, in a laboratory setting or in a field setting, it’s enabling individuals to get education, that’s a passion of mine,” Dr. Volety said. “You enable those things through working with legislators and the Board of Governors and the UNC system office. That is enabled by working with very, very generous people like this community knows, donors that engage in philanthropy, connecting their passion with the need for our students. All these pieces to come together to enable education to happen. That creates opportunities for the students. That’s what I’m passionate about. So it takes multiple forms, be it inside the classroom, outside the classroom, working with donors, working with legislature, with the end goal being, ‘How do I ensure that students in this region have a great education that enables them to have a great career and a fulfilling life?’ I think that’s what drives me.”

I hope you enjoy the conversation with UNCW Chancellor Dr. Aswani Volety as much as I did. You can read more about his career by clicking here to view his page on the UNCW website, and here to see the lengthy list of his research projects and accomplishments.

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