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Neela Patel Becomes President of ACUI and Continues to Excel in her Role at Rutgers

Neela Patel smiles into the camera
Neela Patel
Neela Patel

In March 2022, Neela Patel, the executive director of Rutgers’ Student Centers and Activities in the Division of Student Affairs, became president-elect of ACUI, the longest-running organization of college union and student activities professionals. 

Patel served as president-elect of ACUI this past year and will transition to President on March 1 at the Annual ACUI Conference, and as past president for her third and final year in the position. 

“She’s probably one of the most passionate people that I’ve seen in this industry,” said Anthony Otero, a regional director of ACUI who serves as the director of meetings and events in Student Centers and Activities. “She’s been at both Rutgers and ACUI for a long time, and, at this point, she’s an institution in both organizations.” 

Patel’s journey at Rutgers Student Affairs began over twenty-five years ago, when, as an undergraduate student, she worked as a building manager and served on the programming board at what was then the Cook Student Center, Cook College, which is now Rutgers School of Environmental and Biological Sciences (SEBS). 

As a biology major, Patel thought that she would eventually become a genetic counselor. By graduation, however, her plans had changed. 

“At that point in my life, I knew that, as much as I loved learning about biology, I did not have the personality to sit behind a microscope all day,” Patel said. 

After graduation, instead of pursuing a career in biology, Patel continued working at the Cook Student Center as a full-time staff member until a mentor challenged her to go beyond her comfort zone. 

Patel took the advice to heart, working jobs in the College Avenue Student Center, Busch Student Center and Livingston Student Center in Student Center Operations and event management before arriving at her current position at Student Centers and Activities. 

“I just ended up falling in love with Student Affairs,” Patel said. “It's all about showing students the co-curricular side of the college experience so that they know what they’re able to accomplish and have full college experience, both inside and outside the classroom. It’s these experiences that are essential to creating community and sense of belonging for our students so they can be successful students at Rutgers.” 

And, as she advanced in Student Affairs, Patel became more and more involved with ACUI. She attended regional conferences, then joined a Regional Conference Planning Team; she chaired a regional conference, then was elected regional director of Region VII. Finally, she became a member of the Annual Conference Planning Team and an at-large member of the board of trustees. 

On every step of her journey, Patel’s peers and mentors pushed her to continue moving forward, often more aware of her abilities than she was herself. 

“I had imposter syndrome,” Patel said. “I kept thinking, ‘No way, I can’t do that, I’m a nobody.’ But all these seasoned, respected student professionals were encouraging me to keep going, so I kept going.” 

Patel’s new role as president comes as no surprise to her peers at ACUI and Rutgers.  

“Neela’s election was a natural progression in her involvement within the Association,” said Yakima Melton, a member of ACUI who serves as director of the Memorial Union at Arizona State University. 

“She embodies not only the Association’s mission to develop community through education, advocacy, and the delivery of services, but also the Association’s core values of diversity and caring community,” Melton said. “I have no doubt that she will be successful in this role and will continue to elevate the work of ACUI.” 

As president of ACUI, Patel plans to continue efforts to strengthen the organization’s community that has helped her progress in her own journey, among other initiatives. 

“As a student affairs professional, we want students to find their place and where they belong,” said Patel. “In ACUI, we want the same for our members, which will help us become an even stronger association.”