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President Giordano Wins Sophia Veffer Upstander Award

The Holocaust Education Resource Organization (HERO) has announced the winner of its 2024 Sophia Veffer Upstander Award. This year’s recipient is Dr. Matthew Giordano, Villa Maria’s president.

The Sophia Veffer Upstander Award, created in 2018, is named in honor of Holocaust Survivor—Sophia Veffer, who dedicated her life to creating a more just world. Sophia encourages students to act as global citizens, to assist those who need help and to stand up in the face of adversity. HERO presents this award to a member of the Buffalo Community who promotes social responsibility and participates in community engagement opportunities. The recipient of the award is someone who has highly impacted the Buffalo region and who has promoted equality, social justice, and human rights while providing unique and innovative services to create a more just and tolerant world.

The recipient of the Upstander award is an individual who has strongly impacted the Buffalo region by focusing on standing up for others less fortunate. You were nominated for this prestigious award because of the wonderful work you have done to help so many in our community.

In short, Dr. Giordano was named the winner because of his tireless efforts to support access to higher education for underrepresented populations, combat injustice, and promote greater understanding among all individuals. He does all this while continuing to lead Villa Maria through an unprecedented period of growth.

Under Dr. Giordano’s leadership, Villa Maria College has become a safe haven for people from all walks of life to learn and grow. Dr. Giordano and his leadership team are always working to identify barriers to success and insecurities our students, their families, and the community may face. More importantly, he works quickly to develop and implement innovative and creative solutions that remove any of these hinderances and rectify any injustices.

Below are several examples of the initiatives to create an inclusive and diverse community that have been implemented under Dr. Giordano:

Academics – Villa Maria is one-of-a-kind academically. Its Achieve Program for students with learning differences is the only program of its kind in this area. It supports students with autism, ADHD, dyslexia, and other learning differences on an individual basis and goes above-and-beyond what is required by law. In fact, Villa’s Student Success Program has become the model for other colleges and universities.

Free Books Program – In 2021, Villa Maria College became the first local college to provide textbooks and supplies to all students at no additional cost. This removed a major barrier to student success. According to, this saves every Villa student an average of $1290 per year in out-of-pocket costs.

Viking Ride Program – The College partnered with Lyft to provide students with a new resource for improved, reliable transportation to and from campus. Current students will receive $40 per month that can only be used to get to or from campus. This removed another major barrier to success.

Vikings One Stop – The Admissions, Financial Aid, Registrar, and Student Accounts offices were all moved to the first floor of Felician Hall to help provide students with the best service possible for all enrollment, registration, and student account needs. Enrolling can be overwhelming, especially for students without strong home support systems. The One Stop model simplifies the process by eliminating the need to run all over campus looking for answers, thereby making the admissions and enrollment processes easier to complete.

Campus NFTA Bus Stop – In conjunction with Senator Tim Kennedy’s office, College leadership worked to bring Metro Bus service to campus, a benefit to the College community and residents of the neighborhood. This makes it easier for students who rely on public transportation to get to campus safely and reliably.

Sister Mary Josette Food Pantry – Located on campus, the food pantry helps to address food insecurity in Cheektowaga and the surrounding neighborhoods. Food insecurity is very real. The food pantry provides low-income students and community members with continuous access to food and other necessities.

Zeneta & Zaire’s Book Club – Villa Maria hosts Zeneta & Zaire’s Book Club operations right on campus. The Book Club was established as a direct response to the mass shooting that took place in Buffalo in May 2022. Zaire, a former student, was the first person shot in the attack. A survivor, he and his mom, Zeneta (a Villa alumna and Trustee) felt a strong need to act in order to make the world a better place. She and Zaire created an Amazon wish list of books in hopes of educating kids on racism, diversity and inclusion. To date, more than 17,000 books have passed through the College and into the hands of Western New Yorkers who want to become more educated on racism, diversity, and inclusion.

Inclusive Student Life Programming – Villa Maria’s Student Life Office has developed extensive programming that allows all students to share their own cultures and learn more about others. Some of the annual events include Black History Month, Unity Walk, Native American Heritage Month, Women’s History Month, National Hispanic Heritage Month, and more. Student-run clubs, like the Boys and Men of Color Initiative and PRIDE, allow students to take on leadership roles and get involved among their peers.

DEI Committee – The College formed a DEI committee. Comprised of faculty, staff, and College leadership, this group works to create actionable and measurable change at all levels.

Say Yes Partnership – The College has partnered with Say Yes Buffalo to make higher education more attainable to graduates of City of Buffalo high schools.

Student Emergency Fund – The Student Emergency Fund was created to aid students experiencing unexpected financial hardships. The Fund is primarily maintained by College staff and makes an immediate impact on students and their families in a time of need.

The Care Center – The Care Center provides supportive services to promote emotional well-being and enhance personal growth that contributes to students’ academic success. It is staffed by a qualified and experienced team of social workers who are trained to handle all situations expertly and confidentially.

Diverse Board – Villa Maria College has a diverse Board of Trustees who offer College leadership guidance in making all major decisions.

The President’s Advisory Council – President Giordano established the President’s Advisory Council. Comprised of a diverse range of business and community leaders, the President’s Advisory Council advises the President on employer needs, informs Villa’s academic and workforce development offerings, and assists Villa in creating and strengthening pipelines for local talent. By sharing their expertise directly with the President of the most diverse private college in Western New York, and the college whose students overwhelmingly come from and remain in our region upon graduation, President’s Advisory Council members actively help build the economic and social future of our community. Several members of the PAC were just named to the 2023 Power 100 Business Leaders of Color list.

Say Yes Buffalo Apprenticeship Program – Developed in partnership with CareerWise Greater Buffalo and several WNY businesses, the Apprenticeship Program provides an opportunity for Buffalo Public School students to earn college credit while gaining professional experience and earning money.

Dual Credit Program – Villa Maria College’s Dual Credit Program provides Buffalo Public School students enrolled in specific art and music courses, the opportunity to earn Villa Maria College credits while still attending high school.

Federal Grants – Dr. Giordano was instrumental in securing two Title III grants for the College that are specifically for the support retention leading to completion for low-income students.