At a dinner recognizing Arizona Assurance Scholars a few years back, the room got quiet when a young student stood up to speak.
Amer Taleb ’15 had thought he wouldn’t be able to go to the University of Arizona, he told the gathering. His family couldn’t afford it. Yet the aspiring journalist did attend — with the help of the Arizona Assurance Scholarship.
“Seeing him put tears into my eyes,” remembers JP Roczniak, the new president and CEO of the UA Foundation, a nonprofit organization raising funds for the University. “When you give students the opportunity to come here, you change lives.” Taleb’s UA education, for example, turned out to be a springboard: After graduating with a journalism degree, he won a Fulbright Fellowship to Turkey.
From his office in the “Swede” Johnson building, Roczniak (he cheerfully explains how to pronounce his Polish surname: “it’s ROZ-nee-ack”) has a bird’s-eye view of campus.
“It’s enjoyable to work on a campus,” he says. “There are smart people here. And I see how excited people are to make a gift and see its impact. It’s very fulfilling.”
Roczniak was born and raised in Enfield, Connecticut, a picture-perfect town along the Connecticut River. His father was an engineer, and his mother worked at the elementary school that Roczniak and his two brothers attended.
The family’s vacations to storied destinations such as Gettysburg and Philadelphia sparked a keen interest in Roczniak, and he chose U.S. history for his major at Central Connecticut State College. He started on a master’s, with the thought of becoming a college professor or a lawyer, but he itched to get out into the working world. The research skills he’d acquired studying history helped him land a development job at the University of Connecticut in 1998.
“The state had not invested in the university for years,” he says, and UConn was pressing the legislature for major bonding and more funding. Roczniak was put to work doing research to help get the bill passed. After it did, he rose rapidly through the development ranks.
But things were about to change. Roczniak’s wife, Christine, had relatives in Arizona. On the way home from a trip to Scottsdale in 2001, she asked him, “How would you like to live in Arizona?”
The next day, Rozcniak applied for a job at the UA’s Eller College of Management. He sent his resume out and within a few weeks found himself the assistant director of development in faraway Tucson.
He didn’t know anyone at first, but “being a good fundraiser is about getting to know people,” he says. “It’s all about listening. The alums at Eller loved their experience at the UA and they wanted to talk about it.”
He liked his new home right away — and he loved the job — but three years in, Roczniak lost his father. Worried about his mother living alone, he returned east to work at the William E. Simon Graduate School of Management at the University of Rochester, a four-hour drive from Enfield.
Roczniak signed on as executive director of development and alumni relations. “It was a great experience,” he says. He learned important lessons at the well-funded private university, including the impact of a large endowment.
But, he says, “I missed being at a large public university with a diverse student body and first-generation students.”
Before long Roczniak and his wife were back in the desert. Starting as the UA Foundation’s principal gift officer in 2007, he worked his way up to senior vice president, then interim president and CEO, and now president and CEO. He has no plans to leave again.
“My goal is to be here as long as the University needs me and the board wants me,” he says.
During his 20 years in university fundraising, from Connecticut to Arizona, Roczniak has witnessed a downward trend in public funding.
“It has forced public universities to look at business models. Philanthropy has become bigger. If the trend continues, we will be at a point where private funding is greater than public funding. It’s a fact of life: We need to find new revenues.”
Roczniak is inspired by Wildcats’ loyalty.
“The individuals and families I’ve dealt with have a passion for the University. People light up when they talk about it — it’s a unique and special place.”
And so is his adopted hometown, he adds.
“I love Tucson. I love the community. It’s a tremendous place, a diverse community. It hasn’t lost that small-town charm.”
There’s even a Polish restaurant — the Polish Cottage — where each winter he enjoys pierogis with his mother when she comes to visit her Southwest-loving son.