When she was appointed to the state board that oversees the three campuses of USF in 2003, Debbie Nye Sembler had never set foot on the St. Petersburg campus.
“I was a Gator, so I knew nothing about the campus,” said Sembler, 59, a University of Florida graduate. “I got in through family connections and my community work.”
Now, as she prepares to leave the Board of Trustees 12 years later, Sembler’s footprints are all over campus.
As a trustee and as chairwoman of the five-member USFSP Campus Board, she helped oversee a dramatic expansion of the university’s ambition and buildings. And as financial donors, she and her husband, Brent, have generously supported campus development. The fountain along Harborwalk is named in their honor.
When she became a trustee, Sembler said, the university “was just a commuter school for juniors and seniors. Now we have become an accredited university with 6,700 students and (two) residence halls. It is quite remarkable.”
As her service to the university comes to an end, Sembler was recognized with a reception on Oct. 20 and the announcement that the Student Success Center will be named in her honor.
The tutors and computers in the success center, in Room 107 of Davis Hall, help students with their course work, writing and test preparation. The center is part of the university’s effort to improve student retention and graduation rates – a strategy that Sembler helped initiate.
U.S. Rep. David Jolly, R-Indian Shores, cited Sembler’s “passion for student success” in remarks on the House floor on Oct. 22.
“As a trustee, Mrs. Sembler has led USF St. Petersburg through this remarkable growth, ensuring the USF system is recognized today as one of our nation’s leading higher education institutions,” Jolly said.
“She is the perfect choice for the naming” of the Student Success Center, said Holly Kickliter, director of enrollment and marketing services at USFSP.
“She is an amazing person who has done wonders for this university,” said Student Body President Jozef Gherman, who is also the student member on the USF Board of Trustees. “We would not be where we are today without her hard work and dedication.”
Sembler was born in Daytona Beach and graduated from the University of Florida in 1978 with a bachelor’s degree in journalism and marketing.
She began her public relations career in New York City, representing hotels and firms.
After marrying Brent Sembler, she became the first marketing director for Old Hyde Park Village in south Tampa.
The Sembler Co. is one of the country’s leading shopping center development and management firms, with projects all over the Tampa Bay area, southeastern United States and Puerto Rico.
The Semblers also are well-known for their philanthropic endeavors and fundraising for Republicans.
Brent Sembler’s father, Mel Sembler, is chairman emeritus for the Sembler Co.
Under then-President George H.W. Bush, he was the U.S. ambassador to Australia and Nauru from 1989 to 1993. During the administration of George W. Bush, he was ambassador to Italy from 2001 to 2005.
Brent Sembler is vice chairman of the Sembler Co. He serves on the Florida State University Board of Trustees, and he and his wife maintain a philanthropic fund that supports numerous charities.
In addition to her service to USFSP, Debbie Sembler has served on committee boards for organizations such as All Children’s Hospital, the Florida Holocaust Museum, the Florida Governor’s Mansion Foundation and preparatory schools such as Shorecrest and Academy Prep.
Debbie and Brent Sembler have a daughter, Tayllor, and two sons, Logan and Preston.
She became involved with USF in 2003, when then-Gov. Jeb Bush appointed her to the 13-member Board of Trustees. She was reappointed by Gov. Charlie Crist in 2007 and Gov. Rick Scott in 2011.
The university’s decision to name the Student Success Center in her honor “came as a surprise,” she said. “I was amazed and felt humble being honored.”
She may be leaving the board, Sembler said, but she is not leaving USFSP.
“The campus will always be a big part of my life, even off the board,” she said. “I’m not done with USF yet.”