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The Interview: Lori Ciccone

Event planning led this alumna to managing sponsored programs at her alma mater.

People  |  Oct 29, 2018  |  By Raegen Pietrucha
Lori Ciccone, the executive director of the office of sponsored programs, poses in her office.

Lori Ciccone, executive director of the office of sponsored programs, which handles grant management and other funding for research, displays some of the many pandas given to her by friends.  (Lonnie Timmons III/UNLV Creative Services)    

While her peers were partying, UNLV alumna and communications studies major Lori Ciccone was learning how to throw parties. Her career path in public relations and events management eventually led to fundraising, which in turn led to grant writing, which ultimately led her right back to UNLV and a grants management career she’s passionate about.

Is grants management what you thought you’d be doing when you grew up?

No, not at all. Nobody grows up to work in grant world. You fall into it and become passionate about it because it’s rewarding.

I worked in the events industry out of college. There were six of us working 90 to 100 hours a week. I loved it because I love organizing, and these were high-end parties, in the hundreds of thousands to millions. But I’d always wanted children and a husband with those children.

I knew I needed to change my course when I found myself watering the grass outside my first house at 1 in the morning because I had to lay out the sod, and this was the only time I could do it. I was 25 at the time, and it was December. I was freezing, and I couldn’t feel my fingers, but I had to be back at work at 6 a.m. That’s when I realized I’d bought a house I’d never see. I had a dog at that time as well that I dropped off at my parents’ to babysit every day; they saw her more than I did for a good three years. So I just stopped.

What happened next?

I planned to go back to college and become a schoolteacher. Then I got a call from a nonprofit I’d done a fundraiser for in college, one I felt very attached to — Classroom on Wheels, which are mobile classrooms for 3- to 5-year-olds. They asked me to work for them as their fundraiser, throwing parties, which is easier to do when people pay you to throw a party than it is when you throw a party and ask people to pay for it.

The return on investment to do a fundraiser was maybe 15 percent, so I wrote a grant and got funded in two months. I thought, “Well, that was much easier,” so I started writing more grants. I had an 86 percent return on my grants, and that encouraged me to keep writing them. That’s how I entered the grant world.

How did you end up at UNLV?

Later, I was noticed by a local national nonprofit board member who recruited me to grant write for them. When it was time to make a change again, I applied to a job that had opened up at the Nevada System of Higher Education (NSHE) called EPSCoR (Established Program to Stimulate Competitive Research). I had no clue what that meant. I went and interviewed, and I walked out still not knowing what I’d interviewed for. All I knew was that I wasn’t going to be writing grants; I’d be managing them. They offered me the job. I had no idea what it was, but I took it and worked there, and the doors just continued to open for me.

I was with NSHE for 14 years before I came to UNLV as an employee. It was a long path to come back and work at my alma mater, and I never thought I’d do it, but here I am.

When did you realize campus had changed since you were a student?

When the Hospitality building was opening. Just the design of it is incredibly different from the buildings with narrow windows and a “dungeon” on the bottom floor like FDH, which was where 90 percent of my degree classes were. The modern feel of the younger campus buildings is breathtaking. UNLV has a new look. It’s like a new campus. And I feel new because many of these buildings were not here when I graduated in 1996 (BA Communication Studies). I have to look at a map to figure out what everything’s called now.

What surprises you about working at a university?

I love the energy of the campus. It’s great. You’re not locked into a 4-by-4 building. You can get out, walk around campus, and remember why you’re here: for the students bettering themselves, for the faculty.

Biggest misconception about UNLV

I don’t hear about UNLV, so I think the misconception is that UNLV isn’t a university of great service to our community, which is hard for me as an alumna because it’s opened so many doors from me.

In previous jobs, I’d travel across the state, and even after being in Las Vegas for 30 years, UNLV colors aren’t worn on football days throughout the valley, and there aren’t red banners everywhere you turn. I’m from Texas, and when you go into a college town, the colors are everywhere, five miles wide. It’s very different here.

A misconception about your work

People sometimes think we can make things happen in the blink of an eye, and that’s not grant world. You have to ensure compliance, and to do that, you have to read and know all the regulations. We have more than 700 independent sponsored awards, meaning we have more than 700 different terms and conditions to follow at any given time. And there’s not just one principal investigator here, either.

An object in your office that means something special to you

I collect panda bears. They were all given to me by others, so they’re all very treasured. I also have a very special stuffed cow from my time with Classroom on Wheels. I’d put together a faculty retreat for all my staff there, who were teachers. They were so overwhelmed that I’d taken the time to do that for them that they pooled together their money to get me the cow, and they cried when they gave it to me. It’s still on my bookshelf.

If you could choose your last meal

Guacamole and chips, and I’d wash it down with Dr. Pepper. It represents the mixture of everything blended together, like life. You might as well go out with a little jalapeno!