Q&A with Sylvia Terry: 'The Peer Advisor Program Has Been My Passion'

July 27, 2009 — When she retired on June 30 from the University of Virginia after nearly 30 years, Sylvia Terry, associate dean of the Office of African-American Affairs, left a legacy of black student retention through her tireless development and management of the Peer Advisor Program.

Terry began working in U.Va.'s Office of Admission in 1980, hired by another well-known administrator, John T. Casteen III, who was dean of admission at the time. She became coordinator of minority recruitment, visiting schools, churches and other community locales to get black families interested in the once all-white, all-male university.

The Peer Advisor Program, which pairs upper-class students with first-year students to help them get acclimated to and thrive at U.Va., became her extended family. Students in the program came to rely on her like a mother away from home.

On the occasion of her retirement, Terry sat down for an interview with UVa Today's Anne Bromley and talked about the philosophy behind the Peer Advisor Program and her roles at the University.

UVa Today: When and how did you come to work at the University?

Sylvia Terry:
I've been at the University since 1980, though, if truth be told, it's actually been a little longer than that, because the other piece I often forget about is I came to U.Va. in '71 for graduate study. The following summer, I actually worked with the Upward Bound program here on Grounds and did that during the whole time that I taught in Charlottesville.

UVa Today:
What did you teach?

I was an English teacher. Upward Bound worked with a variety of age groups, basically working with reading. In the city of Charlottesville I taught at the junior high school for three, four, five years and then taught at Charlottesville High School.

UVa Today: You were hired in the Office of Admission in 1980. Talk a little bit about what you did in that role.

Terry: I loved the work in admissions. I was hired to work primarily with the recruitment of black students, even though my job responsibilities were more wide-ranging. I also worked with and recruited students of all ethnicities. When I read about the position, and when I had the interview, I fell in love with the concept of it. It was more than just recruiting students to U.Va.; it was also about encouraging students to think about college life.

When we were out recruiting, we also did what we used to call community programs, and that would mean I'd go into churches, I'd go into libraries, I'd go into recreation halls, a range of different places to talk with families about the University of Virginia, but also, again, about college admissions.

It was really akin to being in a counseling position, because with many of the parents, many of them had not had the experience of going to college. We were sharing information to know as they were encouraging their son or daughter. It was an exciting time.

Because we were in the period of the '80s, there was a lot of concern, I think, from parents about U.Va. and what would the environment be for their son or for their daughter. What we were actually doing was marketing this institution and dealing with from where this institution had come and what it was at that time and what the expectations were for the future.

I remember in some of the communities – I went to Virginia State College, which is now university, in Petersburg – a lot of the black teachers in the schools and leaders were persons who had come from historically black schools. We would ask U.Va. alumni who might be in the area to come, and during those programs, they talked about their experiences at U.Va., so you had this role model. Anybody we asked, they would come and they would have conversations.

When we had the sessions, we also had U.Va. students there, because we know the influence students have on one another.

UVa Today: Did you feel like you were creating something new here at U.Va., changing its history?

Terry: I didn't think of it so consciously at that time. I thought of it more as exposing more people, more children, more students about possibilities about college.

The great thing about those sessions is that not only were we talking with high school juniors and seniors, but the families were there. I remember creating a series of leaflets for children. We called it "Steps to College." In it we were suggesting things for them to think about for that particular year.

It makes me feel very proud, being in the Office of Admission for almost 10 years, from 1980 to 1989, and seeing the numbers of black students increase. When I look at the alumni who come back, many of them were students in high school when I met them. That makes me feel older, but it also makes me feel proud because of the things that they are doing.

Those days at admissions laid the foundation in terms of this work for the Peer Advisor Program.

I often tell the story of my second year in admissions when the vice president for student affairs, Ernie Ern, invited me and others to a meeting he was holding of black students. The thing that touched me the most was a young man, and I remember his words: "U.Va. has done everything to get me here, but now that I'm here, nobody seems to care." I never forgot that, because here was a student who had been recruited and who had come, but who was experiencing what I'll call disappointment, experiencing isolation.

When I left that meeting, I went back to my office and I sat down and I looked at the black student admissions committee that I had organized. One of the things I immediately thought is, I'm going to add a subcommittee to check on students we had had contact with. I assigned members of the committee to the different residence halls, and they picked up where we left off – after two or three weeks, we were gone – but the students were there to check on the welfare of other students, and that was one of the forerunners of the Peer Advisor Program.

I found, probably about a year or two ago, a note that I had written Jean Rayburn, who at the time was dean of admission. She had sent out a note to the staff to ask if any of us had any ideas about ways of retaining students. I actually wrote – and I have it hand-written because we didn't have the computers then – several things, and one of them was what I called a "Big Brother, Big Sister program." I smiled when I read it because number one, I had forgotten about it; number two, when I read it, it was exactly the kinds of things I have done with the Peer Advisor Program.

UVa Today: How did you come over to the Office of African-American Affairs?

Terry: I applied for the position because I wanted to have more time with my children. Did that happen? No. Looking at this office and that it had developed this program that I'd actually proposed, this was something I was excited about. It was the program that attracted me.

Everybody makes sacrifices, and when I look at U.Va. and some of the sacrifices, it's not just been me, it's been my family.

Shawna, when she was real little, she thought every person who was a teenager or a young adult was a peer adviser. I remember being in church one Sunday and U.Va. students talking to me. Shawna got antsy because she'd been good, she had sat through service, and she beckoned me and said, "Mommy, Mommy, can't we go home? Can't you stop talking to all these peer advisers?"

I think in our household, it almost has been that I have three children as opposed to two – the Peer Advisor Program is actually the same age as my son, 24. So they have grown up around peer advisers. I'd have peer advisers over for dinner, we would do things together, so it's just been that other presence in our house.

UVa Today: Did they accept it as an extended family in a way?

Terry: I think so. That expression – extended family – is such an appropriate term, because this program has made differences for me. When my father died, peer advisers were there for me. When my mother was ill and when she died, they were there for me. The Peer Advisor Program has been very much a family. Even though I have peer advisers who finished in '91 or '92, I still have interactions with many of them, and so it is very much like a family.

UVa Today: Tell me how the parts of it developed.

Terry: I say to peer advisers all the time that when they become a part of this program, they are part of a rich legacy, and I don't want them ever to forget that, to ever take that for granted.

I knew there were several things that had to be important for students to have a better experience, a nurturing experience.

They had to have somebody who cared – not only based on my own experiences, but because studies show that a student has to feel there is someone to whom he or she can turn when they're in a college environment.

They have to take ownership in this place. When I have Harambe, I hold up a model of the Rotunda that a group had given me and a note that said, "Remember, this is your university." I showed it to the group. Every year I show them that Rotunda and I ask, "Whose university is this?" I ask that question over and over and over until they tell me in the way that I want them to tell me that it is theirs.

It's important for a student to feel a connection with an institution. If I'm not connected in any way, yeah, I can leave here in a moment. But that's one of the things we try to do in the program – to provide that personal support, to provide a connection with U.Va., to inform them about resources, because the sooner they know about others within the University they can draw upon, the smoother and better that transition.

Harambee is a program to celebrate the fact that the students have come to U.Va. "Harambee" is a Swahili word meaning "working together." In that setting, we do an orientation of what this Peer Advisor Program is all about, even though peer advisers start their contact in the summer.

I follow that up with Harambee II in January. If you finish that first semester of college, then I think that's worthy of being praised and of being recognized, and that's what Harambe II is all about – applauding students, giving them a pat on the back.

I say to students, "Thousands upon thousands of students enter college just like you in August, but not all of them completed their first semester, and you have. Thousands upon thousands of students enter college in the fall just like you, but not all of them returned, and you have." It's not always easy first year. I may have a roommate that I'm not getting along with. I may be an only child and have never experienced having a roommate. There are a lot of things that first-years have to deal with, and I think any first-year who comes through that is going through a kind of rite of passage. If you make it at that point, as I say to them, you're one step closer to having your dreams fulfilled.

For Harambee II, I always have an alum come. Robert Bland – he's been kind enough to speak twice for me for Harambee.

Robert Bland is the first African-American undergraduate to get his degree from U.Va. And to see the faces of the students in that ballroom when they heard from this man of history – Robert Bland is very modest in what he does, but he is such an inspiration.

Bobby had a light on all of the time. [Another alumnus] Jim Trice told me this story, and he said every time they would go past Bobby's window, they would see that light. It was an expression that came up: "If Bobby stayed, then I can stay." And I know Robert Bland's experiences were experiences that would have to reflect the time.

We have some publications, a newsletter called The First-Year Achiever, and we have articles, spotlights on some of the first-year students, and then we have articles about things – if there are organizations that we think they might not know as much about or want to encourage them to get involved in – something like U-Guides, Student Council, the Judiciary Committee – just a variety of things to get them involved.

As peer advisers tell me some of the things that first-year students are doing – if they've joined an organization, if they're excited about a paper, if they've received recognition, whatever it might be – then I drop them an e-mail.

That's a way of celebrating with students, because no matter what it is that they're interested in, I want them to feel nurtured, to feel loved and to know they've got cheerleaders. They've got me, they've got the peer advisers, and we become like representatives, I would say, of the University at large.

This program is not at all about isolating black students, it's about cheerleading black students. I want them to go out and engage the University fully – engage in it academically, engage in extracurricular activities, be a part of everything that's going on, because if this education that you get from U.Va. is valuable, then it's you who makes it so by doing all these things.

We have another program called Raising the Bar, and this is something peer advisers wanted to create. Its purpose is to encourage students to do better academically than others before them, to do higher than a mean grade-point average.

What peer advisers do is, on Sundays from 8 to 10 p.m., they will be available if students just want to come study. If students are having difficulty, there are advisers there who will tutor them. We have several committees; one of them is a pre-med support group, and so every Sunday, they have chemistry problem-solving sessions, and then they do review sessions before tests. They do that for calculus, they do that for biology. If they can do better in their first year, then obviously they can build upon that grade-point average.

We have workshops as a part of Raising the Bar and so we're inviting people from across the University to come in to do sessions.

UVa Today:
You mean faculty?

Terry: Yes. Carol Gutman has done time management; Beverly Adams has done things on majors for me; Mary Jo Bateman has done sessions on study abroad; Marcus Martin has done things on pre-med – the list can go on and on. By bringing these people in, it becomes a great connection with other faculty members. If I feel comfortable meeting this person in this setting, that might make me feel more comfortable about approaching a professor.

I have a first-year listserv, and I've had it for years. I've got this title, Dean Terry, and that title can be intimidating. What I'm trying to do through these notes, through these e-mails, through this listserv is to come across as human and be a representative for faculty, because if a student is feeling connected to me in any of these ways, whether he or she has been in my office personally or not, my hope is that if a student has been reluctant about approaching someone, then perhaps they will feel less reluctant, because here's a dean who's e-mailing all the time. I will e-mail them about academics, explaining the add/drop process, or I might just send a note with a poem of inspiration.

I have several components in this program, because if the connection is not strong with a peer adviser, if a student doesn't want to have a peer adviser –¬¬ and there have been some who have not wanted to have PAs – I don't push that. I always say I respect their wishes, and don't think that the door is closed if any issues come up and they need help to contact that peer adviser, to contact me.

I love the fact that the faculty here – be they teaching faculty, be they faculty in the Division of Student Affairs – support the programs to which I invite them. They're going to be there for Harambe. They're going to be there for the welcoming reception.

For the welcoming reception, parents are present. One of the things parents say when they leave is they feel more comfortable about their son or daughter being here. Part of the reason for that is seeing these peer advisers, and also because of President Casteen at the welcoming reception.

We have a PA homepage. And on the homepage, we have pictures of the peer advisers, quotes from them. We also have a variety of other sections: we have an academic section, where there are course recommendations from peer advisers, just about things they have found interesting. We have a resources section, which includes not only U.Va. but the community. So if I need to get my hair done, there's a list of people, even though I do say it's not all-encompassing, but it's just the notion that here's a way to help you. If I'm going to church, where are the churches? It's providing pieces that I've put in there as a way to nurture, as a way of trying to make students feel welcome.

There is another piece of this program that is extremely important. We're supporting first-years, but peer advisers need support. In this program, I am a peer adviser to the peer advisers. That's why in the mailboxes I give them stars all the time. These stars mean something. It's just my taking paper and cutting it in the shape of a star. If a peer adviser has gone what I feel is beyond the call of duty in working with an advisee, or if he or she has facilitated a program, been a shoulder for another peer adviser, whatever it may be, then I'll put notes - these stars - in their mailboxes.

I do a weekly e-newsletter for peer advisers. If they've gotten a scholarship somewhere or they're going to study abroad, I want the others to know about that, so we can congratulate each other.

When I think about leaving U.Va., this is going to be the most difficult part for me to leave. The Peer Advisor Program has been my passion. When I was working extra-long hours, like we all do, it was because of what I wanted to do in this program, meeting the needs of first-year students.

I've had so many calls from people outside of U.Va. who want to know more about this program. I have presented at a number of national conferences.

There was a Hispanic student [who] happened to have had a black roommate in her first year, and what often happens with peer advisers is that this peer adviser also adopted the roommate. We have a peer-advising program for Hispanic/Latino students; we have a peer-advising program for Asian students; we have a transfer peer-advising program.

The greatest reward is what our students say about the impact of this program. It's wonderful to have national recognition, it's wonderful to have schools across the nation interested in us, it's wonderful to have had all these programs spring up around the Grounds of U.Va., but what is more wonderful is the impact. To work toward ensuring that this class had the best experience of any other class in the history of the University of Virginia, every year – that's what we're striving for. And if we're saying 86 percent of our students are graduating, that's not good enough. We've got to make it 90, we've got to make it 95, we've got to make it 100 percent.

The thing about retention, it starts not when the students get here to go to class. It's not even when they come here for summer orientation. Retention starts as soon as they have said "yes."

UVa Today:
Have people asked you, "Shouldn't every first-year student have this kind of program?" Are there things that are specific issues or challenges to black students, or has that changed over time?

Terry: The latter part hasn't changed. I have peer advisers do mid-year interviews. We have questions about the disappointments you have experienced, the joys you've had; what is the best academic experience you've had, what is the worst? I do find that students still talk about, sadly, some racial insensitivity. If one asks, "Is this program still needed?", it is still needed, though this program is not about separating, it's about providing support.

Should every student have a peer adviser? I think every student should. The way I have always seen it is every student has a peer adviser through the role of residence life. I think the difference is peer advisers don't have to manage an environment within a dorm setting, so I know peer advisers don't have to enforce rules. With [resident advisers], there are certain rules they have to enforce. RAs are on call 24 hours; so, too, are peer advisers.

Where I see the difference is, if there is some racial insensitivity – it's not to say that an RA cannot address that at all, an RA can – I have additional support here. If I have experienced something, then I can be of more assistance, perhaps, than someone who may not have experienced it.

UVa Today: Talk a little about your background and the importance of education.

Terry: I went to a historically black school, Virginia State University. I have a strong connection to that school because of my parents. It's my parents who have given me this passion about the work we do at U.Va.

My parents valued education. My mother always wanted to be a high school English teacher. Her family was not a wealthy one, and she told me stories of her working. She grew up in a little place called Elliston, Va., but she lived in Roanoke while she was in high school with an aunt. She worked and attended high school and saved her money, so she could go on to college and become an English teacher. My father valued education, and before he was to go off to college, his father died. So he delayed college for three years to stay with his mother to help with the farm. After that, he went to Virginia State College.

I remember my parents visiting homes where they talked with parents about college opportunities, and I remember sitting in the back of the car as they were driving to these various homes. My father would take students to Virginia State, and if they needed financial aid, then he would take them to the financial aid office.

They were my role models, and there was no question when I was growing up about my going to college. It was always something I was going to do. I never thought of not going, and again, I know it's because of their influence.

When I first started to teach, I was disturbed by the number of black students who were not thinking about college. In the high school at which my father was the principal and my mother was an English teacher, students would come back who had been to college. They always came back at winter's break, and everybody would look at them in a different way, because they had changed in such positive ways, and you heard the stories about the things that they were doing.

I grew up in the time of segregation, so when you have people who are farming, people who don't own land, you have a lot of things that are going on. But when you have people going off to college and coming back, even for me, who knew that I was going, it was an inspirational thing.

I think that part of the work in admissions that was exciting was the chance to try to encourage people beyond this scope, just trying to reach as many people as you could about what possibilities were. And being the messenger – that part was exciting. It went back to my parents and what my parents valued and that became a calling for me. I don't have any regrets.

I think I'm lucky in this career because I had a vision and I was allowed to work it. I always say, with the Peer Advisor Program in particular, it was like being given a piece of clay and saying, "Here, this is yours. Work with it. Shape it."

— By Anne Bromley