Sylvia Terry, Champion and Cheerleader for U.Va.'s African-American Students, to Retire

June 25, 2009 — Sylvia Terry really wanted a rocking chair — one in particular, with a big "V" for "Virginia" on the back. But after her husband gave it to her, it sat empty at home. Finally they took it to Terry's office.

There, Terry, associate dean of the University of Virginia's Office of African-American Affairs, had much more opportunity to sit in her rocker – as she counseled students who needed to discuss a problem, planned the office's next event or led meetings of the award-winning Peer Advisor Program she directed.

Next week, when she retires after 29 years, Terry can take her rocking chair with her and maybe find more time to sit in it at home.

Like a rocking chair, Terry has been a comforting, constant support to African-American students at the University. Many of them consider her a mother away from home, a phrase repeated again and again in the scrapbook the peer advisers made for her as a parting gift. They also wrote that she was always there for them, whether that meant giving someone a shoulder to cry on, a birthday card or a congratulatory e-mail for good grades.

The notes from students and alumni thank her for her encouragement, passion and inspiration, for her dedication, mentoring and organization skills. They thank her for checking up on them to see if they were doing all right. They thank her for letting them nap on the couch in her office.

With the Peer Advisor Program, Terry leaves a robust network that has made a major contribution to U.Va.'s 15-year record of having the highest black graduation rate for public universities in the nation – 89 percent in a six-year period, according to the Journal of Blacks in Higher Education.

The Peer Advisor Program matches incoming students with an upper-class "big brother" or "big sister" to support them in the transition to college and throughout their academic career here. Activities promote academic excellence and involvement in University life.

"Sylvia Terry has provided outstanding service to the University through her unwavering commitment and dedication to the Peer Advisor Program and the Office of African-American Affairs," Maurice Apprey, dean of that office, said. "She has been thorough, dependable and provided effective output in everything she did."

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.

"She sought strong students, and she made them stronger," Casteen, now president of the University, said. "She has given generation after generation of our students self-confidence, self-respect, the capacity to earn their degrees and the pride that comes of succeeding.

"She has given much the same to those of us who have been fortunate enough to work with her and to watch her work."

It wasn't always easy, Terry said. "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 daughter.

"It was in a sense going into a community and trying to develop a U.Va. presence," she said. "We would ask U.Va. alumni who might be in the area to come. They talked about their experiences at U.Va., and so you had this role model. When we had these sessions, we also had U.Va. students there because we know the influence students have on one another."

During one meeting on Grounds, she remembers hearing a black undergraduate say that U.Va. had done all it could to get him there, but where was everybody now that he was a student?

She has responded to that question for the past 20 years, from her post in African-American affairs, through the Peer Advisor Program. Peer advisers write to incoming students before they arrive, meet with them regularly to talk about courses and college life, set up weekly study sessions and inform them about resources and services at the University.

"The Peer Advisor Program has been exemplary in plugging incoming students into the network of support systems at the University," Apprey said.

At the beginning of fall semester, when talking to incoming undergraduates, she ends her talk with a cheerleading cry, "Whose university is this?" The goal is to instill in students a sense of pride in belonging at U.Va., helping them believe it is "their" university, she said.

A graduate of the historically black Virginia State University, Terry constantly stressed to U.Va. students the importance of succeeding in college, which she said her parents, both schoolteachers, emphasized to her and to other black children they taught outside Hampton Roads.

"Many of us viewed ourselves as typical students, working hard in the classroom and contributing to the University community. But Dean Terry saw young men and women destined for greatness," one student wrote in the scrapbook. "From communication skills to business dinner etiquette, she treated us as though we would be lawyers, doctors and CEOs in a few years.

"If you talk to someone like that for long enough, they just might go out and apply to that Fortune 500 company or that Ivy League medical school. And when they get there, they will know that they are supposed to be there. Year after year, Dean Terry reminded us that U.Va. was 'our' university. If U.Va. can be mine, why can't the world?"

— By Anne Bromley