Q&A with Sylvia Terry: 'The Peer Advisor Program Has Been My Passion'
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: 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: 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.
— By Anne Bromley