At U-Va., a Dean Making a Difference

U-Va. administrator Sylvia Terry, left, with Demetra Gibson of the Bahamas, said students find it
U-Va. administrator Sylvia Terry, left, with Demetra Gibson of the Bahamas, said students find it "so much easier to leave if no one has shown an interest in you." (By Stephanie Gross For The Washington Post)
By Susan Kinzie
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 18, 2008

More black students graduate from the University of Virginia within six years than from any other public university in the country, and here's why: institutional commitment, an admissions process that selects strong students, generous financial aid and a network of peer advisers.

Not only that, they've got Sylvia Terry, the associate dean of African American affairs, who has, in effect, re-created the high expectations and the support she learned from her parents, her small town and the historically black college her family attended. One by one, she's trying to ensure that these students get the benefits -- intellectual, cultural and economic -- of a college degree. She bakes them cakes, e-mails them poems, gives them hugs -- and expects them to make good. She'll celebrate with a couple of hundred of them today.

"Sometimes you can point to one person who makes such a huge difference," said John Blackburn, director of admissions. "She just nurtures every kid who comes through the door."

Race relations at U-Va. have never been perfect, and in recent years there have been flare-ups over racist graffiti and other issues. But there is an institutional commitment from President John T. Casteen III on down to ensuring that black students stay in school and graduate -- including generous financial aid for needy families, an emphasis on recruiting and academic support and an intense system of peer mentoring that Terry has built up.

Nationally, there's a gap of nearly 20 points between the percentage of black and white students who graduate; just 44 percent of black students finish within six years, according to four-year averages calculated by the Journal of Blacks in Higher Education, which has found U-Va. to be the leader "by far" among public schools for the past 14 years.

The University of Maryland has in recent years improved its six-year graduation rate, to 71 percent for black students who started in 2000. That's part of a systemwide initiative to improve all of Maryland's public universities' six-year graduation rate for black students, which is as low as 20 percent at Coppin State.

The most recent figure from U-Va., for black students who began college in 2001, is just shy of 90 percent. That rate is lower than those at the top schools in the country (Harvard University has steadily been in the mid-90s) but better than most of the schools U-Va. considers peers, such as the University of California at Berkeley, the University of North Carolina, Cornell University and Vanderbilt University.

The reasons some black students drop out include cost, poor academic preparation from weak high schools, the racial climate and a lack of support because there hasn't been a family tradition of college, according to Bruce Slater, the journal's managing editor.

One of the earliest black students at U-Va. told Terry that he always looked up at the dorm room of the school's very first black undergraduate to earn a degree, Robert Bland. The light was always on; the older student was always studying. And he would tell himself, if Bobby Bland can do it, I can.

It turned into a saying among the black students at U-Va.: Bobby stayed.

Terry kept it in mind. "I wanted to make sure that when students came to U-Va., they didn't just come. As Bobby stayed, I wanted them to stay."

Terry grew up in Courtland, Va., the only child of two teachers who had gone to Virginia State University and who encouraged others in the black community to get an education, to know they had options beyond the peanut and cotton farms. She remembers, as a little girl, riding along as they took their students to tour the college campus. On the blackboard of her English classroom at the black high school, her mother always wrote: Don't make excuses. Just make good.

Terry always knew she would go to college, and she loved Virginia State so much that she hopes U-Va. students will finish with the same kinds of memories she had -- memories of the professor who took such an interest in all the English majors and of the friends in study groups who wouldn't let anyone slack off.

She went to graduate school at U-Va. and, after teaching high school English for several years, she was hired in 1980 by the university to recruit black students. She traveled to schools and churches.

It struck her, though, when a senior said at a meeting: "U-Va. has done everything to get me here. Now that I'm here, where is everybody?" The number of black faculty was small in the 1980s, and she worried that there wasn't enough support to keep students in school. When she moved from admissions to the Office of African-American Affairs, she set to work on that.

She said studies show that students are more likely to stay if they feel engaged and involved in a place and feel they have people to turn to. "It's so much easier to leave a place if you haven't built up connections," Terry said. "It's so much easier to leave if no one has shown an interest in you." She paused and smiled. "We want it to not be easy."

U-Va. added orientation programs and made sure that the residence-life staff in the dorms was as racially varied as the student population. A few years ago, the university ensured that needy families don't have to take out loans to pay for school. And there are layers of mentoring, said Maurice Apprey, dean of African American affairs.

Through the peer adviser program, students' successes are celebrated at various milestones, such as when they make it through the first semester, and on Sundays, upperclassmen volunteer to tutor and help with study groups.

Terry spent part of the past week in the admissions office, reading the files of accepted African American students, making notes about their interests and activities or insights from their essays -- information she'll use to match them with peer advisers. Next month, incoming freshmen will start getting letters from advisers.

Demetra Gibson, who graduates today, said that getting handwritten notes made the school seem less far from her home in the Bahamas and helped her figure out what classes to take and how to enroll at a school very different from what she was used to. "Just the feeling that there's someone there who knows you and is going to be looking out for you, that was a real comfort for me and for my family," she said.

Chloe Jordan, who just finished her first year, turned to her peer adviser in the fall after several deaths in her family; she was grieving, homesick and worried about balancing academics and extracurricular activities. When her adviser baked her cupcakes for her birthday, she felt comforted, even though she was sad about not being home in Nevada to mourn with her family. Her peer adviser also recommended the campus writing center when she wasn't sure how to structure college papers, told her not to be shy about going to professors during office hours and recommended scaling back activities to focus on academics.

She finished the semester on the dean's list, and Jordan said she knows she has a real friend she can turn to over the next three years -- and after she graduates.

"When I look at what these students have done to help this institution," Terry said, "it makes me so proud of where we've come, so proud of where we're headed."

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