Staff Q&A: Terri White

Director, Department of Academic Support Programs

Length of Service:
20 years at Penn; 12 in current position

As president of the scholarship club at her church, White helps organize an annual black college tour for high schoolers and sends the churchís college students care packages at exam time.

Photo credit: Candace di Carlo

Terri White’s career at Penn has always revolved around students. When she started here as director of the Greenfield Intercultural Center, she advised many of the student organizations—including the Black Student League and the United Minorities Council—that enhance Penn student life.

These days, she’s still working with students, but now her mandate is more fundamental—advising, motivating and preparing young people for college and graduate school.

“I see my job as an orchestrator,” she says. “I’m the implementer, and the faculty are the visionaries. If I can find someone who’s willing to share a vision, then I can say, ‘I can make that happen.’ When it works like that, it is the most wonderful experience.”

Her department goes about this in many ways, with four pre-college programs (Talent Search, Upward Bound, Veterans Upward Bound and the Educational Opportunity Center) that tutor, advise and counsel about 2,000 people. The Department also runs the PENNCAP program—which counsels Penn students from low-income backgrounds—offers pre-health and pre-law mentoring in the Academic Enrichment Programs, helps first-generation college students pursue graduate work as McNair Scholars and operates the Tutoring Center, open to all students.

In short, the department creates what White calls an “educational pipeline” to inspire students to achieve at the highest level.

Q. Tell me about the challenges of the pre-college programs.

A. We knew how to get people into college; we’d been doing that for many years. We could get them into community college, state schools and lots of the other area schools but we have not had success getting our program students into Penn. There are several reasons for that. One has to do with the … public school system here. The curriculum changed and the students were graduating from high school less well-prepared for this kind of competitive environment.

The valedictorian from one of our high schools graduated from Upward Bound, took classes here at Penn, had a summer internship three years in a row at Monell Institute and her heart was set on coming to Penn, and she was rejected. That was such a devastating experience for me, but I felt like the gauntlet was thrown down.

It’s not a smooth process. We do have one student here who graduated from our Upward Bound program and [students] are now being admitted to Haverford, Bryn Mawr and other competitive schools.

Q. What do you do on the college level?

A. When we first started, we were thinking in terms of, ‘How do we help students graduate from Penn?’ The graduation rates for students of color, low-income students, first-generation college students were lower than the school average and … now, you just make the assumption that you’re going to graduate.

The Tutoring Center is an essential part of what we do because these students come in needing lots of support. They partner with departments and individual faculty to create structures that are attached to courses so that it becomes a natural part of what students do—they go to class, but they go to this workshop as well.

Q. How do you get students who need help to walk through that door?

A. That’s still a challenge. Through PENNCAP, we’re working with the students we would expect to struggle initially so there’s staff in place, academic counselors who are monitoring their progress every semester. They’re meeting with the students to do regular check-ins. Those students we can capture that way. The majority of students, we try to give them a message that this is not a service for students who are struggling academically. The reality is, the first students who appear at the door every semester are those B, B+ students who want an A in the course. The GPA for tutored students is relatively high, it’s more like a 2.9 and that’s not something you would expect from a service like that. They already have the edge because they’re not afraid to get the help and get the leg up in a course.

We haven’t actually figured out how to market the service in a way so that message is acceptable to those who do struggle. More and more faculty are referring students to tutoring and that helps.

Q. What are the adult programs like?

A. The adult programs are my most inspirational programs. You go to a Veterans Upward Bound graduation and honestly—I’ve been doing this for 12 years—I can’t sit through one without crying, because of the stories they have to tell. Some of them have been homeless ... or have all kinds of health issues. Because they made the commitment to participate in the Veterans Upward Bound program, that experience turned their lives around.

The Educational Opportunity Center—their mission is to reach 1,000 adults in the community. The age range is from 19 to no limit. They also have wonderful stories, just having people who care about them, care about what they do and are knowledgeable, help them resolve the issues that they’re bringing with them. Some of them have financial problems, housing problems, job issues and they help them work through all of that.

Q. What do you see as the biggest boundaries to college education?

A. I think that we have to dispel a lot of myths. One, that college is not affordable. It’s becoming more difficult with the cuts in funding, but if you’re willing to put forth the effort, there is enough private funding to provide almost a full scholarship for four years to almost anyone. Another is they tend not to think they will qualify for college. Most kids do this—you goof off and don’t get serious until the end and then you think you have no options. For many, we have to show them that you may not get into a Penn—because you can’t goof off and get into a Penn—but you can start at a community college and do well there and still maybe come to a Penn. We have to show them that they have options and opportunities.

Originally published on June 9, 2005