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'A True Connection'

New Student Affairs VP on creating a welcoming environment for a diverse student body

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September 9, 2011 | by Brendan Cosgrove

AUDIO: Patricia Telles-Irvin on her hopes for Northwestern's undergraduates

AUDIO: Five questions with Patricia Telles-Irvin

Patricia Telles-Irvin

Patricia Telles-Irvin

EVANSTON, Ill --- This fall, Northwestern University welcomes a new vice president for student affairs to the Wildcat family. Patricia Telles-Irvin comes to Evanston after almost seven years in the same position at the University of Florida.

“I'm originally from Texas, and I still consider it home, but I've lived in many places,” Telles-Irvin said. “I went to Duke University (as an undergraduate) and then went to Boston University (as a graduate student). I’m married and have a 15-year-old son."

During her time in college-rich Boston, Telles-Irvin worked with students at a community mental health clinic and began to think a career in higher education might be for her. But the seed for such a path was planted much earlier.

“I think (it) comes from some of the values my parents taught us about education,” she said. “We believe, I guess as a family, that education is critical. And being able to provide opportunities for students, for our citizens to have the opportunity to attend college, to me is very meaningful.”

Telles-Irvin said she intends to spend a lot of time this fall getting to know Northwestern, its students and its larger community.

“My first goal is to get to know the culture of this University,” she said. “Every university has its own culture. How things are done, how things are decided, how people feel about the institution.”

Telles-Irvin said she’ll be working hard to create a welcoming environment for Northwestern’s diverse student body.

“We need to find ways to enhance an inclusive environment, a respectful environment that believes in differences, that differences actually add a great deal to the composition, the creativity and the growth and knowledge at any kind of institution of higher education,” she said. “But you also want to emphasize the commonalities. Because as human beings, we all share some very basic, fundamental desires, dreams and interests; those are the things that need to bring us together.”

Northwestern News recently sat down with Telles-Irvin to find out a little more about her and her goals in her new job.

Why did you choose a career in higher education?

I think it started when I was in Boston, getting my doctoral degree and was working at a community mental health clinic. It was located very near a lot of the apartments where students lived. As a result, I got to treat college students for a period of at least seven years. During that time, I realized I enjoyed the college-age population, and I wanted to focus on them. I did my dissertation on that age group. And as a result, I decided it would be great to work on a college campus in a counseling center. Never had I thought about being an administrator, to be honest with you. But as it became clearer what my purpose was in life, working on a college campus was the best setting to fulfill me professionally.

Why Northwestern?

I've always known about Northwestern. I've heard wonderful things about the institution. And so I came for the interview and met some outstanding individuals, including the president. I loved the enthusiasm and the direction the University was taking. I also liked the fact it's located in Chicago. I've traveled to Chicago several times and thought it was a great city, and I was ready to be near a large city. It's a perfect setting where you have some distance, living in Evanston, however, you have everything at your fingertips, being so close to Chicago. So it was these many things that made the move to NU appealing.

What is the best part of your job?

Students. Interacting with students! I love their creativity and their spontaneity. I like the fact that they question. It is moving to see them come as freshmen and leave as seniors, to watch their development, their growth, both career-wise but, more important, personally. And perhaps a greater understanding of who they are and how they plan to contribute to the world. That excites me. I love this job because it is very diverse. I have many units that are extremely different, and each is important. I'm never bored. There are all kinds of wonderful challenges, from housing and trying to figure out how we're going to enhance the facilities, to programs, to student learning to dealing with counseling and mental health issues. It's just so diverse.

What’s the most challenging part of your job?

The most difficult part of my job is certainly when resources are limited. But more importantly, I think when you see students not meeting their potential or when they make decisions that can interfere with reaching their dream to graduate from college, those are the most difficult. And certainly when tragedy hits, I'd say that's the biggest challenge.

What are your immediate goals in your new position?

The University is about to unveil a strategic plan, so I really want to get a hold of that, put my arms around it, understand how the division fits into that picture. My goals will be formulated based on the direction of the University. Having said that, there are some things I think we can start on, such as putting together a very comprehensive strategic master plan for housing. There are some really good steps that have been taken already. We can accelerate that by putting additional people in the right seats. I also want to develop a plan for the division that will involve the staff. The plan will use the University’s strategic plan as its foundation.

How do you take a diverse student body and mold it into a family?

I think that's the greatest question everybody, all of higher education, tries to grapple with. Fundamentally, there has to be room for everyone to feel included. So we have to create an inclusive environment, a respectful environment that believes in differences, that differences actually add a great deal to the composition, the creativity and the growth and knowledge at any kind of institution of higher education. But you also want to emphasize the commonalities. Because as human beings, we all share some very basic, fundamental desires, dreams, and those are the things that need to bring us together. The fact that all our students are here to get a degree, to do something with their lives, to contribute to society, solve problems, I think all that should bring us together. Despite our backgrounds, despite our interests, our beliefs, there has to be that common ground that is also willing to accept the differences, because it's the differences that make us the best.

You come to us from sunny Florida. How are you going to survive the Chicago winters?

Well, when I moved to Boston after living in North Carolina for four years, that winter we got a 28-inch snowstorm in one day. And I survived. Nine years later, I was still there. I like the fact I'm now in a place where there are seasons of some sort. I hear some seasons are shorter, but I love seasons. I have an appreciation for the marking of time; they really make us appreciate life more. So I'm actually looking forward to it.

Topics: People