BAR Awards Profile – Terri C. Houston

2010 Outstanding Faculty Staff Award
Terri C. Houston

Terri Houston would like it to be known that she would still sing in the chancellor’s jazz band even if it didn’t add job security to her portfolio. After all, her resume is rich. She has sung in Vegas as part of comedian George Wallace’s show, when he asked for a volunteer from the audience and she beat out the person who was planted in the audience to join him on stage. She dances flamenco, in a slinky red dress, because her students arranged for lessons. And she has subbed as a dealer in a Texas Hold ’em class.

All that talent, and she won’t let go of her day job as UNC’s director of recruitment and multicultural programs.

Terri Houston loves her job. Her enthusiasm shows in the way she interacts with students. A welcoming and nourishing person, Fred Clark calls her. He’s the academic coordinator for the Carolina Covenant Scholars program and was on the search committee that hired Terri. She serves as a Carolina Covenant mentor and holds students to high expectations — not more than what they can do, he said, but the best they can be. Students respect her and want to live up to her standards.

And everyone talks about Terri’s fabulous voice, in tones of awe you might expect from buttoned-up administrators and academics who would never let loose with a hip-hop interlude or belt out a jazz number in front of strangers.

“That’s not part of my job, but it does keep me sane.” And that’s all she says about that.

Her position at UNC is split into two roles — recruiting top minority students to the University, and running a number of programs to make sure they stay and graduate. Her work requires tremendous versatility and a good sense of humor; she has plenty of both, said Harold Woodard, director of the Center for Student Success and Academic Counseling. She can drop snippets of rap when talking with students, then switch gears to talk with their parents. And before you know it, Woodard said, she’ll have swept her audience up into a call-and-response message worthy of a revival-tent preacher.

“She believes in her mission,” he said. “Her passion is getting young folks into a quality university and getting them to appreciate how precious this opportunity is and the advantage to them of taking the opportunity seriously.”

Raised in Chicago’s inner city, Terri grew up with a clear view of the haves and the have-nots. “We weren’t even middle class,” she said. “We were upper poor.” But her parents managed to send her to a private school in the suburbs. Seeing life in the inner city juxtaposed with that in the suburbs, she formed an opinion early on about the benefit of taking opportunities seriously.

Terri was recruited to LorasCollege, a small school in Iowa where she was the only African-American female student. Her work-study job was as a tour guide, and she served as an orientation leader. She received a master’s degree in counselor education at CentralMichiganUniversity and held advisory positions at four universities before coming to Carolina in 1999.

At UNC, she supervises minority recruitment and retention programs such as Project Uplift and Tar Teel Target, adding Wellness Sessions that encourage students to think through and take a stand on important issues. She created the Leadership Institute and was the driving force behind EmBrACE (Emphasizing Brotherhood Across Campus Effectively), a subgroup of the Black Student Movement. In 2008, the University honored Terri with the prestigious C. Knox Massey Award.

During the week before classes began in August, she joined students in the woods at a number of different service, diversity and leadership camps and pre-orientation programs, returning home in the wee hours of the morning for a few hours in her own bed before rising with the sun to spend another day in the sweltering heat, swatting at bugs and romping through the poison ivy. She considers it a privilege to work with the students, she said.

Back on campus she switches gears to respond to parents looking for some pull to get their children into Carolina. “She lets them keep their dignity while she tactfully and politely says no,” said Sharon Hill, who teaches dining etiquette as part of leadership training.

Interacting with students, though, is Terri’s passion and sustenance, even when those teenagers are acting like teenagers.

“Being a Carolina student is not only about what they do in the classroom; it’s what they’re able to learn about themselves and the world as well. It’s this whole aspect of mind-body-spirit,” Terri said. “Mostly every day I’m grateful that the work I do has some impact.”