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Houston finds her place at Carolina by helping students find theirs

Terri C. Houston
Terri C. Houston

Terri Houston grew up in the hood, but the hood never became part of her. She credits her parents for making both those things possible.

Her father and mother chose to raise their four children amid the mean streets of west Chicago, in part because each was uniquely committed to making that community better.

Houston’s father managed Garfield Park, just around the corner from their second-story flat. Her mother worked for 45 years as day-care director for Marillac Social Center, a Catholic-sponsored agency a few blocks from home that served the needs of the working poor.

Each morning, Houston and her sister and brothers boarded the L train, and then a bus to get to the private Lutheran schools in the suburbs her parents insisted on having them attend.

Because both parents worked late into the night, the four children fended for themselves much of the time. But even when they were away, Houston’s parents’ presence was always felt. What was expected most of all, she said, was for the children to get home quickly and stay home once the school day ended. And they did.

Odd balancing act

It was an odd and perhaps contradictory balancing act to live in a place while you fought to keep your children from being sucked into it. Houston admits that she could not understand all of this growing up.

During the week, they went to a school in the suburbs filled with white faces, and on Sunday, to a Baptist church close to home where all the faces were black. It was as if she belonged to two separate communities, yet was not fully part of either one.

On the bus ride to school, she remembers staring through the glass at the big houses with big yards on tree-lined streets and wishing that her family could live in such a place where it wasn’t dangerous to go outside.

Only as an adult could she see what they would have lost by moving out of the old neighborhood.

Her parents didn’t want their children to forget who they were and where they came from, and staying in west Chicago reminded them of those things every day.

Conversely, by making sure the children received a good education and a solid spiritual foundation, her parents ensured their children could live anywhere they wanted to live when they grew up and do whatever they wanted to do with their lives.

Immediate student connection

In her job as director of recruitment and multicultural programs within the Office of Diversity and Multicultural Affairs, Houston finds herself at an institution where people of color have not always been welcome.

Carolina, after all, was once a place that enrolled only white males. Over the past half century, there has been a metamorphosis to make the University into a place where diversity in all its myriad forms is not only accepted but deliberately pursued as a measure of excellence.

On Sept. 27, in partnership with the admissions office, Houston oversaw a visit for hundreds of highly qualified students of color, students who by virtue of their abilities and achievement have an entree to practically any university in the country.

It is one thing to tell students that they will be welcomed on this campus, Houston said. It is another thing to show them.

Houston’s ability to make an instant, real connection with people showcases who she really is, say the people who nominated her for a 2008 C. Knox Massey Award.

“There is not one person, especially minority students having any connection to the Office of Minority affairs these past nine years, who has not been touched by Ms. Houston’s impeccable character, loving heart and dynamic spirit,” said one nominator.

Others spoke of the sheer electric nature of her speeches and the way she literally croons the praises of her students.

Whether on stage speaking before a packed auditorium or meeting confidentially with one student in her office, Houston exudes intimacy and delivers a personalized focus and attention that only she can convey, others wrote.

During Houston’s nine years at Carolina, a record number of minority students have enrolled. Those who know Houston say she is a major reason why.

She knows her effectiveness, and ultimately her value to administrators, stems from her connection with the students and her ability to understand their hopes and dreams, and the obstacles – both real and imagined – that can stand in their way.

“I feel fortunate to be in a position to speak with the policy-makers and still be able to be on the frontlines with the students and speak in that same voice,” she said.

Her Carolina neighborhood

During her 22 years in higher education, Houston has seen her fair share of universities that do not practice what they preach. “But there’s something special about Carolina,” she said.

UNC should be a place where all ideas and identities are embraced. Diversity encompasses all the things that somehow make us different – from sexual orientation to religious beliefs to political affiliation, Houston said.

The goal is not to convert or condemn anyone, she said. The goal is to create an environment of openness and respect that enables students to learn from their differences and ultimately to see them as a cause for celebration rather than division.

“I often say that I have the coolest job in the world where I’m able to work with young people who keep me young,” Houston said. “I’m able to work in an environment that is very supportive and encouraging, and my job is to create opportunities for students to pursue their educational and professional aspirations at a wonderful institution.”

It is a job that has demanded a great deal of her, but has given her far more in return. Every day, she gets a chance to make a difference in other people’s lives, and in so doing, find deeper meaning in her own.

She jokingly added, “Occasionally I even get to perform in a jazz band with the chancellor. Life is good!”

Just as west Chicago was her parents’ neighborhood, Carolina has become hers, and its students, her children to keep.

That is why it was important for Houston to have her parents come to the Massey awards banquet last spring. It was because of them, after all, that she was there.

Originally published by University Gazette: Oct. 1, 2008

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