The Interview USA
The University of Maryland
Vice President for Student Affairs

Patty Perillo

The mission of Higher Education (HE) institutions is to promote learning and understanding in young people, empathizing with their struggles and goals. Patty Perillo, Vice President for Student Affairs at the University of Maryland, has a phrase: “If we are breathing, we are becoming.” This means that our mission in life is to constantly become the best versions of ourselves — and to help others achieve that, too. She sat down with GoodCourse to discuss her journey, the power of education, and more. 

Patty's Journey

GoodCourse: Let’s start with an introduction to your current role and institution. 

I am the Vice President for Student Affairs at the University of Maryland, and I am a faculty member in the Student Affairs academic program as well. 

GoodCourse: What brought you to this role and the field of Student Affairs?

I am one of eight children, child number five. I was the first in my family to go to college, so I’m first generation. I learned during my first year in college, when taking a women’s studies course, that I did not have to take in all of the scripts written about women that other people wanted; I could define who it was that I wanted to be. I learned that because of education. I knew, from my lived experience, that education was transformative and also a real privilege. So I realized that I wanted to work on a college campus because it’s all about human development, about the transformative power of education for communal gain. 

GoodCourse: What initiatives have you been working on to advance cultural competency with students?

We prepare students to be global citizens. I believe that part of that begins with faculty and staff leading the way. With a workforce that has an enormous impact on this campus, I know that our campus won’t feel inclusive if my staff isn’t culturally competent. So I am invested in developing them; it’s built into the performance review process, we have a diversity strategic plan for the division, and more. I know that we are vehicles for change for our students. One of the precepts of learning is to model the way. 

GoodCourse: What was it like taking on this role in January 2020?

We as a human community were all affected deeply by the pandemic in different ways according to our experiences. What I was grateful for, because this is my doctoral alma mater, was that the community I left was still intact in so many ways. It was not a brand-new place. I was closer to home, the place felt familiar, and I was connected to it. On the third day I was here, the interim director of the University health Center, who had been here when I was a doctorate student, called me and said that we needed to develop a response team to the “novel virus” that was spreading. She informed me that by virtue of my position, I  chaired the Campus Incident Response team. I was able to demonstrate some of my greatest leadership strengths — leading through a crisis. And, the good news is that I did it in community, with extraordinary community members. 

GoodCourse: You have worked in HE for thirty years. How has the industry evolved, and what changes do you see moving forward? 

Right now, we are in the most seismic shifts that we have ever seen in terms of HE. A historian who wrote, 21 Lessons for the 21st Century, wrote a chapter that focused on education. What this author contends is that at this moment in time, the constancy of change is so accelerated that we as leaders can’t fully comprehend the impact on our staff and students. He states that parents used to be able to empathize with what their students were struggling with because the shifts in technology and overall changes in politics and society were not as large. Now, it is more difficult for parents and educators to understand. We are in a place where HE has to definitively reimagine itself. 

The biggest changes I have seen have been related to leveraging technology in ways that can be helpful. The other change has been around DEIJ work — diversity, equity, inclusion, and justice. More often than not, most college campuses understand that if you are deeply invested in learning, then you want your environment to be as diverse as possible. People learn best in diverse environments. The context of difference creates the most learning. 

GoodCourse: You have held several leadership roles. Can you tell me more about these responsibilities? 

When you spend time with leaders on other campuses, both in and outside of this country, you can’t not learn. I spent a lot of time with lots of different leaders. We spent time discussing our campuses, resources, and initiatives. I learned a lot from them. I served as president of ACPA-College Student Educators International and it is considered one of the preeminent Student Affairs associations as the most valuable publications in student affairs/higher education are published by ACPA. I have been surrounded by people deeply invested in research and scholarship, which helped me learn more and lead better as a scholar-practitioner. 

GoodCourse: What have you observed on the topic of freedom of speech on campus and the difficulties with getting students to engage with challenging ideas? 

I will begin by saying that it makes sense developmentally for students not to fully understand. There is a robust developmental passage, physically, emotionally, cognitively, spiritually, and intellectually, between the ages of 18 and 25. We are evolving through this whether we go to college or not. Developmentally, it makes sense that college students would struggle. Early on in college, they will think that there’s a right and wrong, a yes and no — and the whole goal of HE is to move them from dualistic thinking to higher order thinking where they can see options and variety and learn to live in the grey. We need to meet them where they’re at, understand their struggles, and what we will do. We are very clear on this campus that the second amendment is alive and well. Learning happens best in the context of difference. So we encourage students to respond in ways that feel right for them and they will counter-protest, and fight speech that they disagree with. We want to actively engage students and help them become better versions of themselves by overcoming this struggle. 

GoodCourse: Where do you currently see students engaging the most and least?

From my own lived experience, I believe that young people understand issues of inclusion far greater than older people. This gives me hope for our future. This generation insists on equity — they demand it. In young people’s hearts, beings, and spirits they believe in the righteousness of equity — our job is to connect that to their intellect. The truth of the matter is that DEI work is heart and body work and they are doing this work!

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