For 30 years every September, Sally Peterson has turned a protective eye on the freshmen arriving at UCI in greater and greater numbers. As dean of students and assistant vice chancellor of student affairs, Peterson’s like a den mother for the entire class. She helps the new arrivals make friends, shows them around campus, enforces the house rules and makes sure they’re having a good time. She even has some motherly advice for the 4,000-plus first-year students being introduced to campus during Welcome Week (Sept. 19-23):
“Don’t be a passive recipient of the college experience. Become an active player,” she says. “Get involved in a club, become connected to UCI. Research has shown that students who become involved do better academically than those who do not.”
While professors worry about what goes on in the classroom, Peterson worries about everything else. Among her office’s responsibilities: UCI’s 400-plus clubs and organizations, fraternities and sororities, the Cross-Cultural Center, Student Judicial Affairs, Disability Services Center, Leadership Development and New Student Programs.
“My job is to ensure the lives of UCI students are enriched by a positive college experience, which complements their academics with educational activities, leadership opportunities and community involvement,” she says.
Few know better than Peterson how events that occur outside of the classroom can affect students and impact a university. She was at Kent State May 4, 1970 – the day the National Guard opened fire on students protesting the Vietnam War, killing four. Peterson was a graduate student working in an office not far from the shootings. She heard gunshots and remembers the “bedlam” that ensued.
Small wonder that, when asked what her priority is at UCI, she simply says: “security.” She’s at the front and center of most non-academic controversies and crises affecting students, such as free speech issues or discrimination claims.
Peterson says today’s students face greater pressures than when she arrived in 1974. Their family lives are more complex, and more have to work to pay tuition.
She’s also seen the size and diversity of the freshman class grow dramatically.
“This is the largest class we’ve had and the most academically competitive,” she says. “A lot of students now list UCI as their first choice. Back then, they’d come here with plans to transfer. They don’t anymore.”