Dean of Students Sally Peterson
A tribute to retiring Dean of Students Sally Peterson, featuring just a few of the many colleagues, staff and students whose lives she touched at UCI. Daniel A. Anderson / University Communications

After 35 years at UC Irvine, Sally Peterson retired June 30 from her official job as dean of students, assistant vice chancellor of student affairs — and, unofficially, university den mother, cheerleader, enforcer, negotiator, coach and mentor.

During her tenure, Peterson played a major role in campus life, initiating activities, programs and policies that helped UCI’s student affairs office become a model for other universities, says Manuel Gómez, vice chancellor of student affairs. A Web tribute and campus celebration were staged in Peterson’s honor.

Shortly before packing up her office in the Student Center, Peterson talked about her years at UCI and future plans:

Q. How do you feel about leaving?

A. As some people approach retirement, they say things like “I’m counting the days” or “I have 52 Mondays left.” I haven’t been counting; I think it’s a shame when you don’t love what you do. But I’ve been here for two generations now, so it’s time for some new blood. It’ll be a big change for the staff. We’re like family. They’re young professionals, and I’m the mother hen.

Q. What’s been the best part about being dean of students?

A. The biggest joy is working with young people. You’re surrounded by positive energy all the time. That’s something you don’t find at an insurance company or a bank or a corporation. You get to see the students grow and develop from freshman year to graduation. Some not only succeed academically but become real leaders. You feel you’re making a difference in their lives.

Q. What’s been the hardest part of your job?

A. One of the most difficult issues to deal with is academic misconduct. Some students are so desperate to get that A that they risk their entire academic career and resort to cheating. Thankfully, those cases are now handled within each academic school. When I did handle them, it was extremely painful to see students lose it all over a grade. Their whole future is turned upside down.

Q. What’s the most memorable experience you’ve had at UCI?

A. Over the past 35 years, there have been many student protests — each different in their own way — that have been a challenge and, sometimes, a test of patience. But — no doubt about it — it has forced me to always try to better understand where our students are coming from and where they are going. It has kept me current on the issues and allowed me to meet a diversity of students who are passionate about their beliefs.

Q. What other issues have you dealt with during your tenure?

A. Issues of free speech have been on the forefront since 2001. In the process, I’ve learned a great deal about the Muslim and Jewish communities; I’m much more informed. The problem is that you have techno-activists from afar who see or hear about something happening on our campus, take it out of context and post it on their blogs. They’ll write something inflammatory and then encourage readers to “write to the chancellor” or “write to Sally Peterson.” But those are the expected challenges of the job.

Q. Sounds as if you’ve earned your retirement. What will you do next?

A. I haven’t thought too much about it, but one of the first things I’ll do is join the Laguna Beach Garden Club, because I’ll finally be able to attend their weekday meetings. I’d also like to teach cooking classes for free to UCI students and young professionals. Since I have a credential, I may come back as a volunteer and teach English as a second language to staff at UCI.

Q. How has your time at UCI shaped you as a person?

A. It’s helped me stay young at heart. I’m always surrounded by 18- to 20-year-olds. It’s made me a lot more positive and value things that are really important. You don’t get rich working for a university, but you have these rich, rewarding experiences. It’ll be hard to leave this behind.