Student Affairs VP Navigates Challenges of Connection During COVID
Patty Perillo became vice president for student affairs in January, but she wasn't new to campus: She earned a doctorate in public and community health with an interdisciplinary study in student affairs at UMD.
Patty Perillo was on her third day as UMD’s vice president for student affairs when she was asked to lead a team working on the university’s response to a mysterious new virus.
That was back in January, and within a matter of weeks, as the threat of COVID-19 became alarmingly clear, Perillo was making the first of dozens if not hundreds of difficult decisions that have shaped Terps’ experience during the pandemic—everything from how dining halls should operate with a sparse on-campus population to how to provide a safe environment for those remaining in residence halls.
Described by her colleagues as collaborative, witty and honest, Perillo has been navigating the health and safety concerns of the coronavirus while also ensuring students have many ways to keep connected.
Perillo, who succeeded longtime administrator Linda Clement, called it a baptism by fire. But as a Terp herself, who earned her Ph.D. in public and community health with an interdisciplinary study in student affairs from UMD, she’s reinvigorated by the resilience of those who make up Maryland.
“It has confirmed my belief that this is a community-centered university, and I have been inspired by and impressed with students, staff, faculty and administrators who have been all-in and deeply invested in caring for our community,” she said.
Perillo knows what it means to be a college student trying to find one’s footing—albeit not in a pandemic. The fifth of eight children growing up in Delaware, Perillo said her parents “saw in me this love for learning, this real curiosity.” Though no one in her family had ever gone to college, Perillo’s parents encouraged her academically, sending her to an all-girls’ private school where her guidance counselors urged her to apply to Ivy League schools. Wanting to be able to go home on weekends, she chose the University of Delaware.
Being invested in her family life as much as her academics shaped how she relates to students, both at UMD and in her previous role as vice president of student affairs and assistant professor of higher education at Virginia Tech. “Many people who work in student affairs were deeply involved, deeply engaged students. That wasn’t my experience,” she said. “I’m constantly thinking about the students who aren’t involved and engaged, because I don’t want to lose them. Losing them means losing someone … who I know has potential.”
She worked in Delaware’s career planning and placement office, where she discovered that most of the staff had graduate degrees in student affairs or other higher education-related fields, which she eventually pursued as a graduate student at Delaware.
While a student at UMD, Perillo worked in the Department of Resident Life, at the Health Center and in Athletics, and lived in Queen Anne’s Hall and Somerset Hall, giving her firsthand knowledge of life on campus. (The experience changed her personal life, too: She met her spouse, Lisa K. Speas, at Maryland, and the two later married in Memorial Chapel.)
As an administrator, Perillo has committed to connecting with students. Before the pandemic, that meant holding open office hours, popping into dining halls or the Stamp and attending student events. In a virtual world, Perillo has stayed in touch through email, text messages, meetings with a student advisory council and sitting in on online meetings of student groups.
Perillo “has been the go-to person for us as student leaders to get clarification on what’s going on,” said Dan Alpert ’21, president of UMD’s Student Government Association.
Georgina Dodge, vice president for diversity and inclusion, has been “particularly thrilled from my perspective on how she has addressed concerns and issues that students of color have raised,” she said. Perillo has been meeting with Black student leaders, asking them for their top priorities for the institution, and has been analyzing recent student incidents of racial discrimination on campus.
Perillo intends to create two positions to enhance the student experience at Maryland: a director of equity, diversity and inclusion, and a dean of students. The dean of students will “coordinate university response around student concerns and student care,” said Perillo—for example, organizing financial support for a student in crisis or supporting a student dealing with a death in the family. The director of equity, diversity and inclusion, meanwhile, will consider education, policies and practices across the division through the lens of those issues. The Division of Student Affairs also recently hired a program coordinator for immigrant and undocumented student life.
Perillo is “totally student-focused,” said Alpert. “She really, really wants to lead with empathy to make sure she can fix as many of the issues as she can to make the college experience better for more students.”
For now, Perillo’s top priority remains ensuring that students remain healthy, safe and secure during the pandemic. “We continue to think about all the ways we are providing support for our students—financial, emotional, spiritual and physical support,” she said.
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