David B. Thorud Leadership Award
Photograph of Pamela Mitchell

Susan Terry

UW Career Center

Nominated by Glenna Chang, Special Assistant to the Vice President for Student Life, Student Life

Awarded 2013

We have been waiting with bated breath for the call of nominations to come around again so we could finally send in our nomination for our beloved Susan Terry. We write this nomination for a woman who is fiercely devoted to a bright future – for individual students and colleagues, for UW, for Higher Education, for society – and who works tirelessly to make it so.

Susan Terry is currently the Director of the Career Center; she has been with the Career Center since 1994 and has been the Director since 2001. Prior to coming to the University of Washington, Susan served in the community college system in Washington and Hawaii. Throughout her career in higher education she has demonstrated a deep commitment to access, equality, generosity (the ‘aloha spirit’), and optimism. These guiding principles serve to inform her work, her style, and her way of being.

The very nature of career counseling calls for enthusiasm for future possibilities. But the nature of future possibilities is that they are ambiguous and uncertain. Under her leadership The Career Center invites students to focus on internal strengths, instead of trying to predict the future of employment or the best individual job. The strengths-based approach of the Career Center is absolutely inspiring because it encourages internal clarity, internal locus of control, and long-term integration of interests and strength, thus providing students with the tools to not only be professionally vibrant over a lifetime but also find meaning and purpose in the context of work and vocation. The strengths-based focus is inherently powerful and agentic for the individual in the midst of change. This strengths-based approach is apparent not only at the Career Center, but in Susan’s approach to work and life as well.

As a testament to her skill and influence, Susan has been targeted for formal and informal leadership roles in the division of Student Life. In recent years, she has taken a lead in helping the division transition through significant budget reductions to emerge more creative, more efficient, and more impactful on the other side. She has facilitated the continued development of the mission, vision, values, and strategic priorities of Student Life. Susan has been consistently vocal about the need to de-silo the division, and has had a hand – if not the lead – in virtually every cross-divisional strategic initiative staff development, centralized technology, assessment, and marketing/communication. She has helped us to tell our story and collaborate meaningfully with other departments and units, all while prioritizing the student experience. Due to her strategic vision, Susan sits on the Vice President’s Leadership Team and is involved in everything from accreditation to budget narratives to strategic plans. It is evident to all of us within the Division of Student Life that as a result of her leadership we are a more collaborative and efficient organization than ever before, even despite the budget cuts of the last four years – with more fluidity and integration, clearer focus and vision, and greater care for our human assets.

Susan has taken these leadership roles even as her departmental responsibilities have increased. Since 2009, the Career Center has experienced a 35% budget cut to state monies. During the same time period, the Career Center was reorganized into the “Care Pod” of Student Life, under the leadership of an Assistant Vice President. Where Susan had previously reported directly to the VP, she is now reporting to an AVP. Moreover, the Foster Business School opened its own Career Center, which threatened to erode a substantial market share of both students and employers. All three changes required operational adjustments throughout the Career Center ranging from minor to deeply substantial. A lesser leader might have spent years licking wounds or failing to respond effectively to operational changes. Instead, Susan eliminated positions, repurposed roles, reduced services in some areas, and developed partnerships across campus to ensure continued delivery of other services. With a staff of merely 15 people, Susan runs one of the most efficient, capable, vibrant – though skeletal – staffs on campus, serving large numbers of students, alumni, and employers. When asked about her greatest accomplishments, Susan grows teary-eyed about the character and fortitude of her team; a group of people who roll up their sleeves at every call to duty and consistently deliver results that exceed expectation.

Susan’s leadership extends far beyond the Career Center and Student Life. While many of us talk mightily about collaboration, she actually walks the talk. Susan has always been dedicated to collaboration and the recent budget cuts have brought the need to leverage strengths across units into sharper focus. In 2009, Susan assessed the combination of a shifting fiscal landscape and a rising priority on jobs among students and parents and determined that the Career Center needed to change its operational structure. The Career Center has moved away from delivery of direct service to a model of operating as internal consultants. As a result, Susan and others from the Career Center work to improve the overall experience for students and employers without regard for market share, territory, or credit. Among their recent accomplishments

  • Susan’s partnership with academic advising has resulted in the resurrection of the 3-credit career course (which garners outstanding evaluations from students); her partnership with the graduate school has resulted in career courses for graduate students.
  • She is currently undertaking a bold initiative to provide greater integration between academic advising and career advising, with a particular focus on students at the cusp of choosing a major. Research has indicated that this period of transition is a major crossroad for students searching for purpose and meaning in college and beyond.
  • On other campuses where individual colleges have opened their own career centers, the relationships between centers have been contentious and territorial. Not here. Susan embraced the opening of the Foster School’s Career Center and they have partnered to deliver a seamless experience to employers and students.

It is difficult to convey how truly visionary and creative this ‘internal consultant’ approach is. Many departments behave as if their existence is under threat, as if they are under siege they campaign for resources at the expense of partner departments; they amass their allies and thwart their would-be enemies; they begrudge the success of others. Indeed, in the face of budget cuts and staff reductions, this is exactly how most of us behave. Susan’s team, instead, seeks to change the overall rules of engagement. They refuse to participate in a zero sum game.

We are both thankful recipients of Susan’s thoughtful and inspiring mentorship, and we borrow heavily from her influence in our work with students and others. Susan is a study in balance – she is able to gently provide difficult feedback, apply exactly the right touch of humor or gravity to a difficult situation, support the individual in the context of the organization, value both consistency and exception – and she is thus skilled because of her intuitive attunement to other people’s strengths, capacity, and needs. Even while Susan focuses on strengths, as a mentor she does not shy away from sharing her weaknesses or mistakes. She is a consummate teacher in this regard – inviting others to learn with her, through her, and from her.

Beyond what you read here about Susan’s excellent work (and her capacity for lots of it), we wanted to comment about her extraordinary character. Susan never operates with ulterior motives. She is never self-promotional. She gives deeply and generously without any expectation for reciprocation. She is authentic to the bone. Look behind the smiling facade, and you’ll discover that it wasn’t a facade at all. She was genuinely asking about your work, sincerely wanting to collaborate, honestly cheering on your success, and above all, wishing the best for you, your work, and the University of Washington.

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