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A goodwill ambassador steps down
After 44 years and 680,000 hugs, Pat Perkins has bid adieu to the Educational Opportunity Program

| 07 March 2007


Pat Perkins (Wendy Edelstein photo)
 

Pat Perkins, the longtime office manager and receptionist for Student Life Advising Services/ Educational Opportunity Program (SLAS/EOP), retired in October, but her impact on Berkeley has yet to diminish. To take one measure of that impact, her former director, Gloria Burkhalter, calculated the number of student visits logged in the office's database - 17,000 per year on average - then multiplied that by Perkins' four-decade tenure to arrive at a stunning total of 680,000. Whether viewed as a mere tally of office visits or, as Burkhalter fancies, the number of hugs Perkins dispensed during her Berkeley career, it's an impressive total.

SLAS/EOP serves undergraduates who are either low-income California residents and the first in their families to attend college, or who are underrepresented at Berkeley. Finding their place in the large, sometimes impersonal campus and navigating through its maze of red tape can be particularly daunting for such students. That's where Burkhalter and her staff step in, offering freshmen and transfer students counseling and advising on a number of fronts - academic, social, and personal - to ensure that they feel they belong and can succeed at Berkeley. The director takes pride in the fact that her office "approaches students from the heart."

Perkins, says Burkhalter, "earned her reputation as one of Cal's most approachable, lovable, trustworthy, inspirational, motivational, and compassionate members of the campus community." Perkins joined that community back in 1962, when, at 18, she got a job as a typist/clerk in the College of Engineering's Graduate Office. Four years later, offered a position to assist Bill Somerville, who had recently been selected to head a new program to recruit non-traditional students to Berkeley, Perkins jumped at the chance.

Spearheaded by then-Chancellor Roger Heyns, the Educational Opportunity Program was the first of its kind in the country. Somerville communicated his vision to his young assistant: "You're going to have students who have never been away from home. They're going to be in a situation where people may be resistant to them being here. I want this office to be a place that they feel is a home away from home," says Perkins, recalling the words that she took to heart.

Perkins remembers that in the early years the program met with some resistance: "We were bringing people to campus that a number of staff and faculty were not used to having here, but I witnessed a gradual acceptance of diversity on the campus."

A big, warm embrace

Over the years, Perkins let many students know that somebody at Berkeley cared about them. "Pat looked students in the eye and they felt seen," says Lisa Walker, a coordinator for Multicultural Student Development. "She expressed interest and concern about their lives and their families, and they knew she understood." Walker acknowledges that she aspires to make students feel as "at home" at Berkeley as Perkins did.

Melanie Moonsamy, of the class of 1993, first encountered Perkins' "gentle heart and warm spirit" as an undergrad, and came to view the EOP staffer as "a pillar of support for not only me but also my four siblings who attended Cal."

As an academic adviser at the Athletic Study Center, Moonsamy has seen Perkins help "countless other students, often in tears, who rushed to her for support. She never judged but listened and offered advice, and comforted each of them with a big, warm embrace."

In her position, Perkins honed her approach to helping students. "I have found that students don't necessarily want you to solve their problems," she says. "They have to make their own decisions, but we can help them to make the proper decisions by presenting options for them to consider."

Four months into retirement, Perkins talks about her former job as if she just left it yesterday. It's clear she still feels committed to students, and to that end she plans to volunteer with GOALS (Graduates Organized to Assure Learning and Success), a nonprofit organization of SLAS/EOP graduates. The group supports current SLAS/EOP students by providing scholarships and serving as mentors.

Cultivating new members for GOALS seems a natural segue after her long run at SLAS/EOP. As Perkins sees it, "You have to feel as though you're there to make a difference for students, so that they, in return, can make a difference in the lives of others."