Syracuse University Magazine

Terra Peckskamp


Learning Through Living

Everyone has a first-year roommate story. Whether it conjures a smile or a headache, being thrown into the college mix with a complete stranger is indisputably memorable. For Terra Peckskamp, her story involves a roommate’s pet iguana and the ill-fated morning it decided to venture up her leg while she slept. “I was a little startled to say the least,” she says.

As director of the Office of Residence Life, Peckskamp has heard her fair share of such stories. As her title suggests, she is in charge of all that occurs in the 19 residence halls on Main Campus, the Sky Halls on South Campus, and all on-campus apartments. That’s nearly 8,000 students she’s keeping an eye on. “My job is related to anything the students encounter, run into, create, or need,” she says. “Anything that goes on in their residence halls is something I’m connected to.”

Residence life is a fast-paced professional environment of student interaction, meetings, and crisis management. Peckskamp takes the job in stride, focusing on a philosophy called the “residential learning initiative,” she says. “We believe that conflict resolution, health and wellness, values and clarification, and academic success are key to development that we, in residence life, can assist with in a student’s transition to college.” 

Peckskamp and her staff have developed a series of initiatives around these four issues, providing the opportunity for shared experiences tailored to student needs in the residence halls. She was an integral team member in the design and implementation of the University’s learning communities, a program that allows students who live together to take a course or share an experience around a common theme or topic of interest. There are communities for those with a passion for the arts, an eye for fashion, or even a love of the outdoors. “When students begin college they are most concerned with making friends and succeeding academically,” Peckskamp says. “Learning communities address both these needs. Students learn about themselves and how to reach out to others who are different from them. It’s a lesson they carry with them for the next four years.”

As students returned this fall, Peckskamp remembered the day she walked into her residence hall at Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Massachusetts. “I started out as an aeronautical engineering major,” she says. “I became an RA and loved it, changed my major to management, and went in an entirely different direction.”

Peckskamp pursued her passion for helping students at Michigan State University, where she earned a master’s degree in student affairs administration. Her first job out of graduate school was at California Polytechnic State University–San Luis Obispo, where she gained her first experiences with living and learning communities. She came to Syracuse in 1999 as coordinator for academic initiatives in the Office of Residence Life. Since then, Peckskamp has held a number of positions, including assistant director of residence life and director of learning communities, before her appointment as director of residence life in January. “At that point in my career, it was as if someone had created my dream job,” she says. “I hit the wave at just the right time. Syracuse has been such a positive professional experience for me. The work I’ve engaged in has been very professionally and personally rewarding.”

Looking back on her path to Syracuse, Peckskamp shares her own story to motivate the students she mentors. “As it was for me 20 years ago, it’s OK to not know what you want,” she says. “Your hopes and dreams may change, but it will all work out in the end.”

—Hanna Dubansky