by Giovanna Zeloni Ribaldo
photography by Donna Martinez
He walks into the Pomona High School principal’s office to find empty McDonalds bags on the table, their contents spread across the only piece of furniture in the room. More than half a dozen chairs surround it, and looking up at the arrival of Emmett Terrell are six high school football players, who, for a split second, glance away from their meal for a nodded greeting. Yet, there is no sense of intimidation, but respect; no fear of authority, but esteem. Terrell is dressed casually, with jeans and a checkered shirt, sneakers and a green hat— a different version of the Board of Trustee Terrell who walks the University of La Verne campus in suit and tie.
He takes a seat to officially start the meeting. The boys continue to eat, yet absorb his words of wisdom. His language is easy, accessible, with slang and colloquial terms occasionally sautéed and mixed together with important, yet simple messages. Emmett Terrell asks, “What is something the boys have done this week that made them feel good?” As each one browses his mental archive and shares his answer, there is silence when they speak and words of encouragement when they finish. Terrell goes around the table once again, to question what they could have done better in the week. Then individual advice pours forth. It is a locker room atmosphere, and Terrell is visibly comfortable in leading and coaching, an experience very familiar and comfortable to him, and one that dates back to his time as a football coach at the University of La Verne. The role suits him not only because he performs it easily, but because young people respond to it.
Emmett Terrell, a University of La Verne Board of Trustee member, has spent more than 40 years of his life in education. As a first-generation student, he graduated from La Verne College in 1970 and immediately started working for the Pomona Unified School District. His Pomona career is impressively varied, ranging from teacher and elementary school principal to deputy superintendent.
Now, as he oversees ULV’s administration, Terrell still holds dear the values of solidarity and empathy he learned from his parents, family principles instilled in him since his 1948 birth in Memphis, Tennessee. Aside from his mentoring of young African-American males at the invitation of Pomona High School Principal Roger Fasting, Terrell has founded the Brother’s Forum at ULV, chaired the Academic Affairs Committee, College of Law Sub-Committee, and selection committee for La Verne’s new University president.
He has also been a board member of the Hillcrest Homes Retirement Community, the Bright Prospects organization, the LA County Fair and its Educational Foundation, and has been in the advisory committee for the School Employers Association of California. Terrell has acquired more than 22 years of experience as a deputy superintendent and led human resources in a school district with more than 30,000 students and 3,000 personnel.
La Verne staff writer Giovanna Rinaldo sat down with Emmett Terrell to hear his vision for the University of La Verne.
Q: What was your experience being an African-American student at La Verne?
When I first came to La Verne, I was only one of maybe six African-Americans in the whole campus. There were three young ladies, and a guy who went here when I got here, and it was for the most part a safe place. Because of the religious affiliation, very supportive, very nurturing, very caring—it was great. It was like an island in the greater community because it wasn’t like it was that way when you were off campus. But here you knew what to expect, and I had the wonderful experience of being with some great people. And I think the football and the campus experience together really helped to solidify the beliefs that my parents had given me because it was consistent. For the African-American students who came while I was still here and after me—by the time I graduated it must’ve been around 50 or 60 of them—we still talk. And we still talk about our experiences at La Verne, and we talk in positive terms.
Q: How was your college experience as a first-generation student?
There was an expectation on the part of my family, my mom, that we go to college. Growing up, I didn’t always understand what she meant, but as I got closer to 12th grade, I began to see everything that I hadn’t done, everything I needed to do to move on to college. I panicked because I didn’t want to face her and say, “Well, I’m not able to go.” That’s when La Verne came in. My mom had nieces who were teachers in the South. In my mother’s family there were a number of ministers, and then I had three uncles who were ministers. [Even] now, I have two cousins who are ministers, and my son is a minister. Religion and that whole idea of providing spiritual support and engagement, I think it connects very well with education. It’s all about helping.
Q: What does teaching mean to you?
I think teaching is a calling. I’m very big on value-added. I think the responsibility of a teacher is to recognize the student’s worth; everybody is worth something. Then make an assessment about how you as that teacher can be the most effective in helping that person to realize dreams and passions. It’s helping someone to have a better understanding of what they need to do next, to assist in shaping direction. The experiences that we have as an adult can be translated into possible opportunities for young people. They don’t always match perfectly, but often times there’s a piece that might fit well, so I think it becomes our responsibility to share that.
When I was a teacher, I taught elementary school, and I realized how much my students paid attention, not necessarily to what I said, but what I did. You could shape how they do stuff, how they operate, based upon how you model certain behaviors of engagement. So it’s important that they hear what you say, but it’s also important that they see what you do. And that you’re consistent in what you do. If I said one thing, and I’m doing something else, then it’s not about him, it’s about me.
Q: What do you think is the biggest reward in teaching?
Helping students recognize their worth and their value and realize their passion. And I think if you’re a good teacher, then you’re like a coach. I coached for a lot of years, too, and I saw a really tight relationship between teaching and coaching. But what you’re teaching is not the academic; you’re teaching more around the psychophysical. I think the reason I do what I do is because I receive joy out of having other people realize their dreams and aspirations.
Q: What values did you teach to your children?
To be of use. To look at situations and look at opportunities to help people. That it’s not about you; your value is your ability to help other people. I’m big on karma. I’m big in terms of you get what you give. And you shouldn’t give just because you expect to get. And it’s amazing how it works in life—that the more you give, the more you get. Not with the expectation of getting something in return, but just in terms of creating an environment of nurturing and support. I’ve been very fortunate in that regard. I got that from my dad. My dad and mom, they were always helpful and caring about other people, and they were always willing to share, so I think as my brothers and I grew up, we had the opportunity to watch how they did that, and the importance they placed on recognizing the value in others. It created a spirit within us that said that we want to help, we want to be of use. If you engage people in the right way—not coming at them to take from them but coming at them to share and to understand—then people will then more often than not give to you knowledge, information, access. Access is huge, particularly for first generation students and children of color. We don’t have a lot of access points, and so if we are to get those access points, it’s because someone else provided them for us or to us. And that’s coming based upon their belief that we will respect them, and we will operate in a way that is an extension of who gave them to us. You don’t want to help people who are going to take advantage. You got to be selfless, not selfish. Over time, people will come to you, people will be attracted to you. And as a result, you get to know what they do, they get to know what you do, and they will create points of access or avenues of access.
Q: What is the mark that you hope to leave in lives?
To be of use and to help. You have to be enough about something that I don’t want everybody to like me. If everybody likes me, that means I’m not about anything. I’m about too much stuff. People need to know that there’s certain things that they can say, there’s certain things that they can do that will be OK. But there’s other things that you can’t do. And if you don’t establish yourself as being about something, then you’re really not about anything. I think that you need to be upfront, that you need to be direct. I have a sense of what I like, and what I don’t like. I don’t expect everybody to agree with me, I don’t want everybody to agree with me. [Instead, I want to] have a sense of respect where we can talk and discuss and reach a position of understanding.
I used to negotiate the contracts for the Pomona District with the labor units, and I think I was pretty upfront. You want to make it better for somebody else, not just yourself. The bottom line for me in education has always been about the kids.
Q: What are your thoughts on La Verne’s mission, values and the progress made since you studied here?
La Verne was a great place for me. I was young, and I probably thought I was more valuable than I really was. I had to learn, and that learning came through living and being around people having other experiences. I’ve been on the Board now for 15 years, and prior to that I coached football here for 15 years, so I’ve really been around La Verne a long time, and it’s still consistent. Even though we no longer have the same affiliation with the Church, it’s consistent with the mission of helping, of being supportive. With first-generation youngsters, I think that we understand better how we can assist and support these young people through realizing their aspirations and following their passion, then energizing their passion. I think we get better all the time. As adults, we have to be consistent not only in our actions but our communications. Across the Board, we all need to look in the mirror and say, “I say I’m about this, but is what I do, and what I say consistent with who I say I am?” I think that’s huge, because for young people, they’re watching all the time. If you’re really about preparing young people to go out into the world, they need to see that you as an adult, as a person in a position to make decisions, are consistent.
Q: Where do you think the University could do better?
I’m not always sure about the best way to provide support and access. I think you have to keep looking, but probably as important to keep looking is continuing to listen. If you stop listening because you think you’ve got it figured out, that’s when you get in trouble. You got to keep moving forward with the spirit that has helped make this University what it is, and, as you move forward, you have to continue to grow in your understanding of “How do we make it better.” We never know it all, but you have to believe that you have the ability, the efficacy to continue to do it. And continue to make it better. That’s the whole thing about efficacy. There has to be enough in your heart that says, “I can figure this out” so that you don’t stop. You can’t stop.
Q: What advice would you give to current students?
I think you have to see yourself as being better than the problems that you face. And, as a result, continue to work to make things better for those around you. I want you to keep doing what you do and follow your passion. Know that your credible work comes with integrity. It’s all about credibility.
If I walk into a situation, and I don’t know the answer, I believe I can figure it out—not because I know everything, but because I bet I know somebody. One of the guys in the Board is always saying, “You always say you know a guy.” And I do. You tell me what you need to have done, I know a guy. It starts with the guys who cut my grass, the guys who work on my car, the guys that built my house—all those guys. I got that from my dad. I build relationships.
If you say, “Are there things you would have done differently in life?” Yeah. But all in all, I look at the bigger picture—it has been OK. I think my dad, my mom would be good with it. And that’s what is important, that your family is good with it.