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It's 'reading season' for Bob Patterson, Stanford's new director of admission

Patterson grew up in Pennsylvania, where he earned a bachelor's degree in human relations and a master's degree in higher education institutional management.

Bob Patterson

As the new director of admission, Bob Patterson will direct the daily operations of the admission office and play a key role in shaping its initiatives and programs.

BY KATHLEEN J. SULLIVAN

In a photograph hanging in the lobby of Montag Hall, a Stanford sailboat whose red sail is filled with wind skims across the choppy waters of San Francisco Bay, leaving behind a rival with blue sails and the word "Cal" written in curving gold script.

The photo could well be a metaphor for Bob Patterson's recent career move.

Patterson, the new director of admission at Stanford, arrived on the Farm after spending a year and a half as deputy director of undergraduate admissions at the University of California-Berkeley.

Or, as he told a recent gathering of faculty and staff at the Visitor Center: "I came from an institution across the bay. I can't say the name, because I don't want anything thrown at me."

It was a humorous introduction – especially with the Big Game quickly approaching – that drew an appreciative laugh from the audience. (Stanford hopes to reclaim the Axe during the 113th Big Game on Saturday in Memorial Stadium in Berkeley.)

Patterson, whose first day at Stanford was Sept. 13, succeeded Shawn Abbott, now the chief admissions officer at New York University.

During a recent interview in his second floor office in Montag Hall, home of undergraduate admission and financial aid, Patterson said leaving Cal was a hard decision because he was very involved in the university community.

"I was a member of the Berkeley Staff Assembly and served on its program committee, which brought in speakers to talk about new retirement plans, admissions practices or other topics of interest to staff," he said. "I also was very involved with student groups on campus."

Still, Patterson, who had moved to California from North Carolina for the job, realized he had nothing to lose by applying.

"After I was offered the position here, I had a lot of long conversations with a lot of people in the admissions profession who said, 'You can't say no to Stanford,'" he said. "It's an honor and a privilege to work at Stanford."

At Stanford, Patterson will direct the daily operations of the admission office and play a key role in shaping its initiatives and programs, including outreach, multicultural programming, international admission, intercollegiate athletics, and the composition of each incoming freshman and transfer class.

Reading season has begun

Currently, Patterson and his staff are reviewing applications from nearly 6,000 high school students who say Stanford is their first choice and have applied for admission through the university's "restrictive early action" program.

He'll be working over the Thanksgiving holiday weekend – just as he has since beginning his career in college admissions 14 years ago – to make the Dec. 15 deadline for his office to make decisions on those applications. The "reading season" will last until every last member of the Class of 2015 is chosen by the end of April, he said.

Even though the deadline for regular admission isn't until Jan. 1., the office has already started receiving applications. Last year, Stanford received 32,022 applications and expects a similar number this year.

A work-study job leads to a career

Patterson, who grew up in Pittsburgh, moved nearly 200 miles north to a small city in rural Pennsylvania to attend the University of Pittsburgh at Bradford, a four-year undergraduate college in the University of Pittsburgh system.

An athletics scholarship – Patterson played college basketball and volleyball – helped pay for school. So did a part-time job in the admissions office, where he helped prepare applications for review and gave tours of the 300-acre campus, which is nestled in the foothills of the Allegheny Mountains.

Patterson was an elementary education major – hoping to teach third grade – until his junior year. That's when he walked into a kindergarten classroom of 30 five-year-olds on the first day of a semester-long teaching practicum.

"Two hours later, I walked out and said, 'I can't do this the rest of my life,'" Patterson recalled with a laugh. "It was overwhelming."

He sought advice from his boss, the admissions director, who sat down with him to review his courses and chart a new direction. They discovered he had enough credits – in psychology, anthropology and sociology – to get a degree in human relations. Still, what was he going to do for a profession, Patterson asked him.

"He said: 'Well, why don't you stop playing basketball your senior year, take a 20-hour-a-week internship in the admissions office and see if you like it,'" Patterson recalled. "During my senior year I ended up supervising the student tour guides, reading applications and traveling to western New York to recruit students. And I just fell in love with the profession."

First full-time job in college admissions

After graduating in May 1998, Patterson landed a job in the same office as an admissions counselor.

It was his first job – not counting the summers he had spent helping his father sell used boats. Patterson's father, a former Marine, had left the service to care for his two young children and wife, who was disabled after years of treatment for thyroid cancer. Patterson's mother died in 2001.

While Patterson was an undergraduate, his father enrolled in a community college and became a registered nurse. Later, he earned a bachelor's degree and an MBA, and is now the vice president of a hospital in Florida.

"He went through a complete transformation when he went to school," Patterson said. "It opened him up to new world views. My father had always encouraged me and my sister to go to college, but he learned an even greater appreciation for higher education when he went to college himself. I saw firsthand how higher education could change people."

Seven months later, Patterson became an admissions and financial aid counselor at the University of Pittsburgh's – Pitt's – main campus.

His chief responsibility was overseeing the Pitt Pathfinders, 120 of the university's brightest students, who conducted walking and bus tours for prospective students and their families, answered phone calls and emails, and visited high schools.

"I did all kinds of things with them – campus tours, Saturday information sessions, IM chats, phonathons," Patterson said. "We also ran a conference every summer called the National Student Recruitment Conference. We brought in admissions officers from around the country to talk about best practices."

Patterson also was responsible for the Pitt Alumni Recruitment Team, graduates who helped recruit new students by "adopting" high schools, hosting receptions, speaking on panels and representing the university at college fairs.

During his seven and a half years at Pitt, the number of alumni volunteers increased to 1,300 people, compared with about 500 at the start of his tenure, said Patterson, who was later promoted to associate director of strategic planning in the admissions office.

While working at Pitt, he earned a master's degree in higher education institutional management and enrolled in a PhD program. He completed the first three chapters of his dissertation – on alumni volunteering in the admissions process – in 2005.

"I'm ABD [all but dissertation] right now," he said. "I just haven't had time to write."

That same year, Patterson became the associate director of undergraduate admissions at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.

Moving to the West Coast

In 2009, UC-Berkeley came calling. By March of that year, Patterson had moved across the country, had gotten engaged – his wife now works as a nurse practitioner at the Stanford Cancer Center – and began working in Berkeley.

At Stanford, one of Patterson's responsibilities will be to evaluate the university's Outreach Volunteer Alumni Link, a pilot program now in its third year.

Under the program, Stanford offers an optional alumni interview to prospective students in London and in eight U.S. metropolitan areas, including Denver, New York and Portland, Ore., and to students in Massachusetts, Maryland and Virginia.

This year, the admission office is launching an "Adopt a Dorm" program – the brainchild of a staff member – so that the staff can get a better feeling for the freshman experience by meeting with students in their residences.

"A lot of students have expressed an interest in going back to their high schools to talk about Stanford," Patterson said. "We want to work with them and teach them how to talk about admission policies and practices."

He said the admission office also is reaching out to professors by asking them to fill out web forms about their programs and departments that will be published as "faculty fliers" on its website.

"In the last month, a lot of faculty have come to our office to talk about what's new in their departments and about the experiences students have had in their programs, so that we, in turn, can share those stories with prospective students," he said.

"The faculty flier is the way we'd like to get the word out about all these great majors and courses of study that we have at Stanford."