Stanford Report Online

Stanford Report, May 2, 2001
Teresa Nishikawa: 'Toughness and care' guide her sensitive work with students


In the sea of ringing telephones and activity in the registrar's office, Teresa Nishikawa's office is an island of calm. A poster of the surf at Big Sur hangs near her desk, flanked by paintings of swimming fish and flowers. A miniature Zen garden, a handkerchief-size square of sand and pebbles, sits in a corner. When she speaks, Nishikawa's voice has a quality of water running over rocks.

Serenity is crucial to her work as academic standing advisor. It's her job to counsel students who aren't performing academically and face probation or suspension. Nishikawa often has to be the bearer of bad news. "There are a lot of emotions on the table," she said.

"This is one of the few offices on campus which has to say 'no' to students. We try and do in the most sensitive way we can, putting ourselves in the students' shoes."

"Teresa is very patient, very calm and very persistent, making sure that students understand why they are where they are," said Roger Printup, the university registrar. "She works very effectively in figuring out ways that students can get past it."

She's also a consistent advocate for students when she thinks that circumstances warrant an exception to a policy, Printup said. "She walks a fine line between being responsible for maintaining standards while still being an advocate for students. And she walks that line with a great deal of grace."

"Anyone who knows Teresa is struck by her cheerful nature, warmth and dedication," said Flora Lu Holt, a lecturer in the Department of Anthropological Sciences. "She gently but firmly guides students back to the right track with a blend of toughness and care."

Fifteen years in her position has taught her that problems with academic performance are often due to non-academic factors like health problems or a parent's death, Nishikawa said. "Life throws curve balls. Sometimes you have to go to Plan B and even Plan C."

Many of the students she works with have thought that getting accepted to Stanford meant success in life was assured, she said. For them, "Plan A has always worked. It's a new skill to come up with Plan B."

Nishikawa, a native of Northern California, earned a bachelor's degree in biology and natural resources before earning a master's degree in counseling. She worked at San Jose State University and for two years at the Medical School before taking her current job.

As much as she empathizes with students, "you have to take a step back to be the most helpful," she said. Many students who left reluctantly later told her the experience had been positive in the long run, she said.

She has learned to prevent burnout by taking care of herself, she said. A Cupertino resident, Nishikawa, 46, relaxes by reading, playing league volleyball, diving for abalone along the coast and traveling with her husband.

Even with years of experience behind her, Nishikawa said she still finds it very difficult when she has to recommend a time-out for a student.

"Sometimes the buck stops here."

Teresa Nishikawa. photo: L.A. Cicero