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University Gazette

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Stenross went ‘above and beyond’ for students


Barbara Stenross remembers what it’s like to cope with circumstances beyond her control.

She never forgot that – year after year – her teachers in grade school would give her unsatisfactory marks for “Offers Good Ideas” because she was too shy to speak.

She never forgot the predicament she faced in mid-career when she was denied tenure as a sociology professor here and had no idea what her next move should be.

But failure was a good teacher. It prepared Stenross for her second career as an academic adviser in the College of Arts and Sciences in ways a textbook never could.

It gave her empathy and allowed her to understand students’ many struggles because she had gone through them herself.

Failure allowed her to find her true gift: helping countless students get up again when they stumble and find their way when they lose it.

It is because of this gift that Stenross – with overwhelming endorsement from her co-workers in advising – earned a 2012 C. Knox Massey Distinguished Service Award before she retired this summer.

She started out as a violin major at Wittenberg University in Ohio, but switched her major after taking her first class in sociology – the field that gave her a new way of seeing the world and her unsettled place within it.

Through sociology, she began to understand things her parents could not teach her. They were both of Finnish stock and were reluctant to show emotion; in fact, they seldom spoke.

Her father never spoke about his past, so what little Stenross knew of it she learned from her mother.

Her father’s mother abandoned him when he was a child, and his father sent him to a boys’ home when he was 7. He quit high school, went to work, got married and in 1943, at the age of 36, was drafted into the Army. Fighting in the Battle of the Bulge, he earned three Bronze Stars.

Stenross was born a year after he returned home, in 1945. Until she was 7, the family lived amid the cornfields and dairy farms of northeastern Ohio. In 1952, they moved to Cleveland where her father drove a truck for a tobacco and candy distributor.

At the time, her neighborhood in Cleveland, thanks to the plentiful jobs in the steel mills and factories, was a virtual ethnic stew of Poles, Lebanese, Russians, Greeks, Irish and Italians, Stenross said.

“Sociology spoke to me,” she said. “It connected to my experience and helped me to make sense of that working-class milieu I was plucked into as a child.”

But it failed to paint a clear picture of what her future should be after she earned her sociology degree in 1968.

In theory, she knew her degree groomed her to help people in poverty; in practice, though, she felt she had little to offer that they couldn’t figure out for themselves. She wanted to change the world, yet felt incapable of being a community organizer. “I was still too shy,” she said.

“I really did not know what I was going to do. So I got married.”

Mid-career crisis

She married a boy from her high school in Cleveland who went on to Dartmouth.

Stenross got a job teaching science and math at an elementary school for a year. After two years in New England, the couple moved to North Carolina where they both enrolled in graduate school at Duke University.

But the marriage didn’t last, and neither did graduate school. She went to work at Research Triangle Institute, and following her divorce spent five years at Indiana University in Bloomington, where she completed her Ph.D.

She came to Carolina in 1979 as one of the few women on the tenure track in the highly ranked sociology department.

In 1980, she remarried, and her son, Adam, was born two years later.

Over time, Stenross overcame her shyness enough to enjoy teaching. But she had not published enough to get tenure.

She was approaching 40 and still had no idea what to do with her life. At least, not until sociology professor Richard Cramer suggested she might try advising. She began on a part-time basis, working with students majoring in sociology, economics and industrial relations.

From the start, Stenross said, she knew it was what she was meant to do.

‘Everybody loves Barb’

Judging by their Massey Award nomination letters, her colleagues agree. It is also clear from the letters that Stenross overcame her childhood reticence to share good ideas with others.

Bobbi Owen, senior associate dean in the college, noted Stenross’ “compassion, invariable good sense and judgment, and willingness to go above and beyond” to help students in crisis.

Lee May, associate dean and director of the academic advising program, described her as “the standard to which we all aspire.”

Cheryl Junk, assistant dean of academic advising who worked directly under Stenross’ supervision for eight years, perhaps explained it best. “Everyone loves Barb Stenross,” Junk said. “Why? Not only because she has a vast fund of institutional memory that is invaluable to her colleagues, but chiefly because of how she relates to people.

“Barb’s whole nature is love. She exudes it in her smile, in her gentleness and in her faithfulness. She has never passed a day in the office without smiling at me and making me feel cared about. She has never failed to do anything asked of her, never given anything but her all.”

Life doesn’t always turn out as planned, Stenross has learned. But it is how you react to the unexpected – how open you are to opportunities that come along – that can make all the difference.

As an academic adviser, that insight proved invaluable, Stenross said.

“I think the people who go into advising love the individuality of each person and they love discovering it,” Stenross said.

“Everybody has an interesting story. Everybody has something that is unique and special. Helping students see those qualities in themselves is a big part of what advising should be.”

She said she retired at 66 not because she no longer loved her job, but because there are now other things she wants to do even more.

Like spending time with her husband, Michael Russell, and their 6-month-old grandson.

Or – “I know this is going to sound strange…” – returning to Ohio over Labor Day weekend to attend the Geauga County Fair, something she had not been able to do since 1982.

“It’s even bigger and better now,” she said.