By Josh Witt
A beloved figure at the University of Tennessee retired at the end of this semester. No, it’s not the coach of one of the university sports teams, and it isn’t a member of the university administration. His name is Gary Peterman, and he’s been here longer than many of the university’s more recognizable figures.
As an advisor for UT’s College of Communication and Information, Peterman has spent 31 years helping hundreds of students navigate their college careers.
“He knows his stuff,” Haley Harbin, a senior in the School of Journalism & Electronic Media, said. “It’s not just a job for him, it’s kind of like a mission. He knows how to help us, and he wants to help us get to that point of success in college.”
Peterman is Harbin’s advisor at UT, and she’s sad to see him go.
“I think the college has really benefitted from having him, and he will be sorely missed,” Harbin said. “I know some people who are coming into this college—you know, they’re in high school or they’re transitioning over here—and before I heard that he was retiring last week, I was planning on being like ‘Hey, you know, whenever you get an advisor, see if there’s a way you can request him, because he’s amazing.’”
Peterman wasn’t always an advisor at UT, though—he’s worked here for 31 years, and even attended UT, earning his bachelor’s degree as well as his master’s degree here. He worked at UT as a software analyst for some time before eventually becoming an academic advisor.
“I’ve enjoyed this more than anything,” Peterman said. “It’s easy for me to work in… I feel at ease with everyone, and I’m trying to set them at ease as well.
“I was a graduation specialist for a few years, so I’ve seen the very end of students, when they’re ready to graduate. So I’ve sort of seen them from A to Z.”
To better advise his students, Peterman takes a unique approach: he attends the classes that they’ll have to take.
“I was a history major as an undergraduate, and college student personnel as a graduate, so I knew nothing about advertising, public relations, journalism, any of those majors,” Peterman said. “So I would take my lunch hour and pick a particular class, and I went and attended them so I would have a better understanding of them. Because how could I talk to students if I didn’t know what I was talking about?”
Sometimes, he’ll just attend the first class period to get a better idea of what it’s about. Other times, he’ll attend multiple class periods throughout a semester. Sometimes, he’ll even attend a class for an entire semester. In all cases, he’s there so he can make better recommendations to his students.
“If you can relate back to a student what they’re going to be doing, I think it’s very beneficial. They don’t think that I’m just putting them through, ‘Well, you’re going to take this, you’re going to take this, and you’re going to take this,’” Peterman said. “It’s, ‘You’re going to take this because… and here’s what I know they go over.’”
Peterman’s wide-ranging knowledge of classes stood out to Harbin as they planned out her class schedule for this semester.
“My goal was to be here as little as possible,” Harbin said. “I went into his office and was like. . . ‘I only want to be here on Tuesdays and Thursdays; I have these requirements I need to fulfill—what can I do to make sure I don’t have to be here more than that?’ He was like, ‘Okay, well here’s these online classes you can take. I took this one—it was really fun and really interesting. You would enjoy it.’
“It was something he knew and and something that was already in the back of his mind. He didn’t have to search for it. He knows his stuff, and that was always really impressive to me.”
Although Peterman doesn’t have kids of his own, he treats students like they’re his grandchildren, which he thinks sets him apart from other advisors.
“I’m older than most advisors, I’m 65—soon to be 66—and I sort of treat my students as grandchildren,” Peterman said. “I feel like I’m trying to protect them or help them.”
Although Peterman worked to help students, he also wanted them to take charge of their own college careers. He emphasized how the curriculums worked and what classes were necessary for their success. Sometimes, Peterman’s efforts would be so successful that he wouldn’t even have to advise a student.
“It always pleases me immensely when a student walks in and I don’t have to advise them—I sit here and say, ‘Tell me what you’re taking,’ and they tell me,” Peterman said.
While Peterman thinks his “grandchildren” mindset sets him apart, Harbin thinks his personality and ability to remember details about students is what makes him unique.
“He always remembered me as the Disney girl. So every time I’d go in, he’d be like ‘Miss Disney! How are you?’” Harbin said. “I don’t know what the other advisors are like, but I feel like he’s a special dude.”
Peterman has no specific plans for retirement and wants to “take it as it comes to [him].” With more time on his hands, he can read more of the history books he loves, spend evenings in his treehouse, go on hiking trips and build his skills as an amateur astronomer.
He says he’s looking forward to going to bed without worrying about the students he’s advising the next day.
“Having been here 31 years, advising has been the best job I’ve ever had. I hardly can think of a student I haven’t really liked or gotten along with,” Peterman said. “It’s very bittersweet for me.”
Peterman’s passion for advising will leave a strong impression on the students he helped, even after he retires.
“He cared about his job and he cared about his students,” Harbin said. “You can tell that.”