Purdue Profiles: David Tate

November 30, 2010

David Tate, academic advisor in health sciences. (Purdue University photo/Andrew Hancock)

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"They pay me for this? Do you believe this? They pay me to do this!" David Tate says with arms outstretched toward a window overlooking Purdue's West Lafayette campus. In his office, where walls are unseen behind plaques, awards and photos; where dimly lit lamps replace fluorescent lights; and where his son's first shoes hang, Tate, an academic advisor in health sciences, beams with pride and disbelief of the life he leads.
Why did you decide to stay at Purdue after receiving your bachelor's and master's degrees here?

Honestly, besides my marriage and the birth of my son, being at Purdue has been the most rewarding thing that I have done. It's the icing on the cake. What the University has given me the opportunity to do, I would never have believed that a kid from a high school class of 22 would ever do.
Every morning my wife, Maureen, who is event manager for Ross Ade Pavilion, and I drive down Northwestern, and I see this whole vista of Purdue. I see the Bell Tower and a sign that says Purdue University and I think, "I am so lucky." I get goose bumps; I have them right now just thinking about it. I've been doing this for a long time, but I feel like that every single day.

How do you approach your work as an advisor?

I remember coming here 46 years ago and feeling intimidated, lacking confidence, lacking direction, lacking preparation, and I had no one to talk to. The few times I tried to talk to an advisor or faculty member, it was not a very pleasant experience. I felt inferior and to some degree undeserving of being here, so I have to remember who these people are and why they come to my office.

I don't let myself answer all their questions because they need room to grow. I gently challenge them. Students are at really vulnerable moments in their lives, but the whole idea of my job is to help them find their way.

I encourage my students to seek failure. You have to be willing to go to that end point or you will never know your boundaries, and you will never be satisfied in life. For every plaque, there are 20 things I didn't do well. Purdue is a mechanism to provide a way to continually push the envelope. And if you fall, someone will help you back up.

You are faculty advisor for many student clubs, why is that?

A lot of times students explain to me that they can't find anybody to sign on as club advisor. It's upsetting to me that students have an idea they're excited about, and they don't have a mechanism for pushing it forward because just one person won't step up. I can't accept that. So I sign on.
Right now, I'm a faculty advisor for Circle Pines men's cooperative; Lambda Tau [medical technology students], which I actually started 20-something years ago; Power T, the weight Lifting club, which I founded in '78; Young Americans for Liberty; and I'm an emeritus advisor to Sigma Pi [social fraternity]. My wife and I have also been Faculty Fellows for over 23 years.
Why is it important for you to be involved in many areas across campus?

Because the students are that way. I also have a lot of varying interests, and in being faculty advisor to various groups, I learn so much more about the University and the students I work with. In order to advise, in my definition, effectively, I really should have a pulse of what's going on with the students.

Involvement in clubs and groups gives me a way of teaching and providing students with knowledge that they might not get in a classroom setting -- communication, networking, responsibility, leadership and delegating.

You go up and beyond your academic advising duties. Why?

I've been asked that a lot. And what I can come up with is that this University has afforded me the opportunity to get involved, and I took advantage of it. I've worked very hard to get to this place, and what I've found out along the way is that all the titles and accolades mean nothing, in my world, if I quit believing that I work for the students. I tell them that the University pays me, but that I work for them.

Do you keep in touch with former advisees?

All the time. I've had former advisees and their children come in for football games. I've got all kinds of kids -- students from 20 years ago -- e-mailing me. I've worked with three students who are children of my former students. Every summer I get together with some of my former students and their kids.

My wife and I started working closely with Natasha, a women's basketball recruit from Russia, and we sort of unofficially adopted each other. She calls us her Boiler parents, and we refer to her as our goddaughter. Even though she's in Spain now, we talk every other day.

It feels like an extended family. I'm just so proud of all of them.

You have such a great attitude about your job. How do you keep that up?

Well, I don't think of it as a job. It is a paid opportunity to participate in all these kids' lives and perhaps make a difference. But everyone has off days, so when I get into a blue funk, I go to these two large drawers full of notes, letters, e-mails and messages from parents and students and know that I have done my job. Those letters remind me who I'm working for.

Has there been a favorite moment or memory from working at Purdue?

Every single one of the students I've worked with is just so special. There are several that I love as if they were my own children. I've watched former students get married. I've been best man at some of their weddings.

I was selected as a Special Boilermaker, for which the women's basketball team and ROTC nominated me. I got to accept it on Ross-Ade field during halftime at a football game and my son joined me. Those are some highlights, but there is no downside.

It's obvious you influence your students. Do they ever do the same for you?

One day, a student came in to me and said, "I'm now seeing more clearly than I ever have before because I've stopped looking." I wrote that down, posted it above my desk and kept looking at it throughout the day. I thought that that should be me. I've always been looking for a sense of peace within myself, but that phrase made me realize it. So now I'm in the RCIA program to be accepted into the Catholic Church, and that student is my sponsor, answering my questions and guiding me through the process.

So in some respects, I am still the student. I truly believe that I get much more from these kids than they do from me. I get to share in their lives and learn more about them and Purdue. It's really interesting to me that for all of my professional life, I've tried my hardest to provide a direction and an answer to my students, yet, invariably, I find it's the other way around.