April 18, 2017

Ms. VeeAssistant Director of Housing Operations Laviettriea Terrell, commonly known around Detroit Mercy’s campus as “Ms. Vee,” was sitting in her office when two students she knows very well, Blair White and Imari Smith stopped by.

Ms. Vee could tell something was up; it wasn’t unusual for White and Smith to stop by, but they both unusually big smiles on their faces.

Ms. Vee recalls saying, “Ok, what’s going on?”

White and Smith, who serve on Detroit Mercy’s Student Programming Board (SPB), couldn’t keep it in any longer. They told Ms. Vee students had voted to award her the Phenomenal Women’s Ashley Gray Legacy Award.

“I thought it was too much to award or honor me for something I think I’m supposed to be doing,” Ms. Vee said of winning the award. “I feel like this is what I’m supposed to do, not so much from the University or a social work perspective, but I’m talking about from God. I’ve worked very hard to get my life to this point. Most of the things I consider to be regrets in my life before I came here, and I had a ton of them, I now consider them the stepping stones to where I’m supposed to be and the work I’m supposed to be doing.”

White, who works in Ms. Vee’s office, elected not to vote for the award because she didn’t want anyone to think there was a bias. But once Ms. Vee won, no one was happier than White.

“I was excited just because she’s so student driven,” said White, SPB vice president. “She’s someone who the students can come to if they need a hug or someone to pray for them or just some encouraging words.

“She steps outside of her position. I don’t think she’s doing anything for attention; it’s just genuinely who she is as a person. We need that at Detroit Mercy because a lot of students aren’t from Michigan, and if they are, they’re still away from home. She’s reached out to athletes, who have trouble with traveling and maintaining school. She helps with homesickness. She’s just well-rounded and passionate about what she does. I really believe she deserved the award.”

Many Detroit Mercy students meet Ms. Vee when they move in as freshmen. Freshman year is an uncertain time for students, many of whom are away from home for the first time. Ms. Vee helps them acclimate and adjust, and then watches them grow.

“I watch parents, particularly mothers, who are so overwhelmed with emotion when they get here,” Ms. Vee said. “There are parents I speak to so regularly during the course of the summer that I feel like we’re friends by the time that they get here. They tell me, ‘I feel so much better that you’re going to be here to take care of my baby.’ I understand what they’re saying, but I love all of them.

“There’s so much more involved in coming to college than just coming to college, everything that these students have ever experienced or felt or loved or wanted in their life, it starts to implode on them as they’re moving in. Sometimes the reality doesn’t set in until they get here. Sometimes I can see that.

“I really have a love for people, and students deserve everything we can give them from a positive standpoint, sometimes that includes something maternal. I love doing that, but from that relationship, what I get is phenomenal. The feeling that a student, a person, feels a little safer knowing that they’re not alone or that they feel they have someone they can come and talk to, that’s the beauty of a connection because they bring so much to me. I get to listen to little stories, but I also watch them grow. Phenomenal is relevant on both sides.”

Ms. Vee didn’t take the typical path to working in Residence Life. She spent 22 years in the legal field, but had recently been laid off when she went on a midnight bike ride organized by Detroit Mercy.

She was blown away by the students she met and wanted to get more involved at Detroit Mercy.

Ms. Vee contacted Tim Hipskind, S.J. of the Institute for Leadership and Service and began volunteering there. Her volunteer work motivated her to go back to school, and she began working in Residence Life in a work study position, while she earned her degree in social work.

She was offered a position after graduation and flourished from the start.

“The fact she takes the time out of her busy day to just sit down and talk to students or even just allow students to sit in her office, it’s awesome,” said Smith, SPB president. “Sometimes I come in and I’m like ‘I don’t want to be bothered.’ She just lets me sit on her couch and that’s it. She doesn’t ask questions. Many students feel the same way. Her room and her presence are just so welcoming, you can relax. Once you’re around her, everything is ok, just her encouraging words, she always has something nice to say. But if you’re in the wrong and you need a little direction, she’ll let you know that, too. She’s really honest and up front with you.

“She’s a great role model, just who she is. She doesn’t try, some people try or think, ‘Maybe I should do this or act this way.’ She’s just naturally that way. She’s a natural born leader and encourager. She’s just a natural.”

The plaque for winning the award sits in Ms. Vee’s office, on the window sill, among her beloved plants. She looks at it often and admits sometimes she even gets emotional.

Ms. Vee never sought any recognition, but that’s part of what makes her phenomenal.

“It has become more important to me than I ever imagined, and a lot of it is because of how the students feel about it, this is something they vote on,” Ms. Vee said. “The students vote, this isn’t the administration or faculty, this all from the students. And with so many people on campus doing so many great things, to be singled out as the phenomenal woman, I still get kind of emotional when I think about it. I’m an emotional person. It sits in my window, and everyone who comes in looks at and they just go, ‘Wow, that is really beautiful.’ It’s the first award or acknowledgment I’ve ever received. For me, sometimes students pop in and say, ‘Ms. Vee, I just came to get a hug.’ That’s my reward. That gets me through the day.”

— By Dave Pemberton. Follow Detroit Mercy on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. Have a story idea? Let us know by submitting your idea.