Fran Welch, College of CharlestonAt the College, we pride ourselves on the pivotal and long-lasting relationships formed between our professors and students. As you’ll see in the experience of this alumnus, our faculty members are dedicated to opening doors of opportunity, not only in their respective subject matters, but also in life.

by Zac Viscidi ’10

First steps, first tries, first days, first calls … first dates: Let’s face it, firsts can be a little intimidating. They can mark the beginning of something huge, something life-changing, but they can also mark defeat, failure, the end of a dream.

At first, my dream job was to be a chicken nugget – that dream died when I realized the inherent occupational hazards of the job. Shortly after, I fell in love with teaching. I didn’t teach my G.I. Joes to stand in line or recite the alphabet or anything like that, but I did pretend to carry a calculator everywhere I went: 10-digit by 10-digit multiplication? I knew it! Easy! Correcting people on their math, pointing out the error of their ways, redirecting, yelling and even doling out punishments, I did all the things a young child naively thinks a teacher does. The quirk rapidly devolved into a nuisance, but my parents never let on. They encouraged my dream and, when the time came, shipped me 800 miles south from Wellesley, Mass., to the College.

When I met Fran Welch, dean of the School of Education, Health, and Human Performance, things went much better.

It was my first semester at the College. I had signed up for a dual-credit class that combined public speaking and my first-year seminar, Public Education in the 21st Century, with Dean Welch and Paula Egelson (then director of the school’s Center for Partnerships to Improve Education) tag-teaching the course.

Now, the first time you walk into a room full of college women is nerve-racking enough for most freshman guys. Having to speak in front of the class – and being graded on how eloquent your oration is – isn’t extraordinarily relaxing, either. But, the first time I heard Dean Welch speak to the class, I was put at ease. Everything, from her friendly tone to her wide knowledge of the subject matter, made it clear that she was going to be a great influence.

That semester – as the class navigated the reading lists, lectures, midnight library visits, presentations, debates and speeches – I developed both friendships and rivalries with the other students. Despite the different positions we took on our subject matter, we managed to create a community built on shared passion – all because we had Dean Welch as our center point of strong views and positivity.

During my junior year, when I was working as a first-year experience peer facilitator (PF), I realized the full extent of Dean Welch’s impact on the future of public education. I’d been nominated to teach freshmen – alongside another PF and Dean Welch – in the same First-Year Seminar I’d taken two short years earlier. The other PF and I routinely questioned the best methods to teach the class. However, with the dean’s help, we were able to run a challenging, yet rewarding class. Just as she’d done in my class, Dean Welch fostered open communication, reflection and drive – working with us to create engaging experiences for the students and initiating academic reflection and analysis of their anecdotal experiences with the education system. We encouraged and helped them believe in their ability to make lasting changes in educational policy. That classroom was the first step for many aspiring teachers, and it started with Dean Welch.

The next year, in fall 2009, Dean Welch asked me to help facilitate new beginnings for another group of students. Once again, working with the College’s Center for Excellence in Peer Education, we took 12 excited freshmen to Washington, D.C., to learn about educational advocacy and service learning. In addition to touring the Capitol and the Smithsonians – Washington’s must-sees – we followed the dean’s demanding itinerary of meeting with premier educational researchers. This included a sit-down with Kati Haycock, president of The Education Trust. Taking cues from those around them, the students navigated the meetings, and – demonstrating a strong desire to influence the field of education – they demanded answers to some tough questions. It was the dean’s influence that encouraged them not to shrink away in the face of adversity; she had introduced them to a mentality of persistence and devotion that would serve everyone well in their future years. She had fostered yet another community of involved students. Once again, the dean had helped students in those pivotal firsts.

Getting hired after graduating is a daunting task. Having moved back home to Massachusetts, I was unemployed, broke and two days from insanity. I wanted to make it back to the Holy City, but – without a job – that didn’t seem to be the best decision for me. After a series of failed interviews, I was disheartened and ready to take a retail job at any place that would have me.

But before that, I decided to contact Dean Welch. The dean helped me make connections through the College’s alumni system, and, eventually, I met Anthony Dixon ’00. That introduction led me to a middle school teaching position within the Charleston County School District: my first job as a college graduate.

Dean Welch and the College had placed me on the precipice – that moment of change in an organization. At the time, Anthony, a first-year principal, had plans to turn around Sanders-Clyde Creative Arts, a failing school in downtown Charleston. That was four years ago. Since then, Anthony, the staff and I have worked within Charleston’s Eastside community to enact a number of positive changes. The school has experienced excellent growth, and has gone from an “at-risk” rating to a “good” rating. It now has an algebra program, and has even sent its first students to Charleston County’s premier and nationally ranked high school, Academic Magnet. The journey is not over, and it is a continued struggle, but I consistently rely on the College and the connections I made in my years there to aid myself and my students.

I am especially thankful that – through a series of successive, small moments – I have remained in contact with Dean Welch. Today, the time requirements of full-time teaching are a vacuum, so I am always grateful and fortunate to be called for an event or given an opportunity to strengthen the bond with my alma mater. Whether I am attending basketball games, alumni socials, fundraising galas or A Charleston Affairs, the dean’s face is always one of the first I seek out.

Dean Welch has a gift for getting the firsts in life right. Time and time again, she sets the gears in motion. She has a knack for cultivating relationships, building bridges and making things come together. And – ever since I first met her – she’s been making things come together for me as a teacher.

– Zac Viscidi ’10 is an English language arts teacher at Sanders-Clyde Creative Arts School in Charleston.