Every homemaker knows the importance of the family table – the place we come together, share stories and connect with one another in meaningful ways. That is how we build family – and that is what makes a home a home.
And that’s why, at the College of Charleston, Lancie Affonso ’96 (M.S. ’08) has made sure everyone has a seat at the table.
“Pull up a chair,” he says, waving a student over to one of the high-top tables along the front window of the Liberty Street Fresh Food Company, where he and his first-year and first-generation students meet with student and alumni mentors twice a week to catch up, eat and share ideas. “Rather than have formal meetings, we have these informal mentoring cohorts, find out what each other is interested in, tell stories. That’s how we make connections.”
Affonso has been making connections around the College of Charleston’s cafeteria tables since 1992, when he first came to campus as an international student from Tanzania.
“The cafeteria is where I went to talk to people, to socialize and learn from people,” he says, likening both the cafeteria and the Cistern to the watering holes back home in Africa. “I tend to go to what I call ‘watering hole’ places, where people congregate and share news and experiences. There’s no better place on campus to connect than the cafeteria.”
Affonso has made connections all over campus – both between people and between academic areas. Not only does he teach in the computer science and the management and marketing departments, and the Honors College, he is also the director of the first-year Honors Entrepreneurship Living Learning Community (E-LLC) and serves on the Alumni Association Board of Directors. Then there are the 20-plus other roles he’s had at CofC.
That’s why talking to Affonso is like flipping through a Rolodex of CofC faculty, staff, alumni and students.
“I can put a name to everything I do – faculty and staff who impacted me as a student, students and alumni who’ve inspired me,” he says. “It’s all about those connections – that’s what makes us feel valued, feel included, feel like family. And that’s what makes the College feel like home.”
It’s hard to imagine Lancie Affonso anywhere else. In fact, if it weren’t for his Swahili accent, you’d never guess that there was a time when he didn’t call the College of Charleston home.
But before his fateful first day on campus, when he walked across the Cistern – unaware that such a faux pas could reroute his entire life path because of the superstition that students who crossed the Cistern before they graduated would never leave the College – Affonso’s home was a small house surrounded by a large garden on the rural outskirts of Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, where he lived with his parents and two sisters.
It was a decidedly “off-grid” life for someone now so plugged in, both socially and technologically.
“Think about it like camping: We had power, but most of the time it wasn’t working, and water shortages were common,” explains Affonso, whose daily chores included gardening, feeding the dogs and chickens, and getting fresh milk from the neighbor’s cows before taking the bus or his bike to school. When he wasn’t helping the family, he spent his days playing outside in the dirt, racing earthworms, making boats out of banana leaves, playing soccer or hockey and fishing on the shores of the Msimbazi River and Indian Ocean.
“Growing up in an unplugged world, we were inherently sustainable. We learned to be creative and make do with what we had, look for opportunities in everything – some call it necessity entrepreneurship.”
“Lancie was an entrepreneur from when we were young and constantly guiding me to look for opportunities even when I could see none,” says his sister Diana Carvalho ’02, noting that Lancie attended fourth through seventh grades in Arusha, Tanzania, and only came home for holidays. “But those holidays were filled with innovative ways to get into trouble with our parents. Thanks to Lancie, I learned how to create dams in our drain-ways outside our house during the rainy season and catch precious kambare [catfish] and perege [tilapia] and then create fishponds to let them grow to edible size.”
Educational opportunities were limited in Tanzania, but Affonso’s parents were determined that he would be the first in their family to finish not just high school, but college as well.
“My mother always valued education and placed a strong emphasis on lifelong learning,” he says. “She said to learn something new each day: ‘Don’t let a day go by without going out of your comfort zone.’ That’s why I continue my lifelong learning journey at CofC.”
He learned from books – especially the encyclopedias on science and how things work – that he found in the library at the American Embassy, where his mother worked with Fulbright scholars.
What he didn’t learn from books at his mother’s workplace, he learned from experience in his father’s carpentry shop. His father, who worked in a manufacturing office during the day but made cabinets with African carvings for the tourist market on the side, taught him about woodworking and entrepreneurship – leading to his first business venture, making wooden toys as a teenager.
“I learned how to do marketing, pitching and accounting – all the basics of starting a business,” says Affonso, adding that mentorship was key. “That’s something my parents always said is to talk to mentors – the value of finding mentors wherever I went and having meaningful conversations. This is how we make connections – through the human art of storytelling and also encouraging others to share their stories.”
Decades later, he’s still telling stories and making connections for his students and colleagues at the College of Charleston.
Affonso’s first connection to the College was a palmetto tree pictured on its academic catalog.
“It was this pink cover with the palmetto tree in front of the Robert Scott Small Library, and there was this parallel between the coconut trees in Dar es Salaam and that idyllic palmetto tree,” he recalls. “That palmetto tree spoke to me.”
It was, however, a handwritten note from a CofC Honors student that had the final word.
“It said, ‘Dear Lancie, Welcome to the U.S.! Can’t wait to meet you.’ That personalized touch sealed the deal for me,” says Affonso, who’d only applied to U.S. colleges after a yearslong student-led strike thwarted his plans to study geology at the University of Dar es Salaam. He was offered scholarships to several schools, “but knowing that someone cared enough in Charleston to make such a personal connection was all it took.”
And so, with only a backpack and a small suitcase, Affonso took the 8,000-mile leap of faith, leaving behind the only home he’d ever known. “I had no idea what to expect,” he recalls. “Everything was completely new – and strange.”
He didn’t know why the sorority girls were in a “rush” or why looking toward the ceiling didn’t seem to be the appropriate response when people asked, “What’s up?”
It wouldn’t be long, however, before Affonso would start to feel at home. He was quick to make friends – not just at the cafeteria, but in the Honors College and the student organizations he joined.
Lancie Affonso on his first day on campus in the Stern Center Food Court in 1992.
“I remember watching Lancie holding court when he was president of the International Club and thinking, Here’s a future leader. He’s going to be something,” recalls Chris Day ’95, associate professor of political science, who also roomed with Affonso on a Model UN trip to Harvard as an undergraduate. “We got along well, even though I was this hippie guy with long hair, and he was this straight-laced, tucked-in, put-together guy. He had his act together.”
That, Affonso says, was out of necessity: “I couldn’t party like the other students because I had a one-way ticket to the United States. My mother had sacrificed much of her pay for two years to help me pay for that ticket, so that put a lot of pressure on me because there was no return.”
And he kept up his end with a slew of on-campus jobs in the library computer lab (despite having never used a computer before coming to the College), the Learning Resource Center and residence life, among others. All told, Affonso worked six jobs his freshman year, all while taking Honors courses and trying to keep his Presidential Scholarship.
“I couldn’t have done it if it weren’t for the staff and faculty who invested in me – who connected me to scholarships, jobs, resources and, most of all, to a community,” he says. “Those connections are what gave me a family – a home away from home.”
It’s what attracted his younger sister to come to the College, too.
Lancie Affonso on graduation day at CofC in 1996.
“Lancie always talked about his individual teachers and mentors who championed him,” says Carvalho, who majored in communication at the College and is now the administration and operations manager for Sciex Limited back in Dar es Salaam. “The level of support and guidance he got from teachers and support staff – from campus security to the cafeteria and cleaning staff – convinced me to come to the College. CofC felt like home for both of us.”
Affonso left his newfound home with the same confidence in his destination that he had when he’d left his first. And this time he was leaving with a diploma, departmental honors and a sound piece of advice from his faculty mentors: “Pursue a career in international business with a software startup, and you’ll get paid to learn about new technology, manage global teams and travel the world – and you’ll get promoted quickly.”
Following their advice, he interned as an international business analyst for Sonoco Products while he earned his master’s in international business at the University of South Carolina. Upon graduating in 1998, he took a job at tech startup Datastream Systems and was quickly promoted – six times. He had assumed leadership of six areas made up of 124 people by the time it was sold a year and a half later – allowing him the financial stability to return home to what he loved – the College.
He returned in 2001, teaching first in the computer science department and eventually in five different academic departments – and somehow also managed to earn his M.S. in computer and information sciences at the College. Affonso’s unique blend of expertise in entrepreneurship, international business and computer and data science make him not just versatile, but also the ideal academic entrepreneur to find opportunities for innovative interdisciplinary collaboration.
“Everything I do is collaborative,” he says. “I just look for reasons to hang out with and learn from my friends.”
And he’s certainly found them – he’s developed partnerships with departments across campus over the years, claiming a seat at many a table.
He wasn’t always so outgoing, though, and his parents had to push him to get out and talk to people – something his daughter Malaika Affonso, now a freshman double-majoring in international studies and biochemistry at the College, knows all about.
“Growing up, he challenged me to go to CofC events – and he’d say, ‘Go out and talk to people,’ and then he’d just walk away,” she recalls. “It was out of my comfort zone, but it helped me make connections and talk to different people.”
His students can relate.
“Professor Affonso quickly took me under his wing and made it his mission to throw me into the fire headfirst,” recalls Leanna Conti ’19, an E-LLC alumna who continued to serve as a mentor. She adds that Affonso taught her the importance of “asking for uncomfortable opportunities, setting big, hairy, audacious goals [aka BHAGs], befriending the people in the room who knew what I didn’t and letting myself be led in directions
I wouldn’t take on my own.”
Being thrown into such conversations led Malaika in an unexpected direction, too.
“I was dead set on leaving home and getting out on my own,” she says, noting that it was the personal interactions that she had with students, faculty members and even CofC President Andrew Hsu that changed her mind at the last minute. “They say, ‘It’s not just the grades you make, but the hands you shake, as well,’ and there were so many valuable connections and resources available to me at the College.”
Not the least of which, of course, is her father – whose E-LLC office is not just right next door to his own freshman dorm room, but right next to hers as well.
“I walk by him every day,” says Malaika, noting that since she lives within the E-LLC, all her friends are “very familiar” with Affonso, whom they’ve already come to know as a mentor who is always happy to connect them to opportunities.
They’ve also come to know him for the way he starts every single class: “Happy Friday!”
“Because I love my job, every day is Friday in my world,” he laughs. “It’s one of my quirks.”
His other “quirk” is that you’ll never see him on campus wearing anything but a CofC T-shirt – unless it actually is Friday, in which case he’ll be wearing a Hawaiian shirt.
CofC gear and Hawaiian shirts aside, mentorship is what Affonso is most recognized for. That’s what matters most. It’s why – in addition to the guest alumni mentors – he has eight student mentors in his Entrepreneurship Theory and Practice class, sharing their experiences and ideas with the 18 first-year students.
“I just invite students to come in as mentors, and they get leadership training and opportunities while also giving back,” he says. “When students see the value in paying it forward through mentorship, that is how I know I’ve succeeded.”
“For Lancie, it’s all about the students,” says Affonso’s own longtime mentor, retired School of Business Dean Howard Rudd. “And giving back to them, as well as mentoring them along the way, is his dedication and life.”
His dedication to mentoring was recognized with the 2018 Demetria N. Clemons Distinguished Mentor Award, part of the College’s Excellence in Collegiate Education and Leadership (ExCEL) Awards, and the inaugural Distinguished Undergraduate Mentor Award in 2022.
“His gentle approach to up-leveling students’ mindsets about what they are able to learn, achieve and change is what makes him incomparable as a mentor,” says Conti. “While I experienced his mentorship firsthand, I also got to watch as he extended his generosity to every student who sat in his classroom. Whether you asked for it or not, Lancie was going to have an impact on your life.”
Photos by Mike Ledford
Affonso’s impact on the lives of his students – and on the College as a whole – is undeniable.
“He’s part of the fabric of the College of Charleston now,” says Day, the political science professor. “Everything he does is because he really, truly loves the College. It has become part of his identity at this point.”
Indeed, Affonso has found more than a home at the College of Charleston – more than a connection or even a family. He’s found his role within it.
“What I do here is to know people, listen to people, help them share their stories and connect them,” he says. “I’m here to create a community.”
And knowing that purpose is what brings it all home.