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Professor and student having discussion in office

It takes a liberal arts college

Wofford’s new provost leads conversation on mentoring

In grade school Wofford’s new provost, Dr. Mike Sosulski, was typical of the type of student who enrolls at Wofford. He did his homework, participated in class, was involved in drama and the band, and took a foreign language because he heard the teacher was cool. That teacher became a mentor, and Sosulski is now at Wofford shepherding that same wonder of the world and love of learning.

“Terry Strohm was one of the most influential people in my early development,” says Sosulski. “She was freshly out of a master’s program at Purdue — young and energetic — and comfortable owning what she didn’t know. She had been reading the newspaper and saw that there was going to be an exhibition of German expressionist art in downtown Chicago. She came into our class with the article and said, ‘I don’t know anything about expressionist art, but I think we could learn about this together.’ I found that incredibly brave.”

Sosulski relished the thoughts of an academic adventure. The entire class, including Strohm, researched the topic and artists in the exhibit. They learned much and taught each other.

“Watching the wonder in her eyes as we watched her learn was something I’ll never forget,” says Sosulski. “It’s the reason I became a teacher.”

Strohm’s explicit mission in Sosulski’s life was to teach German, but she modeled behaviors, listened and fostered an intellectual curiosity that also placed her in the role of mentor, something that Sosulski has spent a lot of time thinking about during his academic career — as a teacher, curriculum innovator, associate provost and now in the top academic position at Wofford.

“One person cannot be a mentor in every way, so it’s more productive to develop a mentoring tree,” says Sosulski. “This jibes with what we’re learning in positive psychology; people who live happy and fulfilled lives have broad social networks, and they keep them active.”

According to Sosulski, really good mentoring requires sitting with someone during the “struggle.” It requires listening, sharing experiences and modeling effective behaviors. It’s also a hallmark of the Wofford experience and one of the things that brought him to the college.

“We have a really wonderful faculty,” says Sosulski. “They are experts in their fields and dedicated teachers and scholars. I’ve heard this from everyone in the Wofford community — students, alumni, people on the board of trustees — the faculty is the foundation of the Wofford experience, and I see my role as strengthening and supporting the faculty as they grow in their disciplines and teaching practices.”

Sosulski values the contributions of college staff and student leaders in their roles as teachers and mentors in residence life and co-curricular areas as well. 

“Our students have powerful and life-changing interactions with everyone in the Wofford community,“ he says. “The old chestnut about the liberal arts educating the whole person holds true. Wofford does that well in all areas. I see students supported academically, personally and socially, and I’m excited to be a part of that.”

Sosulski also was attracted to Wofford’s global and international focus in the general education curriculum and the sense of community that pervades student programming, faculty and staff relationships, and the alumni network.

“This is a community that wants to be together and has found structured ways to ensure that,” says Sosulski, who is spending time listening to college stakeholders as a way to guide his priorities in the coming years. In a letter Sosulski sent out to campus, he lists the following as themes to drive planning:

  • Investing in our faculty and fine academic programs.
  • Enhancing the quality of a Wofford education through integration of curricular and co-curricular programs.
  • Working together to create a diverse and inclusive community in which all of us feel a true sense of belonging.
  • Building and strengthening our system of shared governance, the vital compact that keeps Wofford moving ever forward.

Sosulski continues to spend time getting to know Wofford and its people and will work with the president’s cabinet and board of trustees to determine implementation priorities from the Strategic Vision and Vision in Action plan.

“When I first came to the campus and interviewed, I was impressed with the college’s Strategic Vision. It’s one of the most elegant planning documents I’ve ever seen. It addresses the entire experience — from the students to the faculty and staff to future information technology needs and curricular plans — and how they all integrate with each other,” says Sosulski.

Sosulski comes to Wofford from 12 years at Kalamazoo College in Southwest Michigan. There he taught German and served as chair of the Department of German Studies, dean of the sophomore class and most recently as associate provost. His wife, Dr. Cori Crane, is assistant professor of German at the University of Texas at Austin, where she coordinates the first two years of undergraduate German study. Sosulski also has two teenage sons.

“I am standing on the shoulders of many fine leaders who have occupied this office — Dr. Dan Maultsby ’61, Dr. David Wood and most recently Dr. Dennis Wiseman,” says Sosulski. “Cori and I have experienced the unfailing warmth and generosity of spirit that are characteristic of Wofford College, and we are delighted to take up residence in the Kilgo-Clinkscales home on campus. … We are indeed proud to be new Terriers!”

Continuing the conversation on mentoring

For the Wofford Centennial celebration in 1954, Professor Kenneth Coates wrote: “Somehow, in spite of all the complexities, the individual student still manages to come in contact with the individual teacher. And occasionally, as in the old days, a student goes out and by words and deeds makes a professor remembered for good intentions, and a college respected for the quality of its workmanship.”

The complexities Coates refers to are no less intricate today, and still, his words ring just as true as they did then, or 100 years before that. Relationships have always shaped the Wofford experience, and the college is still finding ways to build trust and offer a willing supply of mentors for students so that they will one day offer the same support to others.

According to Dr. Carol Wilson ’81, professor of English and coordinator of academic advising, the college is full of people who spend time thinking about building relationships with students. Wofford also has systems in place so that these mentoring experiences are available to everyone. For example, Wofford’s communitywide culture of mentoring starts before first-year students ever arrive on campus. 

“We build trust by providing consistent messages from the beginning,” says Wilson. “Mentoring is a relationship of mutual responsibility, of reciprocity in action and care. We put the resources out there, then we do what we can to convince, educate and encourage students to take advantage of them.”

Students find mentors in athletics, Greek life, diversity and inclusion, co-curricular programming, professional development, community-based learning, wellness initiatives, undergraduate research, entrepreneurship training, residence life and in the classroom. 

“Wofford provides fertile ground for these types of relationships,” says Wilson. “Looking back I realize how many Wofford people I consider essential to my growth. Mentoring me may not have been their specific work, but their influence has stayed with me and continues to shape my work with current students.”

Guiding the transition from high school to college

“There’s an old line in the faculty handbook that specifically says that faculty are to develop ‘friendships’ with students. It doesn’t seem like something we’d say any more, but I’d say we all have experiences with that very thing happening,” says Dr. Boyce Lawton, dean of student success. “We develop quality relationships that last.”

Lawton works with Wilson and Associate Dean of Students Beth Wallace ’82 to ensure that students have opportunities to connect with a variety of students, faculty and staff from the start.

“The first six weeks of the college experience are the most critical,” says Wallace. That’s why the college puts programs and publications in place to help students learn how to find resources and their first guides. The college offers a special FYI (first-year interface) website and a Gold Guide that gives students everything they need to know to move in and prepare for their first day of classes. The college also offers summer and pre-session orientations; student success teams made up of faculty advisers, staff guides, student orientation leaders and personal librarians; six living and learning communities; and a required one-hour FYI class that each student takes during the first semester. “We think strategically and deliberately about helping our students find ways to get involved, and we’re always looking at how we can do this better,” says Wallace.

Planting the seeds of mentoring in the classroom

“The seeds of mentoring relationships are often developed in the classroom,” says Ben Cartwright, assistant professor of accounting, business and finance, who comes from an accounting background and model of mentoring. Cartwright has been at Wofford for three years, and when he wanted help with grading standards or with tips on engaging students outside of the classroom, he found his own mentors in associate professors of accounting, business and finance Andrew Green and Lillian Gonzalez ’91.

“After sitting in on several of Andrew Green’s classes, I learned to make assignments challenging enough to force students to come to me after class,” says Cartwright. “When you’re sitting with three or four students and discussing a project, that’s when you really begin to build those relationships.”

Learning together

When Dr. Deno Trakas, Hoy Professor of Literature, approached Katherine Howell ’17, an English and government major from Greenville, S.C., about doing summer research in the humanities, she was skeptical, but trusted her mentor and said yes to applying for a South Carolina Independent Colleges and Universities research grant.

“With his extensive experience as a writer, editor and professor, Dr. Trakas has been a valuable source of advice and encouragement,” she says. “I probably would never have pursued creative writing had it not been for the encouragement of professors like George Singleton and Dr. Trakas. They have devoted so much time and effort to my novel, listening to my frustrated rants about struggles with progressing the plot, offering suggestions about grammar and character development, guiding me through the creative process with unceasing patience and support. Their experience as writers makes their advice all the more valuable to me.”

Trakas says he and Howell are assisting one another throughout the research and revision process as they write works of historical fiction that they hope to publish upon completion.

“I think it’s wonderful and unusual,” says Trakas. “It’s unusual in my field — creative writing — to try to figure out how to collaborate because writing is somewhat of an individual thing. But we’re finding ways to work together, to help each other, and that’s always inspiring.”

Asking tough questions

“We’re at Wofford College because we want to get to know our students,” says Dr. Bob Moss, McCalla Professor of Biology. “We do senior exit interviews, and invariably our majors say that the relationships they form with faculty and the advising they receive are invaluable.” Moss advises both first-year students and majors, and he puts lots of time and effort into both, which suits him just fine. “Knowing that you’ve supported a student, whether academically, emotionally, professionally or socially, is my favorite part of my work.” 

Moss is the first to admit that advising and mentoring often mean challenging students to think critically about their future. “I even make first-year students think about their plan,” he says. “I’m intentional about that and about looking at their performance. A junior with a 2.8 GPA who wants to go to medical school may need a backup plan.” 

According to Moss, mentoring students doesn’t stop at graduation. “I’ve had two or three graduates applying to medical school this summer. Advising sometimes goes on until they have the career that they want. At this point it’s mostly about reassurance.”

Building trust and bridges

“I drop whatever I’m doing if a student wants to see me,” says Jennifer Gutierrez-Caldwell, director of diversity and inclusion. “Students need to know that you understand where they’re coming from. When they see you supporting them and their causes or cleaning up with them after an event, you slowly but surely build trust.” Gutierrez-Caldwell believes in empowering students to act as their own agents, whether it be about opportunities to study abroad, financial aid questions or internship advice. “I encourage students from diverse backgrounds to take advantage of everything Wofford offers. What makes Wofford so unique is that everyone is here to help you. A lot of my work involves connecting students to different people on campus and building bridges for students.”

Gutierrez-Caldwell says that she has benefited from mentors in every part of her life. “I was a first-generation college student whose parents did not speak English, so I relied on mentors to help guide me through the educational system,” she says. “Wofford does that through the Transitions program, which pairs first-year students from underrepresented backgrounds with student mentors who help them navigate their social acclimation to college. Students do a great job of mentoring other students because they are authentic voices. Students need those peer mentors as well.”

One of those peer mentors is Caitlynn Myer ’18, a sociology major from Hickory, N.C., who also serves as president of Transitions. 

“The relationships formed between mentors and mentees are strong, and I believe they not only help the mentees grow at Wofford, but also the mentors,” says Myer. “While the emphasis is placed on students of color, all students are encouraged and welcomed to participate in various workshops, seminars and programs that Transitions offers. It’s designed to enhance the experience of all students.”

Maintaining perspective

“When I think of how my character was shaped, obviously my parents had the biggest impact, but after them, my first thought is my coaches. That’s the job of a coach,” says Angie Ridgeway, head coach of the Wofford women’s golf team. “Not many people who prop you up and feed you with positivity will also tell you when you’re doing wrong, and that means on and off the course.”

Ridgeway works with her student-athletes on their time-management skills as well as their golf game. 

“They know I expect them to give everything they have to golf, but it’s still more important that they give everything they have to their education,” she says. “I like to think that being a part of a team — being a student-athlete here at Wofford — shapes them as individuals and equips them with the tools they’ll need after college. As much as I want to have a successful and winning team, I never lose sight of what’s most important.”

Ridgeway has two graduates — Anne Marie Covar ’14 and Lauren Dunbar ’15 — now attending LPGA Q-School, their next step toward playing professionally. While she’s proud of that, she’s most proud that her student-athletes have gone on to mentor others in all professions and walks of life.

Wade Lang ’83, assistant head football coach and offensive coordinator, believes in the village approach to mentoring. Like any good mentor, he doesn’t claim to know everything, but he’s excellent at helping the student-athletes on the college’s football team make connections across campus. The success shows in top graduation rates and successful graduates.

“They’re 18- to 22-year-olds. Some of them need attention; some need to be left alone. All of them have left home and are here to create a new life. We want to help them prepare for their future, but we can’t do it for them,” says Lang.

According to Lang, the football team does a lot of peer mentoring. Each incoming student is matched with another player who knows what it takes to succeed on the field and in the classroom.

“We handpick mentors who have been successful and who we can count on to show our recruits how to do things right,” says Lang. “They also know that their coaches are here for them 24/7.”

Raising the stakes

A mentoring component is built into the new Robert D. Atkins Venture Capital Fund, much like the R. Michael James Student Managed Investment Fund, which has been providing Wofford students with real-world investment experience since it was founded in 2008. 

The Atkins Fund, made possible by a $100,000 gift from Robbie Atkins ’65, will allow students to participate in the assessment and development of new start-up businesses as part of Wofford College’s partnership with Concepts to Companies, a venture capital fund based in Greenville, S.C. Under the oversight of Dr. Philip Swicegood, R. Michael James Professor and Chair of the Department of Accounting, Business and Finance, and John Warner, managing partner of Concepts to Companies, students will learn to navigate the challenges of selecting new investment opportunities. They then get hands-on opportunities to work with the new start-ups as they develop new products and target new clients. It’s the ideal recipe for the development of mentoring relationships.

“When I was an undergrad, I would have loved to have this opportunity,” says Swicegood, who worked in banking and for the U.S. Treasury before coming to Wofford. “When students invest real money, they feel real pressure. Students need to feel butterflies in their stomachs. It builds character.”

Reaching back

Jodie W. McLean, CEO of EDENS, a national real estate development corporation, joins the Rev. Will Malambri ’98, pastor at Central United Methodist Church in Florence, S.C., and James Meadors ’81, president of Meadors Inc. in Charleston, S.C., as newly elected members of the Wofford Board of Trustees (read more at McLean says that Joe Edens, the founder of EDENS, was one of her earliest significant mentors. “When I was starting my career, I would often make a point to meet him at the coffee pot at 5:45 a.m. I usually had him to myself, and I would use that time to pepper him with questions about our business, projects I was working on and deals I was watching. He helped me learn our business inside and out, but more importantly he taught me the values of our company by how he approached our business. Intellect and hard work will create opportunities, but character will define success.”

Edens trusted and empowered McLean, something that helped her realize the value of other mentors. 

“We cannot achieve our greatest personal or professional potential alone,” she says. “It’s important to have people in your inner circle who both cheer you on and push you to be better — trusted advisers who are willing to have tough conversations with you. Surrounding ourselves with people who can support us and teach us is the best step we can take to ensure your success ... great opportunities for personal and career growth emerge from these networks.”

McLean also says that it’s a responsibility of those who have benefited from a mentor to “reach back and mentor those coming along with the same openness and confidence.”

The Rev. Will Malambri, pastor of Central United Methodist Church in Florence, S.C., and a new Wofford College Trustee shares his thoughts on mentoring.

Q: Why do you think it’s important for college students to build a network of mentors, advisers, teachers and coaches? 

I consider my time at Wofford to have been extremely important in helping me become a leader.  I did not have a tremendous amount of self-confidence coming out of high school.  I arrived on campus surrounded by valedictorians and salutatorians and high school class presidents and team captains and then there was me.  I was none of those things. 

I knew my family was investing a great deal in my education and I wanted to make the most of the opportunity.  Chaplain Talmage Skinner and Presbyterian Campus Minister Cindy Edwards showed an early interest in me.  They didn’t just ask me to attend the Methodist and Presbyterian meetings, they asked me to help lead them.  They gave me responsibilities for the groups and made it obvious that they believed I could lead well. 

From my first days on Wofford’s campus, I was encouraged to be a leader, not just an observer.  The support that Dr. Skinner, Cindy, and others gave me helped me to get the self-confidence needed to develop into a leader.

As someone exploring ordained ministry, I was particularly drawn to Dr. Skinner’s “ministry of presence.”  He always had his door opened and would drop whatever work he was up to whenever I appeared in the doorway or plopped down in the Wofford rocking chair by his desk.  I also admired how he made an effort to know as many people on campus as possible.  He loved the athletes, actors, Greeks, musicians, maintenance staff, cooks, faculty, everyone. 

Dr. Skinner offered Holy Communion every Tuesday afternoon and if you showed up to receive the sacrament he would make sure he had a meaningful conversation with you after the service.  He did the same on Sunday mornings, always offering worship, regardless of how many people might show up.  He held the Sunday services in Leonard Auditorium because, as he said, “Even though we would, most weeks, fit in the Chapel, I never want anyone to think we aren’t ready to receive as many students as want to show up.” 

Dr. Skinner was ready to receive and minister to as many students as he could and that continues to be an influential model for me. 

How does Wofford excel in this area?

Humility is an underrated virtue.  People my age and younger have been made to think we have all the answers or, at least, all the access we need to get them.  I’m grateful for the access I have had to information and methods for reaching better conclusions, but to think that we have achieved this without the gifts of those who have helped us ask the right questions, learn how to pursue answers, and the humility to accept that we will not get there alone or without the contributions of others is not only a fallacy, it’s also a disgrace. 

Where would we be without the philosophy professors pushing us to revisit our preconceived notions, the biology professors teaching us our interconnectedness, the languages department teaching us cultures, not just languages, our hall mates pushing us to see things from another point of view? 

The influence these persons (and many others) made on me during and since my Wofford days has been profound.  It has been tremendously important to me to recall conversations had during my college days and to have persons to call on since.  There is no way to calculate how often I have been influenced by them as I have grown in my career.  There are certain people I have called on when I have been discouraged, uncertain, frustrated, and celebratory.  I have been able to ask this unofficial, yet invaluable, group of mentors and friends for advice and support and they have always come through for me.  Any student smart enough to be part of Wofford’s family should be wise enough to develop lifelong relationships of mentoring and support. 

Do you have any other thoughts you’d like to share with regard to mentoring relationships?

Wofford’s community is small enough that students are forced to engage with people from a variety of backgrounds and world-views. Before I knew someone’s political persuasion, I liked and respected him or her. By the time we were discussing divisive issues, we were already friends.  Rather than sequester myself with those who would agree with me, I had to grapple with a perspective opposing mine from someone who I admired.  The gift of such an environment is that I could no longer distance myself from those I disagreed with by telling myself they were ignorant or angry or mean.  I had to sort through how it was that people who were smart and grateful and kind were also coming to a conclusion different than mine.  Wofford’s size, commitment to deeper exploration of issues, and intellectual, emotional, and spiritual integrity makes it an ideal community for growth.  Having experienced years in that kind of environment, developing relationships of all types, graduates are prepared for a life where, when it works as it should, these kind of conversations continue and respect for a variety of world views is possible, even as commitment to the one the graduate comes to is deeply held and cogently argued.

by Jo Ann Mitchell Brasington ’89 and Andrew J. Levin ’16, Fall 2016