Major changes are underway with the Honors College’s merit scholarship group, now known as the Charleston Fellows Program.
The program, formerly known as the Aiken Fellow Society, has a new name aimed at disassociating the group from the legacy of its original namesake. It also, as of this past spring, has a new strategic plan designed to chart the program’s evolution over the coming years.
To learn more about what these changes mean for the Charleston Fellows, we sat down with two people who helped to craft the strategic plan—Emily Wiesler ‘21, a Fellow and President of the Charleston Fellows student executive board, and Beth Meyer-Bernstein, Dean of the Honors College.
Why was this a good time to develop a strategic plan for the Charleston Fellows Program?
Beth Meyer-Bernstein (BMB): My predecessor, Dean Trisha Folds-Bennett, had really been the creative force behind this program since its inception in 2008. When she announced last year she was leaving to become the Provost at UVA-Wise, we knew we would need to formalize a vision that would keep the Charleston Fellows Program moving forward. But what really started this process was that we’d heard from students, particularly the program’s executive board, that they had all these ideas about how to improve the student experience. There was a lot of creative energy coming from the students and it was important to put their ideas into action. With the program name change on the horizon and a College-wide strategic planning in process, it was the perfect opportunity to re-examine the program’s purpose in the form of a strategic plan.
Emily Wiesler (EW): The executive board was inspired by the school-wide strategic planning process to reach out and voice our suggestions for the Charleston Fellows Program. We were invited to be a part of the strategic planning committee, which was very exciting. I don’t think any of us realized how many people agreed that the program needed to be updated, nor did we expect our passions to be met by such a wide range of program stakeholders.
The planning committee was made up of faculty, staff, current students, and program alumni. Why was it important to hear from so many different stakeholders? How was the group able to work together?
EW: At its most basic level, the Charleston Fellows Program was created to help students. We felt that our ideas and voices needed to be heard. The program was working, but we felt that there was more that could be done to teach and prepare us for the professional and academic worlds.
BMB: The student voice was invaluable, but it was also critical to hear as many perspectives as possible so that we could create a holistic strategic plan that is representative of the program. The committee met weekly throughout the spring 2020 semester, and there were always lively discussions. We dissected every aspect of the program. The process, which took nearly a year, was a testament to the collaborative spirit of the Honors College, with faculty, staff, and students all working together!
EW: Personally, I enjoyed hearing from the alumni on the strategic planning committee. It was interesting to hear their thoughts about how the program should maintain relationships with its graduates, especially since I will be graduating soon. Ever since I was a first-year student, I’ve been hearing stories from seniors and alumni about the impact this program has had on people.
What are the goals of the strategic plan?
EW: During my visit to campus for the Honors College Interview Weekend I met so many awesome student leaders from the Charleston Fellows Program and I couldn’t wait to interact with them during my first year. When I arrived at the College, however, there was no infrastructure in place to create relationships within the program. There was no real sense of community, and that was something I really wanted to change.
BMB: Yes, we had heard consistently that Fellows wanted more interaction with one another, and more meaningful experiences with their peers. The program had evolved beyond its initial design, which is why we created a new mission statement that broadened the program’s purpose, and expanded the definition of what a successful Fellow looks like.
Are there components of the strategic plan that have already been implemented?
BMB: We’ve already started implementing new ideas into existing programming, such as our professional development workshops and guest speaker series. We’ll start rolling out new events this spring, and plan to include a social event for Charleston Fellows Program alumni. We plan to enhance the summer enrichment resources available to the Fellows. Other longer-term initiatives are in the works, including group travel and a course specifically designed for the Charleston Fellows.
EW: We just started our peer-to-peer mentorship program this fall! The mentorship program works to pair an incoming first-year student with a current student that can guide them and advise them throughout their time at the college. We hope that creating deeper, more impactful relationships between Fellows will increase interest and dedication to the program.
BMB: We’re excited about things like the mentorship program, because one of the ideas that came out of this process was to give students, specifically the executive board, more agency over the Charleston Fellows experience. We want them to have a seat at the table in making organizational decisions.
EW: A first-year student told me that she was excited about her time at the College because all four years in Charleston Fellows were all laid out. There was something to look forward to every year. That was surprising to me because I wasn’t expecting positive feedback so quickly. I thought that we would present the plan and then people would respond to it as each piece was implemented. It was encouraging to have someone be excited about the great things to come.
What is your vision for the Charleston Fellows Program moving forward?
EW: When I think of Charleston Fellows, I picture a group of leaders having an informed and important discussion about issues and possible solutions. With the strategic plan, we hope to recruit and nurture as many changemakers to the College as possible and further foster intellectual curiosity. I’d love to see the program find other ways to make this dream a reality, so we can connect students to each other, facilitate an atmosphere of trust and curiosity, and provide resources and programming over a wide range of topics.
BMB: Emily is spot on! I’ll add that I’d like to see us increase the number and diversity of students participating in the program, using philanthropic means to enhance the program’s scholarships. Financial support will be critical to improving student access to things like research and study abroad, and to elevate professional development programming. I envision all Charleston Fellows having access to opportunities that will provide them with the experiences and the network they need to be successful leaders in their community or profession. The quality of this program and its students is well recognized, but I believe we can do more to make the experience more inclusive.