Rhode Island Honors Prof Receives Sondheim Teaching Award

Editor’s Note: This post was generated by the University of Rhode Island, contact Dave Lavallee.

In the last 21 years, students have sent so many letters of appreciation to University of Rhode Island Professor Cheryl Foster that they fill a big cardboard box.

But now the entire nation knows that Foster, a philosophy professor and associate director of the URI Honors Program, is one of the best teachers in the land.

In fact, it was former student and Rhodes Scholar Rachel Walshe who nominated the Wakefield resident for a Kennedy Center/Stephen Sondheim Inspirational Teacher Award. On March 22, Foster was named one of only seven teachers nationally to receive the Sondheim Award and one of only two university professors to receive the award.

The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C., announced the 2013 winners from a pool of hundreds of nominees. The awards were created in honor of Stephen Sondheim’s 80th birthday in 2010.

“Teachers define us,” said Sondheim in a release issued by the Kennedy Center. “In our early years when we are still being formed, they often see in us more than we see in ourselves, more even than our families see, and as a result, help us evolve into what we ultimately become.”

That certainly was true for Walshe, a 2000 URI graduate who earned a Rhodes Scholarship in 2001, and is now a free-lance director who just directed an acclaimed production of Anne Boleyn at the Sandra Feinstein Gamm Theatre in Pawtucket.

When she got word of her Rhodes Scholarship a little over a decade ago, Walshe called Foster first.

“She was my first phone call that fateful day. Not to my mother or to my father. But to Dr. Cheryl Foster, the woman who I can say without a shred of doubt is the single most influential person in my life – inside the classroom and out,” Walshe said in her nomination letter posted on the Kennedy Center/Sondheim website.

“Cheryl is more than a teacher. She is an activist; a revolutionary waging class warfare on a system rigged against kids like me,” said Walshe, a child of divorced parents raised on public assistance.

Her letter said she went to a string of mediocre schools in working class towns, and she was the first person in her family to go to a four-year college straight out of high school.

“And now, I was going to Oxford. Against all odds, I won a Rhodes Scholarship. I looked at my competitors from Yale, Harvard, Princeton, and Amherst and it was crystal clear: this day had been made possible by the unrelenting commitment of a single, transformative teacher.”

Walshe met Foster in 1997 while taking existentialism at URI.

“As demanding as she is passionate, Cheryl requires the same high level of intellectual rigor whether you are a dean’s daughter or a mechanic’s son. Her fearless delivery of the carpe diem message of existential philosophy to her working class students was my call to action: Be moved. Be inspired. But for God’s sake, don’t be lazy!”

Walshe said that is why she is a theater director today. “Cheryl taught me that whether you are rich or poor, black or white, old or young, the way to the brain is through the heart. In her honor, I strive to create important theater that inspires my audiences to feel and think.”

Foster said comments like Walshe’s and so many others strike at the heart of what she does—work to help students develop so they can discover their own goals.
A founder of URIs National Scholarship and Academic Opportunity Office, where she worked until 2005, Foster recently returned to the Honors Program as associate director with a special academic advising role for freshmen and sophomores.

“I have a whole box of notes from students who have written to me over the years,” said Foster, the 1996 URI Foundation Teaching Excellence Award winner. “I have kept them all. On my hard days, I go look at some of them and they remind me why I do what I do. The students are very generous.”

Foster is also the recipient of an American Philosophical Association’s Teaching Award Citation in 1998, and the College of Arts and Sciences Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Advising in 2008.

Donald H. DeHayes, URI provost and vice president for academic affairs, said in a note of congratulations to Foster, “This is a wonderful and highly deserved honor and it is particularly meaningful that you were nominated by one of your former students. On behalf of all of URI, congratulations and thank you for the passion and inspiration that you bring to your work as a teacher and scholar.”

“Dr. Cheryl Foster is a treasured colleague and phenomenal teacher and scholar who challenges students to pursue their dreams,” said Winifred Brownell, dean of URI’s College of Arts and Sciences. “Students praise the transformational nature of her teaching and advising and describe her as passionate, creative, brilliant, articulate, inspirational, accessible, and engaging.”

Foster said that every day she feels grateful to be part of a community where the choice to teach creatively is taken seriously.

“Over the years my work has improved tangibly due to investments made in that work by my department and college, the provost’s office, the president, the Honors Program and the URI Foundation,” Foster said.

As an example, Foster has on several occasions taken students to the Gamm Theatre and arranged to have the actors and director meet with the class afterward, or to art galleries and talks with artists thanks to the College of Arts and Sciences Excellence Fund. On other occasions she has awarded prizes for various accomplishments (not all academic) in her 300-person Introduction to Philosophy class. The grand prize was always a URI basketball game in the President’s suite.

“Still again the Honors Program has supported in myriad ways the development of courses and experiments that extend a student’s education beyond the normal classroom,” said Foster as she thanked Economics Professor Richard McIntyre, current honors director, and Philosophy Professor Galen Johnson, the previous director, for having faith in her “wacky” ideas.

“And through it all, the Philosophy Department and the URI Foundation have underwritten various endeavors and expenditures that truly enriched my classroom. I am always astonished by the Foundation’s forward-thinking generosity and faith in what we do, and always thankful for my department’s collective commitment to excellence in teaching.”