Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Director of first-year programs passes on love of learning

By Courtney Westlake

In 1981, at the age of 41, Dr. Marcellus Leonard was working in retail and found himself out of a job.

He decided to take a college course in creative writing with no plan to obtain a degree. Eight years later, he walked out of Illinois State University with a Ph.D. in the teaching of writing.

“I discovered not only that I was a pretty good student but also that I loved writing and was pretty good at teaching others how to write,” Leonard said. “I decided to take maybe a course at the graduate level and found it came easily so I got a master's as well. I went to the doctoral program at ISU and found that I loved it even more.”

With a Ph.D. in hand, Leonard moved to Springfield to begin a new career with Sangamon State University 19 years ago and eventually became the director of the Center for Teaching and Learning at UIS.

Before returning to college, Leonard said he didn’t quite grasp what it meant to “be an intellectual.” But learning about himself, gaining knowledge in his studies and communicating to others how to write raised his self-confidence, and he wanted to share that with other young adults.

“The CTL fits my plan very well,” he said. “Here we help people; we challenge students to do better in writing, math, chemistry, study skills, time management and more.”

The center holds academic sessions when students can come to practice what is taught in their classes, Leonard said.

Building off of several introductory classes in English, chemistry and biology, students come to the CTL after they have gone to class, and a graduate assistant who sat in on the same class with the same instructor holds a session in that course. Students are able to review homework, discuss aspects of the class they find challenging and ask questions.

The center also offers one-on-one tutoring with graduate assistants, student tutors or even the CTL staff. Leonard, a poet and author himself, has a passion for helping students to gain writing skills and appreciate the art of writing.

“I’ve always enjoyed helping people to put their writing together,” he said. “I personally write essays, poetry, nonfiction. I’m very much in love with words and painting with words and helping students to paint with words. I try to get them to see that writing is less of a chore and assignment and more of an expression of self.”

Helping students to explore and learn to enjoy writing, math and other academic skills is just one way the Center for Teaching and Learning welcomes and mentors students. The department, filled with comfortable couches and study areas, also serves soups and stews and other snacks occasionally during study sessions that are held throughout the year.

“I think it's a wonderful program we have here,” Leonard said. “From every center that I have visited, including my own alma mater of Illinois State, they can't touch us. This is all in the interest of creating the home and hearth hospitality that will tell students that you are welcome here, and we will nurture and help you if you want to help yourself."

In keeping with the hospitality and welcoming atmosphere of UIS, Leonard will be taking on a new role at the university as the director of first-year programs starting this fall. As the director, he will be working with various offices around campus such as the Diversity Center, Disability Services, Counseling Center and more.

“We want first-year students to be successful at every level,” Leonard said. “We have programs that are designed to help students be successful and I have been fortunate enough to be the person selected to help coordinate this effort. It’s an honor to be part of this effort at the University of Illinois at Springfield.”