University of South Carolina

John Gardner

University 101 leader to speak at August commencement

By Megan Sexton,, 803-777-1421

John Gardner, an educator who made the University of South Carolina an international leader in improving students’ freshman-year experience, will speak at the USC summer commencement exercises Aug. 4.

Gardner, the former director of University 101 and founder of the National Resource Center for the First-Year Experience and Students in Transition, also will receive an honorary doctoral degree in education. Marlena Mills Smalls, founder and director of the Hallelujah Singers, a nationally known touring group whose performances have helped draw attention to the Gullah culture of the South Carolina Sea Islands, will be awarded the honorary degree of doctor of music.

The university expects to award 1,502 degrees for baccalaureate, master’s and professional-degree recipients from all eight campuses at 10:30 a.m. in the Colonial Life Arena. Commencement exercises for doctoral candidates will take place at 8:30 a.m. in the Koger Center for the Arts. Sandra Kelly, a psychology professor in USC’s College of Arts and Sciences, will give the doctoral commencement address.

Gardner first came to South Carolina in 1967 as a U.S. Air Force psychiatric social worker, and quickly moved into the classroom as a part-time adjunct instructor at Carolina. By 1970, he was a full-time teacher at USC, and he realized many of his first-year students were having a difficult time making the jump from high school to college life. Gardner believed a course aimed at first-year students could offer the tools they would need to succeed.

The course, known as University 101, became an introduction to life as a college student at Carolina, offering resources in areas such as time management, study skills and career exploration. It not only eased students’ transition to college life, but also improved their grades, self-esteem, retention and graduation rates.

Gardner’s writings and presentations on the USC course, originally called “The Freshman Year Experience,” made Carolina the international leader on the first-year experience. University 101 became the model for first-year seminars, with most colleges and universities around the country now implementing some variation of the program he started in Columbia. The program is consistently named by U.S. News and World Report as a “program to look for.”

The class continues to thrive at USC, where University 101 is celebrating its 40th year. In 1972, the course had 10 sections and 214 students. During the past school year, 3,800 students were taught University 101 by 185 instructors from 81 departments around USC. Because of Gardner’s work, about 88,000 Carolina students have experienced University 101.

From 1974 to 1999, Gardner was executive director of University 101, and he also founded the National Resource Center for the First-Year Experience and Students in Transition on the USC campus.

Gardner continued his work to reform the college experience for students, developing and teaching University 401, the Senior Capstone Experience, the bookend to University 101 for departing students. The class guides juniors and seniors for the transition to their career or graduate school following commencement.

Gardner was the recipient of several awards at Carolina, including the university’s highest award for teaching excellence. He also served as USC’s vice chancellor and associate vice president for regional campuses and continuing education.

After 32 years of university service, Gardner retired in 1999, but continues to serve the National Resource Center through advice, intellectual leadership and vision. He is also a distinguished professor emeritus of library and information science at USC. He is now president of the John Gardner Institute for Excellence in Undergraduate Education in Brevard, N.C.

Also at Aug. 4 commencement ceremony, Smalls will be honored with an honorary degree. The group she founded in Beaufort, the Hallelujah Singers, travels extensively as Gullah ambassadors, preserving through music the Gullah heritage rooted in West African traditions and language brought by slaves to the Sea Islands of South Carolina and Georgia. The group has performed for the U.S. Congress, the South Carolina legislature, the Kennedy Center, the Spoleto Festival and the G-8 Summit.

As a performer, Smalls incorporates music and Gullah storytelling into her presentations. She also is known to international audiences for playing Bubba’s mother in the Academy Award-winning movie “Forrest Gump.”

News and Internal Communications

Posted: 07/20/12 @ 12:00 AM | Updated: 08/04/12 @ 1:01 PM | Permalink

About USC commencement

  • When: 10:30 a.m., Saturday, Aug 4
  • Where: Colonial Life Arena
  • Who: Graduates of all eight USC campuses
  • Watch: Summer commencement live streaming here:

By the numbers

  • USC Columbia: 1,092 degrees, including one associate degree, 615 baccalaureate degrees, seven law degrees, two pharmacy degrees, 18 graduate certificates, 307 master’s degrees, five specialist’s degrees,137 doctoral degrees
  • USC Aiken: 65 baccalaureate, 12 master’s degrees
  • USC Beaufort: 61 baccalaureate degrees
  • USC Lancaster: 27 associate degrees
  • USC Salkehatchie: 16 associate degrees
  • USC Sumter: 15 associate degrees
  • USC Union: nine associate degrees
  • USC Upstate: 199 baccalaureate degrees, six master’s degrees



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