Elise Lewis, Capstone Scholars Program faculty principal

Lost and found

Capstone Scholars faculty principal uses lessons from her own experience to guide living, learning community

When she was a college freshman, Elise Lewis learned firsthand what happens when a student gets lost in the shuffle of a big university.  

“It was terrible — I was completely unprepared for the reality of college,” says Lewis, who began her baccalaureate studies at a large land-grant school, wound up on academic probation at the end of her freshman year and ultimately transferred to a small college and switched majors several times. She went on to earn master’s and doctoral degrees and embarked on a career in higher education, but that rocky experience as an undergraduate indelibly shaped her philosophy as an educator.

Now, as faculty principal of the Capstone Scholars Program, one of the University of South Carolina’s best-known living and learning communities, Lewis is keen on getting students connected with one another and the university resources that can help them to thrive.

“I didn’t realize at first all of the resources this campus provides for students, whether it’s mental health, undergraduate research or study abroad,” says Lewis, an instructor in the School of Information Science. “So it’s been really fun to connect students to those resources and encourage them to take advantage of them. You can grow outside the classroom just as much as you can grow inside the classroom.”

Lewis began her tenure last year as the third faculty principal for the Capstone Scholars program, which was launched 15 years ago to recruit a cohort of excellent students from across South Carolina and around the country. This year, 1,400 incoming freshmen will be Capstone Scholars, living in Capstone House, Columbia Hall and other residence halls around campus.

You can grow outside the classroom just as much as you can grow inside the classroom.

Elise Lewis, Capstone Scholars Program faculty principal

Starting out as principal during the onset of the pandemic last year was difficulty, Lewis says, but it also hit the reset button on expectations and gave her time to consider what is most important moving forward.

“I love the things the first two faculty principals initiated — Hot Cookie Friday and the personal challenge. Those are part of our culture, and, of course, we have funding to support study abroad and student research opportunities,” Lewis says. “I want to make sure that our students have access to Capstone Scholar alumni who can help them with the career readiness piece. And we have an amazing alumni network.”

“A lot of employers look for new graduates to have ideas for changing things, to be able to shake things up a bit and question the status quo.”

Even with a small dedicated staff, engaging individually with this year’s cohort of Capstone Scholars and the 1,500 or so returning sophomore scholars is a challenge. Lewis’ focus is on making sure the students know what resources the program offers and how to access them.

“Some students — they come to an event or read the emails, and they’re fine. They get connected right away,” Lewis says. “Those aren’t the ones I’m worried about. It’s the ones who get here and are sitting in their residence hall wondering what they got themselves into. Those are the ones we have to be very strategic with and make sure they know that we’re here for them, so they feel like they’re engaged and have a community here.”

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