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Clark takes personal approach in mentoring students

Fred Clark received the Massey Award for his leadership in launching innovative mentoring programs for students.
Fred Clark received the Massey Award for his leadership in launching innovative mentoring programs for students.

When Fred Clark came to Carolina from Florida to teach Spanish in 1967, he wasn’t even interviewed.

“They offered me a position in the mail back in those days,” Clark said.

He had never seen Chapel Hill when he left in his car.

“I remember I drove up from Florida. It was about two in the morning and I was in Carrboro and there was almost nothing there then and I thought, ‘Oh, my gosh, this is Chapel Hill.’”

He finally found the Holiday Inn and the next day he “found the University and realized what a great place it was.”

Nearly 40 years later, Clark has found no reason to go anywhere else. Last spring, he found himself surprised by a phone call from Chancellor James Moeser, who informed him he had won a 2006 C. Knox Massey Distinguished Service Award.

Clark is now a full professor and internationally recognized expert in Brazilian theater. As a senior member of the Portuguese section of the Department of Romance Languages, he is a popular teacher of Portuguese and Brazilian literature — both in the language and in translation — and has served as dissertation chair for several generations of graduate students in the Romance languages. His other duties have included interim chair of the Romance languages department and assistant dean in the General College.

Currently, as associate dean of academic services, he has responsibility for the Academic Support Program for Student Athletes, Learning Disabilities Services, the Learning Center, the Summer Bridge Program, chemistry and mathematics tutorials and the Writing Center. He is integral to the 13 Carolina Testing and Orientation programs held each summer, is a faculty mentor to the Carolina Scholars and, most recently, serves as faculty coordinator of the Carolina Covenant Faculty Mentoring program.

He also spearheaded a new Covenant Scholar Mentor Program that began this fall. “It is one thing to perform these roles,” wrote a colleague in her recommendation, “but quite another to do them the way he does.”

‘Number six out of seven’

He grew up outside Gainesville, Fla., in a family of four girls and three boys that had a spread of 18 years between youngest and oldest. Clark was “number six.”

His father was a contractor with little more than a grade-school education, his mother a nurse. When Clark went off to the University of Florida in Gainesville, his father thought it was good his son was going to school but had no concept of how it would change his son’s life. When Clark earned his Ph.D., his father’s idea of it was, “You’re a doctor now.”

During his last few months in graduate school in Florida, Clark went to Spain to work in the national library and collect material for his dissertation from 17th century manuscripts. He returned to Spain to finish his research after joining the Carolina faculty.

He was contracted to teach Spanish, but because he had done a minor in Portuguese, he taught both before moving exclusively into teaching Portuguese.

His Ph.D. is in 17th century Spanish theater, but over the years, both his teaching and research interests migrated to South America and the study of 20th century Brazilian theater.

More than 20 years ago — he can’t remember the exact year — Clark discovered yet another love when he started working in the advising program then housed in South Building. Later, he served as a faculty adviser in the College of Arts and Sciences and kept on a path that would eventually intersect with Shirley Ort and her idea for what would become the Carolina Covenant program, now in its third year.

When Ort, the University’s director of student financial aid, developed the idea for the Covenant program, she knew it had to be more than just a financial package. Through the program, Ort wanted to build an ongoing relationship, an emotional bond, between the student and the institution. And to help make that happen, Ort knew she needed somebody on the faculty with the know-how to create a mentoring program — and to be that lead mentor.

It is here that the Brazilian theater expert entered center stage.

When Ort asked Clark to run the program, he couldn’t tell her no.

Staying connected

When people talk about accessibility in higher education, they are talking about financial barriers that can keep qualified students from underprivileged backgrounds from attending college.

When Clark talks about accessibility, he is talking about his relationship to the students — and the telephone.

During an hour-long interview, Clark’s phone kept ringing and Clark kept picking it up.

“I can almost never let a phone go,” Clark said.

He can’t ignore a phone because by doing so he could be ignoring students needing his help right away, or thinking they do, which in Clark’s mind is all the same.

In fact, he gives his students his home number, too, because he understands that problems don’t always happen during office hours.

As sophisticated as they are, as smart as they are, they are still just kids, Clark said. Many of them, when they have a problem, feel as if they have to solve it immediately. Sometimes, all that takes is a reassuring voice on the other end of the phone.

“My whole idea is to personalize this and I think that is what we are trying to do as a university. We are trying to personalize Carolina, from the chancellor down, to make it a personal experience and not to let it be this bureaucratic thing you would find at a really huge university.”

But personalized attention also requires face-to-face contact, which is something Ort thought of when she gave Clark a budget to have lunch and dinner with Carolina Covenant scholars.

The covenant is not just about finding a way to get top students from disadvantaged backgrounds into college and out debt-free. It’s about helping them to get through successfully once they are here. And to be successful once they leave. And that is what all those lunches and dinners are really about, Clark said.

The program has brought positive national attention to Carolina and, recently, to Clark. In a Sept. 27 story on the Carolina Covenant in USA Today, a Covenant scholar credited Clark with helping her find out she had a learning disability. After knowing she had it, she learned to compensate well enough to keep her grade point average at 3.6.

Clark describes working with this groundbreaking program as the best years of his career. But he also takes pains to point out that none of this is about him.

“This program will live beyond us,” Clark said. “This is a program that will really characterize Chancellor (James) Moeser’s tenure here. It is a big part of his legacy because it is something that is very dear to him and he has been very supportive.”

The same could be said of the University Board of Trustees and the state legislature, Clark said. Both have demonstrated strong support for need-based financial aid, one of the key components of the funding formula for the program.

His colleagues, both advisers and faculty members and administrators, regularly join him for these dinners and lunches with students and are no less reluctant than he in passing out their phone numbers to students.

“All of these folks are in on it so that we can make this a very personal experience so that the students and the parents feel comfortable in asking for something. Our big thing is don’t be embarrassed to ask for it. It’s out there.”

Originally published by University Gazette: Oct. 25, 2006

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