Stephen Sondheim Inspirational Teacher, Professor of Philosophy, Cheryl Foster
Title: Professor of Philosophy, Assistant Director Honors Program
Expertise: Philosophy, Academic Advising, National Scholarships
What University of Rhode Island students have said for decades is now known worldwide: Professor Cheryl Foster is one of the most inspirational teachers. In March, the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C., presented Professor Foster with the prestigious Stephen Sondheim Inspirational Teacher Award.
Professor Foster, who teaches philosophy and is associate director of the URI Honors Program, was one of only two university professors and seven teachers nationwide to receive the Sondheim Award in appreciation for their contributions to the field of teaching.
A founder of URI’s National Scholarship and Academic Opportunity Office, Professor Foster recently returned to the Honors Program, taking a special academic advising role for freshmen and sophomores.
As Sondheim has said in creating the award: “Teachers define us. 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 how Rachel Walshe, a 2000 URI graduate who earned a Rhodes Scholarship in 2001, saw Professor Foster. Now a director at the Sandra Feinstein Gamm Theatre in Pawtucket, Rachel nominated Professor Foster to receive the award, telling about her years as a student and the ‘evolution’ that took place.
For example, when Rachel received word of her Rhodes Scholarship: “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,” Rachel said in her nomination. “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!”
Comments like Rachel’s and so many others strike at the heart of what Professor Foster does to help students develop so they can discover their own goals.
“I have a whole box of notes from students who have written to me over the years,” said Professor 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.”
Professor 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.
Professor Foster said every day she feels grateful to be part of a community where the choice to teach creatively is taken seriously.