Olga Welch said the biggest challenge she faced when named the dean of Duquesne University’s School of Education in 2005 was adapting to a new environment.
“The real challenge for a new leader is to learn your context and not assume what worked in another context will work in a new one,” Welch said.
So she visited the Heinz History Center, read books and talked to people on the street. She said she didn’t want to overprepare. Before arriving in Pittsburgh, Welch served as Professor Emerita in the College of Education, Health and Human Services, at the University of Tennessee.
“I came with the expectation of learning,” Welch said. “So I really used as my maxim, ‘you don’t know what you don’t know.’”
People may be coming to Welch for Pittsburgh knowledge in the future. After more than 10 years, she will be leaving Duquesne this year and beginning her retirement.
She says the question she asked people when she arrived at the university was, “why Duquesne?” In a state with 94 teacher education programs, Welch wanted to know what set Duquesne apart.
The faculty didn’t have an answer, but Welch said it had to come from them.
“Vision comes from the bottom up, not the top down,” Welch said. “So [I told them] when you have had that conversation as a faculty and are ready to present it and vote on it, then I’ll come in and we’ll go from there.”
She says the university has the advantage of being the only Spiritan university in the world, and the Spiritan fathers focused on social justice when they arrived in the area in the 1870s.
“We’re very clear about our identity,” Welch said. “We’re all contributing to the betterment and transformation of the lives of children and youth and we want to do it within the Spiritan tradition of caring.”
Welch says that a lot of the disputes over education can be settled by examining why we as a society educate our children.
“I think of education as a means to prepare a citizenry that is able to exercise and understand how its democracy evolved and how to keep it,” Welch explained.
She said there has never been a perfect democracy, but young people are how they continue to survive. Education has to incorporate that, in her view, and not just exist to prepare students for jobs or to have them better themselves. There has to be a wider focus.
“It has to be about a nation — a national understanding that we own this country, all of us, and that we have an obligation to help it become better,” Welch said.
New forms of technology make it difficult to get younger generations to engage. They aren’t inherently self-absorbed, Welch said, but things like social media make them more self-aware. She sees promise in getting young people involved in real-world problems.
“I think young people really do want to engage, but they want to engage with real problems,” Welch said. “They’re not interested in the kind of learning experiences that we’re presenting that tend to be much more proscribed in their scope.”
The other major point she emphasizes involves teaching young people how to learn from failure.
“I think we have to stand back and give them the space to fail,” Welch said. “Our young people are very afraid to fail, and I think we’ve made them that way.”
It took Thomas Edison 2001 tries to invent the lightbulb, Welch said, and he saw the first 2000 failures as learning experiences. She said we need to improve on teaching young people to see failure as a creative process, so they can use it to their advantage.
Reflecting on her time as dean, she said the faculty, staff and students might have a better perspective on her performance.
“I hope that I have been able to build a culture that is inviting with the faculty with the staff and with the students that invites people to own the school of education and what happens in it,” Welch said.
She said she’s optimistic about her successor, and Welch would present her with the same advice she followed when she came to Pittsburgh.
“Be prepared to learn at all times and in all circumstances and from all kinds of people,” Welch encouraged. “Because if you do that, then you’re never going to grow weary.”
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