No one understands the power of community better than Richard Puffer.
From his background working at Sonoco Products Company and the Hartsville Messenger to his role as Director of the Byerly Foundation, Professor Puffer has built a reputation as a leader and community-builder — not only at Coker, but also in Hartsville. During his 16-year tenure as a full-time professor of communications, he also built a reputation of bringing his students along with him, teaching them the power of community by example and through experience. We sat down with Professor Puffer to learn more about the importance of community in education.
How did your Coker story begin?
“I started getting attached to Coker when I began working as a sports reporter for the Hartsville Messenger. My other Coker story began after I finished my master’s degree. Dr. George Lellis hired me to do speech courses, so I was an adjunct professor while I worked at Sonoco in corporate communications. After 20 years of working with Sonoco, I was looking for a new job, and the full-time professor for communications at Coker left mid-year. Dr. Lellis let me fill the position for that semester. Then, when they were looking for a full-time person, I applied for the job, and I got it. I felt really lucky to have gotten the job, and for the next 16 years, I really enjoyed the Coker position because it was the best job I had ever had.”
What inspired you to help students become more involved in the community?
“Most of my life I have been involved in some form of community-building, even in high school. There is a cliché out there about thriving where you are planted — it’s always seemed to me that people want to really enjoy living where they are. When students are here at Coker for a four-year period, I think that they enjoy finding connections with people beyond the campus.”
What can working with the community teach students?
“The community can teach students so many lessons. When you are trying to build community, one of the things you have to learn is persistence. If you take your eyes off your goal of building your community for one day, you have to find a week to catch up. If you take your eye off of community-building for a week, you have to find yourself six months or a year to catch up. You have to work at it all the time.
From a student standpoint, I think the biggest thing is learning that not everybody thinks like you do. If you can get out in the community and start working and talking and making things happen with other people, you find out that we really do live in a rich, cosmopolitan community where there are a lot of people with a lot of beliefs. Even though they might not be the same as yours — there is nothing wrong with those people or what they believe. That’s the community working.”
Do you think lessons are more beneficial in a classroom setting or when they are taught in the community?
“I have a saying — I’m not sure if it’s original with me, but I believe education is learning from other people’s mistakes, and experience is learning from your own mistakes. I think life is a big lesson, and learning is just something that we do. Certain classes are better taught in the classroom atmosphere, but there is a lot of real learning that takes place when you are doing something as you learn it. From a retention standpoint, learning while doing really does help.”
How does volunteering help a student progress in the classroom?
“I think that pretty much depends on the attitude that the student has about volunteering. When you volunteer because it is something you like to do, you set yourself up for some pretty good serendipity. When a communicator who hates math volunteers for Habitat for Humanity, all of the sudden he discovers that it’s math that tells somebody how many shingles need to be ordered. So they learn why they are learning all this stuff at Coker.”
Can you tell me of a time when a student had a transformational experience?
“Every student every single year has gone through a transformational experience. Students come into Coker, and they have a certain set of abilities that has made them successful in high school. But around their sophomore year, they begin to realize that maybe they don’t know everything. In their junior year, they begin to start to connect things together. Then I find that when people graduate from Coker, they graduate so much smarter and so much fuller and richer an individual than when they came. The beauty of that is almost every student I have met recognizes what they have accomplished. It has been an amazing position to watch that happen. And because of social media, I can keep in touch with a lot of the people I have taught over the years. I can continue to watch them grow and succeed.”
Do you see yourself as a mentor?
“In some cases, I see myself as a mentor — I have mentor-like relationships with several students. However, when it is generally getting a class involved — like when I arranged for the public relations class I taught to tour Coker’s marketing office — I think that is more ‘C’mon, we have a lot to learn in this world; let’s get started’ than mentoring.”
Over the years you have worked on many projects. What has been one of your favorite projects?
“One of the most memorable projects was when students decided they wanted to go down to Louisiana and Mississippi to help with the rebuilding after Hurricane Katrina, and they invited me to go with them. That was fantastic — it was student-initiated, student-planned, student-driven. They worked so hard, and we made some pretty interesting differences. It was just a fantastic, bond-building experience.”
What is the biggest lesson that you have learned in your years of teaching?
“The biggest lesson I have learned is how much more there is that I have to learn. I had a really fun, interesting conversation with Dr. Heusel this morning about communication theorists and communication ideas. Just in that short 40-minute discussion, I learned an awful lot about a communication philosopher named Kenneth Burke. How much I still need to know and learn has just been an amazing revelation.”