To say that Dr. Al M. Panu, the new chancellor at USCB’s Gateway campus in Okatie, is passionate about learning would be a tremendous understatement.
In fact, his entire life has revolved around education, either his own or that of his many students along the way.
A native of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, a French-speaking country in Central Africa, Panu went to Europe at 18 and studied in Belgium before coming to the United States to enroll at Tuskeegee University in Alabama as an undergraduate.
“I didn’t speak much English,” he said in an interview. “I would translate my studies from English to French using a dictionary.” He then would translate his assignments back into English.
“It was a challenging period,” he said.
He learned a valuable lesson that language is part of the culture of a place. “I had learned the meaning of ‘hello,'” he said, but the first time someone greeted him with “Hi,” he was startled. “I wasn’t sure what it meant.”
Thankfully, he also learned that immersion in the culture of a new place “shortens the learning cycle.”
From Tuskeegee, where he earned his bachelor’s degree in chemistry, Panu went on to the University of Alabama to earn his master’s degree in chemistry, and then the University of Georgia for his Ph.D., also in chemistry.
From that point, Dr. Panu tells his story in reverse.
He came to USCB in August 2015 from the University of North Georgia, where he was senior vice president of student affairs. The school had been created as the result of the 2012 merger of two institutions, North Georgia College and State University with Gainesville State, where he had been a department chair, then dean, and finally, vice president for academic affairs.
Before that, his first teaching position was as a chemistry professor at Kennesaw State University in Georgia, where the student population was around 20,000. It is now 30,000.
“It was exciting to see the growth,” Panu said. “That is a common theme for me.” Managing multiple campuses was part of his duties. “I feel at home in these situations,” he said.
Panu was invested as the new chancellor of USCB March 18, in a celebration that lasted a few days and included dignitaries, students and other citizens from throughout the state.
An investiture is a practice that dates back to the Middle Ages, a ceremonial gesture to confer the authority of a high office upon an individual.
To Dr. Panu’s way of thinking, though, the investiture wasn’t all about him. “What it was to me was an opportunity for people to take a look at USCB in addition to just passing by,” he said.
And there’s a lot to see upon closer examination. Not only is USCB growing at a faster rate than any other four-year institution in South Carolina, but the caliber of its faculty is on par with that of elite schools around the country.
Students at the liberal arts school are focused on critical thinking, Panu said, which gives them valuable tools for a lifetime. “By the time they leave here, they have learned how to learn,” he said.
On April 29, his first commencement as chancellor, he stood proudly as 340 of his students received their degrees.
It was one of the largest graduating classes in the school’s history.
“I am honored to be a part of the commencement for the Class of 2016,” he said. “It is exciting know that our students will make a difference in their communities, and we are proud of the accomplishments they have achieved.”
When asked about his vision for the future, Panu said, “I want us to be a comprehensive university of distinction. That means not just growing in size and scope, but that we do the best job of educating our students, to give them the best opportunity of elevating their dreams – whatever their dreams are.”