Growing up in a suburb of Washington, D.C., Bob Poch was surrounded by monuments, museums and sites of historical significance. Each Saturday his father eagerly guided Poch and his older brother on tours of these nearby treasures. Poch remembers being enthralled at Ford’s Theater when he was eight years old. “I was looking at Lincoln’s clothing and hearing my father’s emphatic affirmations, ‘This is real. This is where it happened. This isn’t fake,'” Poch recalls. While that moment triggered his passion for history, it would be years before Poch, a Senior Fellow and Director of Graduate Studies in the department of Postsecondary Teaching and Learning, considered history as a career path.
From aspiring drummer to award-winning teacher
“I wanted to be a professional drummer,” Poch admits from his tidy office tastefully decorated in early American Beatlemania and scholarly tomes. “I was a good student and even geeked-out reading history books in the library during lunch, but my plan didn’t include college,” says the 2014 Morse Award recipient. Fortunately for past, current and future students, his father persuaded him to try college for two years.
At the end of Poch’s first semester, his history professor, Charles Poland, pulled him aside with a prophecy. “I think you can do what I do,” Poland predicted. Encouragement from this well-regarded civil war historian and educator radically altered Poch’s plans. His two-year trial turned into nine straight years of study.
Following his M.A., Poch was intent on earning a Ph.D. in History at the University of Virginia but a lack of job prospects forced him to improvise. He shifted focus slightly to pursue a doctorate in Higher Ed. at UVA. During an internship in the provost’s office, Poch grew passionate about educational access and realized he could apply his understanding of history, specifically issues of privilege, to educational policy issues.
An outsider seeking access for others
Poch’s desire to shape educational policy and reverse historical trends regarding educational access landed him a position with the South Carolina Commission on Higher Education right out of graduate school. “I was an outsider: a young, white guy looking for ways to reverse the effects of Jim Crow and increase the college-going rate of South Carolinians,” he says. “Luckily, I had great mentors who taught me how to understand diverse perspectives and contexts, and effectively engage people. It was a crash course in multiculturalism and respect.” With these interpersonal lessons and Poch’s natural warmth and exuberance, his outsider status was a non-issue from the start. “They embraced me,” says Poch, “and many are now lifelong friends.” After eight years of policy development and advocacy, his Commissioner approached him with familiar advice: “I think you can do what I do.”
Running a state agency was not part of Poch’s plan, but when Minnesota’s Higher Education Services Office (now the Office of Higher Education) offered him the directorship, Poch accepted, making him the youngest state higher ed. executive officer in the United States. He candidly recounts his thoughts at the time, “I was scared to death. I had 50 people reporting to me, an agency budget of $250 million, and again, I was an outsider.” However, the agency’s mission to remove barriers to postsecondary attendance aligned completely with his previous experience and professional values, and he quickly integrated into the new environment. “I had an amazing set of colleagues and we were able to work with the legislature to do great things,” Poch reflects. “Watching thousands of students going into colleges and universities who, without the commitment of the state behind them, would not have gone, was absolutely thrilling.”
Rekindling a dormant passion
While still working for the state, Poch began guest lecturing at the University of Minnesota where his love of teaching was reignited. He eventually joined the University as Assistant Dean of General College. At the University, Poch is able to harmonize pedagogy, history and access. “Here I can take my research directly into the classroom,” he explains. His investigation of Howard University School of Law’s consistent development of pioneering civil rights attorneys is his foundation for scenario-based history problems shown to increase subject knowledge and cognition of undergraduates.
Respecting the different ways people learn is a cornerstone of the nascent Master of Arts in Multicultural College Teaching and Learning. As the new Director of Graduate Studies, Poch is energized to collaborate with colleagues and students to expand the program’s influence. “Our program prepares future and current professionals to skillfully and productively engage diverse audiences within colleges and universities,” says Poch. “We believe you can harness all forms of diversity to maximize educational experiences and outcomes.”
Poch still plays the drums, but the decades-old advice he received from Poland fuels his contagious enthusiasm. “I love what I do,” he says unapologetically. “This is a joyful thing for me.”