How One Atlanta Teacher Built a College from Scratch

Paula Wallace brought her dream to Savannah.

Ashley Riddle Williams
Paula Wallace of SCAD
Chia Chong

You’re most likely familiar with the renowned Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD). With campuses located in Savannah (the original), as well as Atlanta, Hong Kong, and Lacoste, France, the school has graduated more than 45,000 alums, created a number of successful extensions (SCAD Museum of Art, SCAD FASH Museum of Fashion + Film), and launched an online store shopSCAD. What might surprise you, however, about this powerhouse institution are its humble beginnings and family atmosphere. Almost 40 years ago, SCAD was the brainchild of a then 29-year-old Atlanta public school teacher, Paula Wallace, who wanted to create a more nurturing higher education environment that was conducive to creativity. So in 1977, in true Southern fashion, Wallace rolled up her sleeves and got to work building what would become the South’s most prestigious art university, which warmly welcomed the first class of 71 students in 1979—a story she tells in her new memoir, The Bee and the Acorn.

Paula Wallace The Bee and the Acorn Book Signing
Colin Gray/Savannah College of Art and Design

In the mid-1970s, when Wallace was simultaneously teaching and making her way through graduate school, she wondered what would happen to her elementary students when they arrived in a far less nurturing university setting. “I knew that there had to be a way of giving more kindness and of instilling traits of creativity in a college atmosphere, but I looked around and there just wasn’t a university like that,” Wallace said. So she set off to Savannah to make this dream of a new kind of college a reality. From the beginning, cultivating a strong sense of community for the pioneering students who would take a chance on a new and unknown school was at the forefront of Wallace's mission. And it was a family endeavor. “That first year, my parents came and volunteered. Not just because they loved me, but because they believed in my dream and wanted to see it come true,” she says, remembering not only how much her parents had helped her reach her goal but also the way they took interest in the students. “They were like grandparents to all of them. When the students couldn’t go home for Thanksgiving, they’d invite them over to our own family Thanksgiving dinner.” While the school has far outgrown a staff of Wallace’s volunteering parents, the sense of family is still there. “I love to stay in touch with our alumni, who are all over the world, and see what they’re doing,” she says. “They send me pictures of their babies and tell me when they’re getting married—and many times they’re marrying someone they met at SCAD. That’s really cool for me to see.”

This school that oozes Southern charm is also exposing our region to people from all over the world. “Students from everywhere come to this beautiful part of our country that we’ve lived in and know and love, and when they do, they find they love it too. I think part of it is that they find such a warm reception here in Savannah and at SCAD, and they find that anything is possible. It’s the ultimate American dream to think that you can create whatever you want for yourself and your career,” explains Wallace. It’s a sentiment that is aptly put considering that’s exactly what Wallace did. But she also reminds us that even the most impressive of accomplishments are best achieved step-by-step: “I don’t think too far ahead. It’s advisable to think about what’s right in front of you. Sometimes people think that I had this grand vision of SCAD, but I really didn’t. I just started with what I needed to do first, and it has evolved through the success of the alumni.”

For the dreamers, the artists, the writers, the teachers, and anyone else who hopes to make a difference, we recommend remembering Wallace’s example: with a little bit of bravery and a lot of Southern hospitality, anything is possible.