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Ending my role as interim senior vice president for student services on June 5th.

Still smiling, still enthusiastic.

So grateful for the opportunity.

Once in a life-time experience.

Amidst life’s distractions, love still breaks through

The 10-year-old boy’s eyes were staring unblinking at the monitor on the wall in front of him. He had been in this intense and trance-like state totally absorbed in Lego Batman 3-“Beyond Gotham” for at least an hour. At his right knee was his computer showing one of the Penguin animated films, and to the right of the computer was his iPad. I sat at the end of the sofa on the other side of ‘technology row’ reading a book on my iPad.

In the middle of the sounds of the video game and the animated movie, I interrupted with a question to the 10-year-old. He was startled when I asked him, “Do you know what it means to love someone?”

Still chewing his jaw and manipulating the video game controller he said, “I have a difficult time explaining what I think about abstract concepts.”

I was surprised at the response although I should not have been. Young people today with educated parents who spend considerable time explaining things to them have a tendency to speak as if they are years beyond their chronological age.

I was undeterred by his response and continued to pursue the point about his knowledge of love. As he continued to play the video game, he responded, “Do you mean the way I feel about my parents?” I was ecstatic at the response and went back to reading my book on my iPad.

Ambushed by Memories on Christmas Eve

It’s Christmas Eve and I’m wrapping gifts. Why am I suddenly feeling sad? My chest hurts as if I have heartburn and my nose burns the way it always does when I’m holding back tears.

After all these years and after telling the story to those close to me, I still remember the Christmas Eve that I hoped that there was a Santa Claus. I still feel the pain I felt that Christmas morning when I really knew that there was no Santa Claus. I have had so many joyful and happy holidays since then, but the feelings of that one Christmas Eve always ambush me this time of year.

Once upon a time, a long time ago, I don’t know how I had a few dollars to spend, but I had been happy when I bought small gifts for my mother, grandmother, grandfather, and little sister. I don’t recall whether or not my little brother was living with us or with my daddy during this particular Christmas time. But on Christmas Eve, I had the horrible thought that these folks, my family, may not have thought to get a gift for me. I hoped they would care enough about me to understand that if I didn’t receive a gift from them, I would think that they didn’t love me.

I was standing at the window looking out at the sky hoping that some man dressed in a red suit would find his way into our apartment and leave something, anything with my name on it that I could unwrap on Christmas morning. I listened long into the night and never heard anything like Santa Claus sneaking in to leave something for me.

The next morning, there were gifts for my little sister. I don’t remember the other gifts, but there was no gift for me. I finally accepted the fact that there was no Santa Claus. I felt embarrassed and almost apologetic that I was unworthy of even one small gift. I was ashamed that someone as old as I was even entertained the idea that there was a Santa Claus. I was fourteen years old.

A Little Spring Cleaning for the Soul…

Before there was Spring Break and Alternative Spring Break, there was spring cleaning, promoted in schools as “Clean Up, Fix Up, and Paint Up Week.” Being in school in Chicago, we really needed the break, and though the winters are brutal in Chicago, it seemed as if that one week that we were on break from school in the spring was always gorgeous with unseasonably warm weather and lots of sunshine. I remember the sunshine because what we did that week at my house was all about the windows.

Washing the windows and whatever was covering the windows was the hardest and most time-consuming part of the week of cleaning, fixing, and painting. However, the clean windows and curtains after the struggles were also the most gratifying result of the week’s work because the result was visible for all to see and it would last until next spring when we would do it all over again.

Windex was too expensive to use on the windows so we saved it for the mirrors. For the windows, we used buckets of soapy water to remove the dirt; then, we rinsed with clear water and white vinegar. We used crushed newspaper to wipe them dry until they squeaked and sparkled. Before we had a washing machine, we washed the lace curtains in the bathtub. When these white lace curtains were hanging at the windows, they didn’t look to be that dirty, but when the soap and water hit them, the water turned black. I was always surprised at the amount of dirt they held.

With our lace curtains, we didn’t just wash them and put them in a dryer or even hang them outside to dry. After washing them, we put starch in them. Then, we put them on curtain stretchers. These were open wood frames on spindly legs with little nails a couple of inches apart all around the frame. To stretch the curtains into shape and dry them, we slipped a piece of the edge of the curtain onto each nail all the way around a long line of rectangular frames that stretched throughout the living room, dining room, and down the hall. If we skipped a nail, when the curtain was dry, the place that was skipped would ruin the entire line of the curtain.

When stretched correctly, the curtains looked great when they dried, but putting them on stretchers was not without consequences. Those little nails pricked and stabbed fingers all the way around the frame because the job had to be done quickly in order to get the curtains on the stretchers before they began to dry with the starch in them causing them to wrinkle beyond imagination.

I was so happy when we got a wringer washer. We never did get a dryer, but it was fine drying the clothes in the yard or on the back porch. It was about the same time that we got the wringer washer that we became more modern and changed the lovely white lace curtains that had become thin and worn with new fiberglass drapes. When it was time to wash these during spring cleaning, we popped them into the washing machine and let it do the dirty work.

The fibers in the fabric of the drapes were some kind of very fine glass needles as the name implies. When we removed the drapes from the washing machine, the static from them shocked the stew out of us! When we handled the drapes, the fiberglass made us itch and scratch. And worse, those glass needles were all throughout the machine and we did not realize this. So later when our clothes were washed in the machine, they were infested with fiberglass. The fiberglass in our clothes caused us to throw them out, and Lord knows we could not afford to throw our clothes away.

After the fiberglass nightmare, we switched to venetian blinds. They were metal white blinds; I don’t know whether or not they were really “Venetian.” No more bloodied fingers from stretching lace curtains, no more fiberglass everywhere causing pain and itching. Alas, the darned blinds had to be taken down and put in the bathtub for cleaning. With soapy water and a sponge, I would wash each blade of the blinds until it was clean and shining. Then I would carefully dry off each blade before the blinds were placed back at the windows. I refer to these blinds as “blades” because there were cuts on all of my fingers from washing and drying those darn blinds.

So what is my point about spring cleaning and windows, in particular? I am using spring cleaning as a metaphor for recommending that we, who are expected to be resources for students, designate a time to take stock, to anticipate transitions, and to seek clarity.

Like the dirty lace curtains I described, we tend to look well enough as we carry out our  responsibilities, but what would come out in the wash if we put our reflexive refrain of “I’m fine” to the test? Our own mental and spiritual spring cleaning is not without consequences, and that makes it hard to willingly do.

If we took stock and attended to ourselves at specified times such as when we think of spring cleaning, we might be surprised that we are holding onto some people, causes, ideas, or jobs that we have made   more important than our own spiritual comfort or peace of mind. These things, like clothes infested with fiberglass have to be thrown out even if we think we cannot afford to let them go.

As with my experiences with the windows during “clean up, fix up, and paint up week,” where I said that the “clean windows and curtains after the struggles were also the most gratifying result of the week’s work because the result was visible for all to see, and it would last until next spring when we would do it all over again,” I believe that the consequences of mental and spiritual spring cleaning can be endured if we bank on results that will result in a brighter and more sparkling attitude about ourselves and our future.

Of Housing and Job Markets…Trying to Find Reason Amidst the Fickle

Reasoning why you are not selected for a position for which you applied and interviewed is an interesting mental exercise. Unlike a crossword or other puzzle, there is no correct answer; and unlike an interactive game, you don’t have an opportunity to keep practicing on the same target. Selling yourself to a search committee or an employer is a lot like selling a house.

I have followed the ups and downs of friends who put their house on the market a year ago, and I find their experiences very similar to what colleagues experience during the job search process. In order to get their house ready for the market, my friends downsized, and they had professionals “stage” the house in order to display the best assets of the house. They made major investments to upgrade appliances though what they had was in perfect condition. They had everything freshly painted, and there was nothing left to chance. Then they contracted with a realtor who suggested that though their carpeting was in fine shape, they should get new carpeting in the living room just so everything would look brand new. They were extremely proud of how the house looked and they were assured by friends that the house would sell immediately.

Colleagues who are applying for their ideal next position also do a lot of preparation in order to show well. They write draft after draft of their resume or vita in order to streamline it and highlight their strongest skills. They even get help from professional career counselors who advise them on the best way to present their resume or vita and themselves. Their colleagues encourage them to go for it.

When my friends’ house did not sell by fall, they changed real estate agents figuring that their agent must not be as good as another agent. The next agent told them that the reason the house did not sell immediately was because it was not priced correctly. So they adjusted the asking price. When that didn’t garner buyers, the sellers and all of the sellers’ friends concluded that the prospective buyers were just stupid and didn’t know what they wanted.

Colleagues who are in the job market ask experts to help them with their interview skills when they have not been selected following what they thought was a good interview. After getting sound advice on how to interview well and doing a superb job but still having the position is offered to someone else, the candidate and all their colleagues conclude that the search committee members or the potential employer are all idiots and don’t know what they are looking for in a candidate.

In frustration with the stupidity of buyers, my friends took their house off the market for a while figuring the timing must not be right. Colleagues drop out of the job search mode for a while for the same reason. Then something totally unrelated to preparing the house for sale occurs and my friends say, “It’s providential! This occurrence needed to happen first and that’s why the house didn’t sell sooner.” Colleagues have something totally unrelated to their search occur and they and their friends declare that the jobs they applied for were just not right for them and their dream job is waiting.

We really don’t know why the house did not sell as quickly as expected, and we don’t know all the variables that went into decisions not to hire our colleagues. The best thing we can do is to get our houses in order to the best of our ability, take the risk of having what we offer not accepted, and if we determine that we want to stay in the game, know that we may really never know why we were not selected, and take solace in the idea that not being selected may not have anything to do with you or how well you showed. And remember that reasoning why is just an interesting mental exercise.

Nothing New Under the Sun: Of Mentors, Mentees, and Common Experiences

I think it’s true of everyone; it’s just that I have lived so long, it probably happens to me more frequently…

It seems that no matter what someone says to me, I have an experience that is similar that I can relay. I have to work really hard not to jump in when they take a breath and tell them how the very same thing happened to me! I hope that when I do share, it will help to establish that we are similar and therefore have something upon which to build a relationship or at least a common reference point.

When I’m out and about among young professionals, they frequently take me aside for a private conversation or ask for time to talk with me by phone at a later date, particularly about their career direction.

I’m always open to hearing and helping in any way that I can. Sometimes, they want me to just look over their resume and give my thoughts; other times they seek an introduction or nomination for a professional position; and some want to bring me up-to-date on their career in order for me to serve as a reference.

Some of the most intriguing conversations are those when I’m asked to critique a recent interview at a time when the person was not selected for the position. During these conversations, I turn myself into a fly on the wall and imagine the space and the interactions from the perspective of the interviewers and the interviewee. I imagine what the conversation was among the search committee members prior to the candidate’s interview, and I make assumptions about what the conversation would be following the interview as described by the candidate.

What’s uncanny about my mental reenactment is that the candidate and I come to the same conclusion about what was a strength of the candidate during the interview and what needed strengthening. Sometimes one’s reflections upon an experience needs a mirror outside of one’s self.

In a recent conversation with a tremendously talented mid-level administrator, I was struck by how our experiences were so similar. I was able to share my experiences and what I learned upon reflection. I also found that the person in describing her experiences used the exact same words that I used when I wrote in my journal following our common experience!

While time marches on and the circumstances in regard to climbing the career ladder may differ, I continue to be amazed how the experiences elicit many of the same responses and reactions that colleagues generations before also expressed. It’s these kinds of encounters that convince me that mentors can be useful.

Seldom am I stumped for words when I’m in conversation with those who want a sounding board. I use my communication skills that have as the first rule that I listen attentively and encourage the speaker to continue. When I do respond, because this person has trusted me with their deepest dreams, aspirations, and fears, I have moved them to my inner circle of people I love and want to protect and help succeed.

While I have at times shied away from being a mentor in the formal sense because I didn’t think I had enough to offer, I realize now that it’s not what the mentor thinks she has to offer, but what the person who wants a mentor thinks one has to offer. And, if the potential mentor has reflected on experiences and gleaned lessons from them, the relationship can be mutually beneficial.

After listening and sharing with some of my colleagues who are thinking about the paths they want to take for the next stages of their career, I feel energized, hopeful, and useful. There are not many experiences that can leave me with such a feeling of euphoria.




Can a Student Care How Much Their College Knows Until They Know How Much Their College Cares?

Since June 2013, I have been on close to a dozen campuses. When I am on campus for whatever reason, I always talk with students. Sometimes the students are invited by the deans and other times, I just wander and talk with students as I see them on campuses or in offices. I expected to hear a lot of dissatisfaction because of all the media about the high-costs of college and fears about an adequate return on the investment in higher education. I ask students questions about their future plans and whether or not their expectations were are being met at their chosen college or university. Students were more upbeat than I expected and out of all of these campuses and the number of students I spoke with, only one student said “they don’t care about us” when I asked if the college was supportive of students. When I asked why a student might think the college does not care about students, the student said that the college cares about students in regard to how well they do because it makes the college look good.  The student also said that the college seemed more like a corporation interested only in the bottom line—dollars.

I think we need to ask ourselves—“What are we doing that might cause a student to think this way about any college?

‘Blind’ Date Anticipation

In just a few days, I will finally meet a critical mass of orientation professionals and student leaders at their annual conference in San Antonio.  In preparation for my speech at the conference, I learned as much as I could about their work from their perspective, and I sought input from their stakeholders about how they see the role and worth of orientation.  Nothing gives me more pleasure than immersing myself in the world of the work of others. The learning is incredible and the amount of respect and high regard resulting from in-depth knowledge of a profession is the prize I cherish.

When I’m just a few days away from giving a speech to a group of professionals that I’ve studied, I feel like what I think I would feel going on a date someone set up for me. We used to call them blind dates, but with all the information one can garner about another person these days through the Internet, no date should be “blind.” Yet, until you meet someone and interact with them, there is this wonderful feeling of anticipation. What thrills me most is to see how closely the real encounter will match what I thought it would be like. I’m certain that I won’t be disappointed when I meet the orientation providers. It is a privilege to count them among my colleagues.

Very Superstitious – Helping Students Understand Mixed Realities

Break a mirror and you bought seven years of bad luck; put your purse on the floor and you’ll lose your money; buy your lover shoes and the lover will walk out of your life; 13 is very unlucky and Friday the 13th is the worst; black cat crosses your path and that’s not good; left hand itches and you’ll lose your money; a woman is the first to contact you on New Year’s Day and a year of bad luck. These are some of the superstitions that we hold to explain the unexplainable, and they are all negative and about bad luck. There aren’t many that bode well for the superstitious. They give us an excuse to be afraid.

What I have had, and I say this because I’m putting it behind me, is a fear of February. I discovered that February was a month to fear during my twenties when I would get down and depressed.  I would be prone to crying spells and I couldn’t see any good in my life. This was very puzzling to my young husband. One February, he took me to Saks Fifth Avenue and bought me a beautiful raccoon coat that we definitely could not afford. The coat was gorgeous and the gesture by my husband to cheer me up was wonderful.  I still cried. Some say that the long winters and lack of sunlight may be reasons for some of us to get “the Februaries.” I’m always glad when February is over. My dad died in February; my mother died in February, and a dear friend got a CAT scan the very last day of February this past week and the results were not encouraging.

All of these things give truth to the lie that February is a month to dread.  Then, I think about the number 13 and Friday the 13th, in particular.  I don’t fear; I look forward to Friday the 13th because our son, Dan, was born on Friday the 13th, the most blessed day of our lives. With this in mind, I decided on March 1 that I would change my way of thinking about February and make it a month to look forward to and have faith that it will bring me what my heart desires; it will bring me good luck. I will look to February with faith and not fear.

What superstitions and illogical fears do our students bring with them? When I speak with students now, they are anxious about their future. They read that our country is losing its promise. They hear the stories about college graduates who will never work in their field of interest.  A challenge for educators is to help students see their future from multiple perspectives. That is, they should understand the realities of the current context that are not all positive and not all negative. They need to research and study their possibilities beyond the dire headlines that make the news. They need to have faith that the American Dream is still there for them, and their college education will equip them to be successful in the way they define success and not in the manner that others define it. What are the fears of our students? Ask them what they fear and help them see their potential in a world that is full of superstitions and predictions that scare us. Help them change the meaning of their Februaries.

Coming to My Senses: Of Grandmothers, College Aspirations, and 8-Year-Olds

I’ve been spending time with our 8-year old grandson during this holiday season. Since my world has been about college and university students and because I, too, am caught up in the mad race that many all around the world are in about college and the future for our next generations, I look at him and begin to assess his potential as a successful college student.

For example, when he is playing flag football, and doesn’t get as many flags as his teammates, or when his friends play an instrument and he chooses not to, or when his friends love chess and he is very casual about it, I begin to think about college entrance test scores, how many service projects he will have to do, and special talents that might have an impact on his college acceptance and success. In other words, when he is looking at the other children as friends, I’m looking at them as competition.

And then, I move beyond college and think about the global competition he will face for jobs, and I wonder if he will excel in whatever might be the most sought-after skill for that unknown future time. Finally, I come to my senses and think back to when I was eight, and all that happened in my life between third grade and my senior year in high school.

Eight years is a critical age for children, but it does not have to set the course for their future. When I was eight years old, no one was thinking about what college would accept me. If any thought were given to me, it was with whom I would live and under what circumstances.

If I use my less-than-ideal experiences as an 8-year-old as an example, I can relax and realize that mistakes that adults make in bringing children up, opportunities that children miss, and coincidences that affect the lives of children do not necessarily predict what the future will hold for them.

I also have to remember that I was not a good athlete, did not play a musical instrument, and had no strong passion toward any particular activity. In contrast, our grandson is a good athlete, has a strong interest in knowing everything there is to know about football and the players, and he is passionate about winning in any competition. He has an extensive vocabulary, reads incredibly well, is an analytical thinker, is opinionated,  and relishes finding holes in any argument that is counter to his perspective. He has a strong moral compass, and when I want to bend the rules, he brings me up short on what is right and what is wrong.

Importantly, he is eight and is enjoying these few years when he is not anxious about college, jobs, and what the future holds. Being concerned about these issues are for the adults in his life such as grandmothers who know a thing or two about higher education and the outlook for the future.