Category Archives: words

The struggle is real: The hero’s journey and higher ed storytelling.

Hiking bootsDid you struggle in school? Socially? Emotionally? Or academically? In college? High school? Or even elementary school?

If you’re a human being, you can answer “yes” to that, on some level.

Did the school help you overcome these struggles? Through knowledge? Through helping you gain confidence? Through helping you build your future?

If the answer to this is “yes,” and how strong a “yes” it is, it bespeaks your love and affinity for the school.

Hero’s journey

Comparative mythologist Joseph Campbell studied many of most enduring stories to come up with a literary framework known as the hero’s journey — I teach it to classes as it’s indicative of what can drive great storytelling:

  • Ordinary World
  • Call to Adventure
  • Refusal of the Call
  • Meeting with the Mentor
  • Crossing the First Threshold
  • Tests, Allies, Enemies
  • Approach
  • Ordeal
  • Reward
  • The Road Back
  • Resurrection Hero  
  • Return with Elixir

Not every great story fits this pattern, but think about stories like “The Hobbit” or “Star Wars,” in terms of an ordinary hobbit or human asked to take on an adventure, refusing it until meeting a mentor (Gandalf or Obi-Wan Kenobi) and the steps that followed. Some of the elements will exist in any story — even your own.

Schools and struggles

Every level of education brings challenges inside and outside the classroom, and steps in your personal journey. My own, for example:

Weedsport High School: The classes and coursework came easy. Socializing was a bigger challenge. But that’s not an atypical teenage story? As a result, my high school years don’t hold much glory in my mind.

Cayuga Community College: The classes were a bit more challenging, but I didn’t have many difficulties, except for when I suffered a concussion, missed a few days and came back arrogantly thinking I didn’t need to review what I’d missed. Bombing a calculus quiz straightened out that conceit. But I still lived at home, so it felt like an extension of high school.

The College at Brockport: Hello, struggles! Social. Emotional. Psychological. Moral. Intellectual.  The true coming-of-age story began. I was a shy and skinny teen with bad hair and acne, but until then I’d always had “the smart kid” thing going for me, but now I was surrounded by smart people. So I had to focus on creativity and work ethic as the ways to make a mark — and Brockport created an environment where you could succeed with these traits.

SUNY Oswego: Going back for my master’s degree was the most intellectually challenging and rigorous experience of my education. Which is to say: I loved it! By this time I was (allegedly) mature and (slightly) less socially awkward, so even with a full-time job, the focus on the studies themselves was marvelous and continued my intellectual growth. I really use perspectives and historical insights from my master’s studies all the time.

If you looked at my giving patterns toward my alma maters, they tend to increase in direct proportion toward those institutions that presented me with challenges and solutions. More on that after this metaphor.

Climb every mountain

Many years ago, my friends Michelle and Brent talked me into climbing Whiteface Mountain with them. It’s the fifth-highest peak in New York’s Adirondack Mountains, with the greatest vertical drop this side of the Rockies — and the reward of an inspiring view. It’s almost perhaps the best-known mountain in the ADK because it offers two ways up: by car up a winding highway or — the road less traveled — a challenging physical climb.

If you climb by foot, the trail begins with steep, craggy ascent that if you’re not careful you can burn out your legs or lungs early (spoiler: I sort of did). Then, like any Adirondack Mountain, you have a lot of trails with various levels of ascension. To finally reach the 4,867-summit, you have to do some Alpine-style bouldering scrambling over large boulders. To make it to the summit by climbing really feels like an accomplishment.

As we three emerged at the top, cars were pulling up, including one with a family from Tennessee, where a child looked up at Michelle and said, “are you a hiker?” Then it started raining. The three of us sat inside, muddy and sweaty and probably not smelling great, eating the sandwiches we packed. In perhaps a delicious irony, we ate while watching tourists enter the gift shop and emerge with merch that included “I climbed Whiteface Mountain” T-shirts. We didn’t buy the shirts; we’d earned something else.

For the people who motored up, it’s probably one more tourist stop in their various travels, not meaning much more than a really cool view and a T-shirt or trinket. To me, it was one of the most unforgettable physical feats I’ve accomplished, something I didn’t think I could do but I somehow did. It’s not a mark on a tourist guide so much as a clicked checkbox of life I recall fondly.

As a result, I still support the Adirondacks when I can, whether donating to causes in or traveling to this wonderful region. If I drove up that day instead of climbing, I wouldn’t have this connection. The struggle was real, but the journey was amazing.

Educational/fundraising connection

All these things recently occurred to me as having a connection to what we do as higher education communicators or to those working in alumni relations or development. The mountains students climb, and our help along the way, leave impressions and connections with our educational institutions.

Several years ago, one of my alma maters asked me to serve as an honorary representative for my [number redacted] class reunion. (Why remains a mystery.) My main function was to sign a letter, and they offered to write a first draft. It was a generic and standard letter, but I could modify. I thought back to the reason I stayed connected — the knowledge attained, memories gained, the friends made — and went with more of a “do you remember …” theme tied to our universal experiences.

If I had that chance again, I realize I’d talk more about the shared challenges, the trials and triumphs of college life, and how we came out as better people who were better equipped for success. About the journey to the (more or less) happy ending — that’s what resonates as much as anything.

When my friend Georgy Cohen of Oho Interactive was doing focus groups with students for a college client, some complained that everybody they saw in profiles were too perfect. They didn’t see people who struggled like they did, who needed to overcome, and how the college might play into that transformation.

In a great question for businesses everywhere, Ron Ploof has asked: “Is our product King Arthur or Excalibur?” Whatever you do or make, your product — or college — should be Excalibur, making possible the hero’s journey of your students, the noble quest that is education and fulfillment and a better future.

As I prepare to send a check to one of my alma maters, thinking of the journey and how it helped along the way, I realize that the more challenges I faced and how much the school helped has really played into why I give.

So the challenge to us as college communicators and fundraisers is to recognize these challenges. As a storyteller and director of an online newsroom, I need to convey the stories of students who are finding their way, getting better by the day, due to college experiences. For college administrators, it’s realization that fostering student success, of putting people over outdated policies, of realizing all the different journeys our students take, is a primary concern. For alumni and development professionals, it’s acknowledging that struggles are a part of growth, the building blocks to a great story, that can create universal understanding of why supporting colleges is important.

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Plenty to enjoy: 2016’s top 20 albums

We lost plenty of great musical talent in 2016, but the show must go on. And thankfully, plenty of good music came to our ears this year. Here’s my take on a fine year for albums, a celebration of the 20 best:

  1. David Bowie, Blackstar: 2016 was a year of loss, and the Thin White Duke was one of the biggest. By the time many of us bought this, it was as if Bowie was singing a self-elegy from beyond the grave, but the man was an artist and perhaps that’s the most appropriate way to view this farewell.
  1. Lindsey Stirling, Brave Enough: Stirling’s stirring violin work is a constant on this album, but the wide variety of effectiveness for her vocal partners makes this unfortunately inconsistent. Still, it also means many different folks can find a few tracks to especially like.
  1. Radiohead, A Man-Shaped Pool. Radiohead is always difficult to rank because they’re on a different plane than most bands … it’s not whether their albums are brilliant (they always are) but how accessible and memorable they become.
  1. Sara Watkins, Young in All the Wrong Ways: The former Nickel Creek fiddler makes a coming-of-age tale, yet doesn’t. It’s easy to forget she was just 8 when she co-founded that band and had worldwide fame as a teen, so this intrigues yet remains universal enough to please.
  1. BJ Barham, Rockingham: The frontman for American Aquarium has always worn his heart on his sleeve, and this semi-autobiographical album takes us even further down the road. Barham’s great writing, unshakable honesty and heartfelt vocals make it a journey worth taking.
  1. Bob Mould, Patch the Sky: The ageless Mould continues to craft intelligent and rocking collections full of heft and heart. Sometimes he grows serious, sometimes he waxes amusing, but he always has something worth listening to.
  1. Pete Yorn, Arranging Time: While I’m a big fan of Yorn, the strange thing about his albums are that they are all solid and full of great songcraft, yet fail to leave much of a lasting impression. But in the moment, this is an enjoyable record.
  1. KT Tunstall, KIN: The Scottish songstress returns and in fine form. The record feels like social commentary, a notable journey and yet like an intimate tale told by a friend over a pint. Worth savoring.
  1. Ashley MacIsaac, Helter’s Celtic: MacIsaac continues his reputation as an ace fiddler with an interest in extending the instrument’s footprint through explorations of sampling and hip-hop. He generally succeeds here, although the material isn’t as memorable as one would expect with such an exciting concept.
  1. Tegan and Sara, Heartthrob: First, the small kvetch: This is yet another T+S record that is unnecessarily overproduced. The Quin twins’ songwriting and singing are powerful enough on their own, and the overall more rocking feel helps. Even their flawed albums are better than so much else you can find.
  1. Rachael Yamagata, Tightrope Walker. Through many twists and turns of this project, Yamagata assured fans the result would be worth it. It is. The album’s heartfelt lyrics, sultry vocals and overall ambiance were worth the wait.
  1. Drive-By Truckers, American Band: Powered by perhaps the most dead-on topical single of the year, “What It Means,” the latest by the Athens Southern rock powerhouse finds them continuing to evolve and take on new topics many avoid. Listen to this album and you’ll be glad they do.
  1. Alex Dezen, Alex Dezen: The lead singer of The Damnwells continues to excel in his solo efforts. This one is alternately funny and poignant, silly and deep, owing to Dezen’s superb songwriting skills.
  1. Blue Rodeo, 1000 Arms: Probably one of the more rocking albums from the Canadian folk-rock-country outfits, and also one of its best. Guess they’re not mellowing with age but instead trying to capture more vitality.
  1. Lydia Loveless, Real: Loveless has long been due the acclaim that finally came with this album. The unusually piercing honesty and unquestionable sexiness of her material brings to mind the best of Liz Phair, yet with a bit of twang that makes it all quite remarkable.
  1. The I Don’t Cares, Wild Stab: This duo of Paul Westerberg and Julianna Hatfield produces music about as awesome as you would expect. Here’s hoping they care enough to produce more material.
  1. Tokyo Police Club, Melon Collie and the Infinite Radness, Pts. I and II: The Canadian band put out two EPs under a title riffing on the classic Smashing Pumpkins track, and combined they are some fantastic, jagged, exceedingly catchy rock-pop.
  1. Okee Dokee Brothers, Saddle Up: A Western Adventure Album: OK, it’s technically a children’s album, but it’s some very well-written, arranged and performed Americana that can appeal to music lovers of any age.
  1. The Tragically Hip, Man Machine Poem: It’s hard not to get sentimental over the thought of this potentially being the band’s swan song because of frontman Gord Downie’s terminal cancer. That probably made me treasure it more. But Gord and Co. still kick it and even plow some new acreage in a record that more than stands on its own merits.
Kaleo with a white unicorn

Courtesy of Kaleo’s Instagram: The group with a white unicorn … and the year’s best record.

1. Kaleo, A/B: If somebody told you last year that 2016’s best album come from an Icelandic rock band, would you have bought it? Believe it. The blues-influenced “Way Down We Go,” Soundgardenesque “No Good” and mega-melodic “All the Pretty Girls” are three of the best songs of the year and the rest of the album is more than solid. Small wonder you’ll hear it pop up all over your favorite TV shows … the success is well deserved.

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Forget Thanksgetting … give Thanksgiving its due

In one of the most awful campaigns in modern memory, Verizon converts the holiday to “Thanksgetting.” Walmart talks about being open early and late on Thanksgiving and implying that “everybody wins” (except for the employees who don’t get more time with loved ones). And my inbox has already seen dozens of emails from retailers about using today to get a jump on Black Friday.

Enough!

Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday. I don’t consider it Black Friday Eve.

My memories are of my late grandparents wrangling the extended family for sumptuous meals, laughter and love. We were relegated to the kids’ table, but that was part of the entertainment. If somebody had brought the idea of shopping at a big-box store on Thanksgiving up to my grandfather, he would have ridiculed it, with good reason.

Canadians do their Thanksgiving far away from Christmas, and I’m sure it’s pleasant to just get together with family and delve into food without the clatter of the commercialized version of Christmas nibbling at the edges.

America being America, you can’t bring up the ludicrous nature of retailers opening on Thanksgiving without an argument, since that’s what Americans do. BUT WHAT ABOUT THE FIREFIGHTS AND POLICE WHO WORK ON THANKSGIVING YOU OBVIOUSLY DON’T CARE ABOUT THEM SHARE THIS IF YOU AGREE 93% OF YOU WON’T BECAUSE YOU’RE NOT GOOD AMERICANS, etc.

It’s a disingenuous argument. We all appreciate that police, firefighters, hospital workers and many others work on Thanksgiving and other holidays. It’s required for society to function. I seem to recall society functioning pretty well long before Walmart and its ilk found it necessary to put profits over family by making Thanksgiving about gorging in the aisles too.

***

OK, I’m out and back to gratitude. Instead of thinking about getting, let’s be thankful for what we have, and who we have in our lives. Go read Dave Cameron’s excellent Thanks-living blog entry to get back to what’s good. And may any arguments today instead be over whether stuffing or mashed potatoes are the better side dish. And the answer is stuffing, of course.

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6 Qs with Kristina Halvorson, author of ‘Content Strategy for the Web’

Kristina Halvorson’s Content Strategy for the Web, published in 2009, is simply one of the most important, influential and inspiring books for anybody writing for the web or running a social media account. I’ve loaned out my highlighted copy so many times I need to put a tracking device on it (though many people decided to get their own copy anyway) and it’s the kind of reference that merits rereading from time to time to get back to foundations. Halvorson’s impact extends beyond the book as the firm she founded and leads, Brain Traffic, organizes a wonderful series of Confab conferences, with the next being Confab Higher Ed in New Orleans this November (where I’m speaking).

I recently had the opportunity to ask Halvorson six questions, where she discusses why she wrote the book, offers advice for those implementing content strategy and gives a marvelous turnaround example worth seeing.

TN: You’ve probably heard this question before so I apologize, but for the sake of those reading the blog: What’s your working definition of content strategy?

kristina

Image courtesy of contentstrategy.com

Kristina Halvorson: For seven years, I’ve been saying, “Content strategy guides the creation, delivery, and governance of useful, usable content.” That definition still holds, I think, but Brain Traffic’s “quad” (which includes substance, structure, workflow, and governance) provides a larger, more flexible framework for talking about content strategy.

To be honest, this question actually makes me want to go hide under my bed. There are so many smart, experienced people who answer it in several different ways. For what it’s worth, I still use my short and sweet definition simply because it helps people find a way into the conversation. It’s not overwhelmingly technical or … big.

TN: I think many of us consider your book and tips crucial to content strategy, but clearly it took a while for anybody to articulate it. What drew you to the concept of content strategy and led you to writing the book?

KH: In 2007, Brain Traffic was a healthy little web copywriting agency. I’d been writing for the web for 10 years by that point, and I was getting sick of getting called in at the 11th hour to fill in the lorem ipsum in the wireframes. We never seemed to have the time, budget, or information required to do content right. I decided to start approaching projects more as a consultant than a project manager. In fact, I started using the title “interactive content strategist” … and here I thought I’d made it up! At some point, I figured out content strategy was A THING that existed long before I started using the title. Unfortunately, I could only find a few people out there talking about the topic (Rachel Lovinger, Colleen Jones, and Jeff MacIntyre, for example). So, I felt like there was a real opportunity to get a larger conversation going. That’s why I wrote the book.

TN: Introducing content strategies into organizations is important, but are there any mistakes people should avoid when beginning the process?

KH: Yes, two in particular.

First, you are going to have one hell of a time helping people understand the difference between content strategy and content marketing. “Content marketing strategy” starts with the assumption that content marketing is the right thing to do—that sort of is the antithesis of good content strategy. It’s important to help people understand that, look, content isn’t something we just decide to crank out on an assembly line; it needs strategic consideration that has to start with business outcomes, user needs, and a diagnosis of our current-state content challenges and opportunities. Only then can we make an informed decision about where we are going to focus our content efforts. So don’t make the mistake of starting out with any assumptions about what needs to happen with your content—in marketing, websites, support, corporate communications, social media channels. You simply don’t know until you have a clear understanding of where you are now, and where you need to be.

Second, don’t go in there acting like you know what’s best for everyone. No one cares if content strategy is “the right thing to do.” Most of the time, they care about their own job performance and whatever audience they’re trying to serve. Listen, listen, listen, listen. Tailor your content strategy “sales pitch” to whatever pain people are suffering, or whatever hot topic they’re all fired up about. It’s not about your ideas. It’s about creating and sustaining excellent content that satisfies business and customer needs. That’s it.

TN: Non-writers in general receive often the idea of content strategy well, but after a while they may stray from the path. What tips do you have to keep the content strategy fire burning across the organization?

KH: Again: keep people focused on how content strategy activities—whether in UX, the CMS, or the enterprise as a whole—are solving pain points and opening up new opportunities. It’s crucial that you advertise your activities and successes—even small ones—every step of your content strategy journey. The best success stories I know are the ones where people made time to “roadshow” what they were doing in content strategy and how it was making a difference.

TN: Do you have a favorite turnaround/success story (or stories) on an institution(s) whose content went from a mess to one of the best?

KH: The gov.uk website is every content strategist’s dream success story. They took very complex content nobody could find or understand, and made it clear, accessible, and useful for an entire country. They got an entire GOVERNMENT on board to make government content—which is notoriously structured based on internal org structures—to be based entirely on user needs.

TN: Does the success of Content Strategy for the Web and of related things like the Confab conferences surprise you at all?

KH: Honestly? No. This conversation was way, way overdue. We all needed something to rally around—a simple, straightforward story for why content is hard and what we can do about it. I am proud to have helped tell that story early on, along with of a lot of people who openly shared their ideas and experiences. (This continues to be something so fantastic about the content strategy community!)

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‘Am I the only one …’: On college, isolation and social media

Active Minds'

Active Minds’ “Send Silence Packing” display visited SUNY Oswego.

At first I thought it perhaps a rhetorical quirk. But as I saw it more and more in posts by incoming students in our Facebook group, it emerged as a pattern. And one that causes a bit of concern.

  • “Am I the only one who doesn’t have a roommate yet?”
  • “Am I the only one without a housing assignment?”
  • “So I’m the only person without a full schedule.”
  • “Looks like I’m the only person who doesn’t have a roommate yet.”

Beyond the fact that, no, they were never “the only one” in that situation — in fact, most of their peers were in the same boat — the wording is intriguing. Not “does anybody else have …” or “who else doesn’t have …” but about being the “only” person missing out on the fun. There’s a fear of exclusion pattern among these posts — sure, it’s partly concern that others have something they don’t, but the phrase speaks to isolation.

But then reading an outstanding, troubling New York Times piece, Campus suicide and the pressure of perfection, drove home the point that thinking you’re an outsider, isolated and lonely when entering college can make an already-stressful situation worse. Couple that with a social media where everybody seems to having more fun and fabulous lives than you, and it’s an issue that needs more attention.

Stranger in a strange land

I can identify with how students can feel isolated all too well. After finishing my associate’s degree at home, I went away to a college where I did not know a single soul (one place social media certainly helps). My roommate was a nice guy, but we didn’t click. Within a couple days, it seemed my suitemates were already making plans where I wasn’t invited. The dorm had an ice cream social in the lounge where I had ice cream but was too shy to be social.

The loneliest I’ve ever been and on the edge of despondency, I’d wander out to stare at the nearby canal. “College was supposed to be awesome, but am I the only one not having any fun?” I thought to myself. “Everybody else is enjoying themselves way more than me.” I felt homesick, isolated, unsure why what was supposed to be the best time of my life suddenly felt like one of the worst. But I was determined to make college work — I’d be the first in my family to earn a bachelor’s degree — and after two weeks of loneliness despite being surrounded by friendly people, I made my way to the college newspaper, quickly found a tribe and soon found college the enjoyable experience I expected.

Even in this supposedly more interconnected society, many students entering colleges across the country will feel the same way I did — wondering if they’re “the only one” who feels so lonely — but perhaps do not find their lifeline. Some may drop out, some may turn to drugs or alcohol … and some may decide they can’t go on at all.

The Internet is an illusion

The most famous poem from his engrossing “Spoon River Anthology,” Edward Arlington Robinson’s “Richard Cory” tells the story of a man who was “a gentleman from sole to crown” and “richer than a king,” a man everybody in town envied. But for whatever reason, he also was unspeakably unhappy, as the poem ends:

So on we worked, and waited for the light
And went without the meat, and cursed the bread;
And Richard Cory, one calm summer night
Went home and put a bullet through his head.

Yet that jarring conclusion pales in comparison with tales of real life, such as Penn State student Madison Holleran. Talented, pretty, a successful student-athlete and with seemingly plenty of friends, Madison’s Instagram feed showed a life many a lonely student would envy. But according to an excellent ESPN feature by Kate Fagan, Split Image, Madison was a perfectionist who could not deal with failure or disappointment — or her perception of falling short. A 19-year-old with seemingly everything to live for, Madison Holleran committed suicide in January 2014.

According to Active Minds, a group that attempts to empower students, change the stigma of mental illness on campuses and steer students toward healthier choices, some 1,100 students take their own lives every year. The New York Times piece references helicopter parenting — where students aren’t given the opportunity to solve their own problems — as a contributing factor. But it’s not the only evolution that has raised the stakes.

Is it a competition?

College once was for elites, then in the ’50s/’60s the Baby Boom, GI Bill and many other socioeconomic factors led to college systems offering greater accessibility. Russia’s launch of Sputnik in 1957 and the cold war politics led to the U.S. government pouring money into higher education to produce scientists who could win the technological race. Suddenly college was more widely available, a rite of passage depicted in popular culture. When I went to college, probably about half of my graduating class did not, which was not necessarily uncommon.

Now, for most, college is an expectation of getting ahead. Private courses and consultants show high school students how to excel at standardized tests and make themselves more attractive to institutions. Cottage industries have emerged for both those choosing colleges and the colleges courting them, setting it up as a high-pressure matchmaking exercise. Parents and students make it not only about going to college but more critically about getting into the right school offering the right experiences. And not just any experiences, but experiences where students need to succeed and feel fulfilled. Getting one bad grade in a class can be a big blow; failing a class is devastating.

Put all that into a crucible that is young people coming of age and coming to terms with feelings and coming into a world where they feel they must do everything perfectly — and then project their way of seeing the world, social media, as a place where everybody is happy and successful and winning this perceived competition. So the student asking “am I the only one …” can start believing that they are the outsider, the freak, the failure because of how well everybody else appears to be doing.

If you’ve read this far, thank you. But here is the one thing I’d like everybody to take away from it: Social media is not real life. Don’t compare your daily struggles to the highlight reel you see online. We are all dealing with problems, but there are so many people also willing to help.

Be kind, the old saying goes, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle. The start of college could be an important intersection with the future, but it’s just the start (we hope!) of a long journey that may have twists and turns and tribulations and triumphs. But it’s a road we travel together. You are never “the only one,” ever.

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SUNYCUAD focuses on the power of play

Thanks to Ed Tatton for the photo of some nerdy guy playing Dig Dug

Thanks to Ed Tatton for the photo of some nerdy guy playing Dig Dug.

The recent SUNYCUAD conference hit one out of the park with its theme on the importance of the power of play. Even though we work in higher education, we too often overlook the importance of curiosity, exploration and wonder in the creative process.

Bob Hambley, designer and partner in Hambly and Woolley, set the tone in the opening plenary by saying that we need to play and be curious to succeed in creative work. He cited the work of Dr. Bruce Duncan Perry, who posited that curiosity leads to a circle of creativity: 

  • Curiosity leads to exploration
  • Which leads to discovery
  • Which leads to pleasure
  • Which leads to repetition
  • Which leads to mastery
  • Which leads to confidence
  • Which leads to more curiosity

The challenge, Hambley said, is that curiosity peaks in humans at about age 5. Is it a coincidence that this is when formal education also tends to begin? Along the way, curiosity is discouraged by disapproval, by fear, by a lack of time, and by craving of certainty. The process of what we call “growing up” tamps our creativity down.

But Hambley thinks we can reverse the process by activity letting our curiosity come out of play. He encourages us to work five things into our regular routine to keep our curiosity strong:

  1. Observe
  2. Inquire
  3. Challenge
  4. Explore
  5. Take risks

The risk-taking part is important. Higher ed focuses so much (too much) on best practices, sometimes to the exclusivity of innovation and new ideas. But we can never evolve without risk. If we fail or if we succeed, the most important thing is that either road leads to learning, Hambley said.

After watching Hambley’s inspiring talk, I emphasized taking risks more in my presentation with (excellent) Oswego student blogger and intern Lizzy Marks, 6 Suggestions for Successful Student Storytelling. To invite student storytelling into your narratives, you have to take risks and trust people. But somebody had to take a risk to create the colleges and universities that make up the SUNY system — and making the system was a big risk in itself. Compared to the risk people like Oswego founder Edward Austin Sheldon took in the 19th century, hiring a student blogger seems like a fairly small deal.

Perhaps the biggest highlight was the trip to Rochester’s Strong Museum of Play, where we explored exhibits on Sesame Street and other children’s programs, rekindled our younger years with classic arcade games and enjoyed the natural wonder of an amazing butterfly garden.

The looks of wonder and amazement in the butterfly garden speak volumes.

The looks of wonder and amazement in the butterfly garden speak volumes.

What was your favorite toy?

A wonderful question that cropped up from time to time was “What was your favorite toy?” For me, it involved trips to the dentist: While becoming creative didn’t require pulling teeth, getting my favorite toys sometimes did.

We went to a dentist named Dr. Betts in Auburn. The most memorable part was that at the end, our reward was selecting a little rubber animal. Which seems small, perhaps, except that our collection of rubber animals turned into a big community. My brothers Joel and Colin assembled their little communities and the Little Animals, as we came to call them, all interacted with each other and had many adventures, from football games to missions of international espionage to battling Star Wars characters.

From the power of playing with the Little Animals, my brothers and I learned three important things that followed us into our creative endeavors:

1. Storytelling. Without leaving the house, those animals went on adventures far and wide, to Soviet Russia, to the moon, to distant planets. We learned to tell a story — generally flights of fancy, yes — but to create characters and motivations and cohesive narratives. I honestly look back with a sense of awe at how sophisticated we were as kids when it came to crafting the adventures of the Little Animals.

2. Collaboration. As noted, all three of us had our own sets of animals, but they all interacted with each other in larger narratives. They generally began with a concept from one of us, often taking from TV or a movie but sometimes just dreamed up, with the others adding to it to keep the action going. In retrospect, I am so grateful for such an awesome preparation for collaborative creative work.

3. Community. Every adventure depended on the Little Animals working together and bringing their own strengths to the table to solve whatever challenge they faced. I still remember my characters like Jerry Cat, Sammy Squirrel, Singo Seal, Danny Dolphin, among others, and how they were all pieces of our larger Little Animal community that showed that togetherness conquered all.

Wow. That’s so much more than I realized. We grow up — or so we think — but how we played as kids continue to influence us. We also need to make sure that childlike curiosity and our willingness to play stay with us too.

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Celebrate your unsung heroes! They are campus treasures.

loisThey don’t appear in admissions materials. They aren’t generally the subject of news releases. They’re not mentioned at orientation. Yet they may be the people your students remember most and love the best.

Your unsung heroes are a huge part of your culture, even if you don’t see them in committee meetings and special luncheons. We recently learned, quite pleasantly really, that one of the biggest “stars” to our students and alumni is Lois Terminella, who has brightened the day — in ways large and small — for decades of students at Lakeside Dining Center.

My colleague Jeff Rea recently interviewed Lois for our Spotlight feature in our Campus Update newsletter. Posting to social media was a no-brainer, but we never imagined the explosion of love that followed … 81 comments, almost all of them adoring, with 674 likes and 168 shares.

Posting a link on Twitter yielded an immense (for us, anyway) 54 retweets and 56 favorites. Click the link in the second paragraph above and you’ll find more wonderful comments on the Campus Update story.

Lois, quite simply, is a gem and the love via social media shows how special she is to the SUNY Oswego family.

A gentleman by the name of Peter Fland added this lovely comment on Facebook about another unsung hero beloved by alumni:

Every generation has their Lois. At Waterbury and Scales in the early 60s Louise the cleaning lady was one of ours. Everyone loved her to the point that she was featured on our float in one of the parades. She did many things, but the funniest of all was when she would push into the bathrooms and say “Good Morning Darlins – Are ya decent” – after she was in. One day I was late for a presentation and struggling to iron a shirt. She pushed me away, told me to get my shower, and finished my shirt. I do not know how she knew I was pressed for time, but she did. 50 years later I remember her fondly. Three cheers and a toast to all the of these wonderful people. Congratulations to Lois and all like her. They will always have a piece of our hearts.

Lois and Louise are exceptional, to be sure, but every campus has its unsung heroes that may fly under the radar of many but present some of the fondest memories to your generations of students.

Find those unsung heroes. Celebrate them. Share their stories. You might be amazed by the impact they’ve had … and your students and alumni will have a chance to show their love to those who very much deserve it.

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