I spent last weekend in Middletown, Connecticut, primarily to attend a meeting of the President’s Council of my alma mater, Wesleyan University. The Council is composed of a group of 40 or so alumni from a range of disciplines and backgrounds, and is intended to offer discussion and guidance to the president and the University administration. (This discussion and guidance is a supplement to other sources, such as that from the Board of Trustees, which has a fiduciary role.)
Our meeting focused on two key topics: a review of key metrics for the University and the communications strategy and plan developed by the new vice president of communications. The metrics topic provoked discussion about which metrics were most “meaningful” to the mission and which also reflected the values and outcomes of the University. Of course metrics are very tricky, and a fair amount of time was spent recognizing the ways they can distort focus rather than sharpen it. The law of unintended consequences is never far when metrics are at hand.
The communications discussion was more wide ranging, as one might expect, and discussion of “how” (i.e., media) quickly morphed into loose debate about the “what” of content. A question about what the goals of the communication strategy should be evolved to a discussion about what the University’s brand is and should be. This was fascinating to me on many levels. Obviously, brand and identity inform the strategy, but it also should be possible to articulate the desired outcomes of a communication strategy. It was also clear to me that loyalty for one’s particular experience as an undergrad, and possibly as an alum over a period of time, was a key driver of discussion. I was left with a deeper respect for governance of a living institution, one that stands for some constant and universal things even as the institution is also shaped so much by its students, and then alumni, and their engagement and experience.
I remembered, while sitting in that room, that my chosen profession when I was about to graduate was educational administration. I had worked as a student interviewer in the Admissions Office my senior year, and was lucky enough to get a job later that summer as an assistant dean of admissions at a small liberal arts college in upstate New York. As I sat there and as I write this, I see that my passion for education and all that it can do, and for Wesleyan in particular, is still alive.
The highlight of the day was joining a group of students for informal discussions about career, job searches and the future. They were bright, articulate and impressive, although they were each on a different spot on the continuum of knowing what they wanted to “do” and what should guide their process. It was fun to ask them questions in response to theirs, and to dig together about their interests, motivations, ambitions and aspirations. They were polite and sophisticated in their interactions, which helped dispel the stereotype of young people as less interested in social face to face interaction than social media on their phones! It is a hopeful, heartening experience to think about these students as our country’s future.
It also occurred to me that I sit exactly where they do, albeit nearly 35 years later, older and with more experience: full of potential, energy and curiosity, and a vague sense for what to do next to find my way. What do I want to do? Who do I want to be? Each conversation is a spark that illuminates part of the path for each of us. In that moment, we find our commonality and community even in the ways we are so different. During the first part of my career (at least until this January!) I was guided by a loose sense of direction: finding and doing what was new, interesting, and challenging. A fellow alum offered his perspective this way: he focused on determining and then doing what made him happy. In his case, he studied chemistry and worked in a lab as an undergrad, which made him happy. After a number of years in the role, he stepped down not too long ago as a CEO of a pharmaceutical company!
I learned again last weekend that we often get back as much or more as we are giving. I think the students appreciated our discussions; I know I did. The whole experience of being back on campus, engaging with the president and staff and alums, and then with students, was enriching and stimulating. While I’m not sure what I want to do as a result – and I’m not under any pressure to have a firm direction or plan — I am happy to have found so much to inform my experience and thinking.
In other news on the ‘school’ front, I have signed up for a six session drawing 101 class that starts in early May. I’m excited to remember how to see again, and to learn more about putting what I see to paper with pencil. I have been yearning to explore the visual arts, and have felt curtailed by inexperience and lack of skill, if not talent! I’ve also found an “absolute beginner” hip hop six session dance workshop that would start in mid-June and think that would be a fun way to challenge myself physically while learning more about the genre. If new and interesting and challenging are still my guiding principles, I’m still on the path forward.
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