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A peek into the lives of those who learn, teach, research and work at the College.

It’s Not Linear; 2/28/14

March 24, 2014 by

In November 0f 2009, I wrote that SHC was becoming MANOS and that the timing seemed more than incidental.  (And, it happened even before Chrissy Sherman joined the team.)  It seemed clear to me then that the project was evolving from the “service learning” group of 2006 and was finding its way.  The new name, Medical Aid Nicaragua: Outreach Scholarship, was in part a proclamation of  vision: to learn, to research, to engage with, to be mindful of presumptions about what we’re doing and how it may be received by those with whom we intend to partner.

In a post dated March 11, 2010, I noted that we would begin this year to focus our community efforts in Chaguite.  We estimated that there are about 40 houses in this community and by the end of the 2010 March trip, we were close to completing interviews in all of the homes.  From the same trip, I described meeting with a local “brigidista.”  His name is Ysidro and it’s clear that he works very hard to care for his family and still finds time to serve in a volunteer capacity that involves “looking after” the health and health care needs of the community.

And so it is 2014, and we keep coming back—now routinely three times each year, in some fashion:  Small teams in January (like the one this year that facilitated community meetings with representatives of our newest partners from the Engineers Without Borders chapter at Cal Poly – Pomona);  the full team each March; and a team of three to eight students in the summers.  The work proceeds—slowly, deliberately, sometimes seemingly as much sideways as forward, but always as fully as possible in step with community partners.  Chrissy Sherman ’14 has traveled to do research in the community eight times, as has Lester Chavez ’14.  Other experienced team members have traveled from three to seven times each and, through that dedication, have developed understandings, appreciations, and real friendships within the community.

We now know the residents of the households in Chaguite, which number about 50.  We have mapped the region, the households, the health problems and assets. We seem to be realizing the vision in our name—and we continue to worry about our presence, our role, our relationships, and our partnership. Through repeated interviews in all households in the community, we have come to know residents and we have learned about their health and healthcare concerns, needs, and priorities.  We learned about the leaders and about interpersonal networks – those groups of people who communicate with one another and collaborate on occasion.  In our earliest interviews, we were struck by the paucity of communications and collaboration even as residents were able to identify “leaders.”  Residents told us that they did not work with leaders and that leaders did not work with them or understand their concerns and needs.  Through Social Networks Analysis (SNA), we identified “organic” networks of communication, groups of residents who do talk together and we encouraged them to meet together and with us to help us to understand the health and healthcare priorities.  They were modest in number, scope, and inclusiveness.

The social networks analysis (SNA) techniques enabled us to calculate measures of “network density” (the proportion of interpersonal connections reported as a proportion of the total possible connections for the respondents).  It is an imperfect method and an imperfect indicator, but SNA measures of network density provide an empirical and quantitative way to gauge communications and collaboration within communities.  In general, there is inadequate research to allow us to estimate what levels of density are “normal” or “typical,” but at a minimum, we can take measures at different points in time and compare these to observe change.  Our first round of research provided a network density estimate of less than two percent – that is, of all the dyadic (two-person) relationships that might exist in the community, less than two percent were reported as existing.

We have been working with these organic groups (which we began calling “regional groups”) for several years now and through communications within and across these groups, have worked with residents to create and authorize a five-year plan to improve health and healthcare.  Through these groups, we have partnered with the community to advance a project with Engineers Without Borders (EWB). We strongly suspect that our next round of SNA research will reveal significant changes in the level of estimated network density.  We believe, further, that network density is crucial to the development of effective social infrastructure – the organizing of resources, activities, and tasks needed for communities to collaborate to build sustainable solutions to shared problems.  We won’t know until we do a second round of systematic research, but it appears that levels of communication and collaboration have increased markedly over the last four years as we have encouraged engagement through the organic networks and participation through these in regular community meetings.  (We’ll be sure to report our findings to Chrissy Sherman no matter where her FOMO efforts may take her next.)

This year, we undertook interviews in households that have not been represented regularly (or at all) in regional group meetings or community meetings.  We are trying to understand how we might make engagement in community-level efforts to improve health more inviting, more accessible.  We were accompanied by community members from the respective regional groups in our hope to engage residents more fully in our research efforts.  The residents were more inclined to chastise those we visited than we preferred and we encouraged a point of view that emphasizes the value for all in increasing participation—particularly in the developing project to provide access to water for everyone in the community.

In a final note:  Chrissy Sherman once drove for approximately 3 seconds in Nicaragua.

Persistence and Partnering. 2/27/14

March 21, 2014 by

The MANOS advance team (Johnathan Maza ’15; 5th project trip); Stephanie Wraith ’15, fourth project trip; Sarah Martin ’17, 1st project trip; and me, 8th project trip) met with Dr. Benito Blanco, Medical Director of the MINSA clinic in Totogalpa, Nicaragua.  We summarized our medical and community efforts over the past seven years in Cuje (micro-region) and the community of Chaguite.  Dr. Blanco expressed appreciation for these efforts—and some mild aggravation about the lack of coordination of our efforts with his office.  He noted that our clinic has been helpful but could be more effective through such coordination.  We agree—and we are encouraged by his perspective.  We’ve been urging that point of view since 2007.  There are several plausible explanations for and possibly contributing factors to the lack of effective partnering to date.  It is likely, for example, that for the first several years the local medical professionals saw no reason to believe that we would keep coming.  There was a different clinic director when we began.  He’s now the mayor of the municipality of Totogalpa.  And, when we began, the region was in a deep drought and even the most meager of resources had dried up.  At that time, we found the clinic woefully under-staffed and with the most minimal medicines and equipment.  There was a “siege” kind of feeling about the operation and the clinic staff seemed more than satisfied for us to do anything—without much consideration of strategic advantages.

The entire region has seen remarkable improvements over the last several years:  more rain, resurgence of flora and fauna following the transformation of the ecology through clear-cutting of the evergreen forests, a relatively stable government, and increased presence and investment of national and international NGOs.  Like the clinic, the mayor’s office, where we met with the Sub-mayor and the General Secretary of Community Cabinets, the facilities were in good repair and had an air of organizational efficiency that clearly was absent when we visited earlier.

It seems likely that these things have contributed most to the current moment for engagements:  (1) Success by Dr. Blanco and his colleagues and staff in gaining and using resources to achieve organizational and professional goals; (2) the increase in NGO presence in the area, leading to a sense of need and possibility for strategic arrangements; and (3) our persistence in returning to the area.

We do not quibble with Dr. Blanco’s view that more can be done through better collaboration. That, essentially, is our mantra.

We met also with officials in the mayor’s office.  We heard a similar message and we embraced that with equal enthusiasm.  We deserve and take no credit for their (seemingly) increased enthusiasm to partner—other than our persistent effort to learn from them how we can best work with them to partner with communities to improve health and health care.  Readiness to partner involves more than one potential participant.  And, in the current era of volunteering, service, service learning, engaged scholarship, action research, and participatory development, it seems necessary to establish proper creds in order to expect authentic discussions about the role that might be played by outsiders.

Mark Edmundson

March 21, 2014 by

Mark Edmundson’s essay, Who Are You and What Are You Doing Here, was one of the first things I read for my creative writing class this semester. It was interesting, mainly for its syntax—it was relatable, directed toward undergraduates, but still combined an interesting vocabulary with a personally relevant subject. And secondly, it was perhaps the first, if not the only, piece I have read in my college career that was entirely about college. In the essay, Edmundson described his own undergraduate experience, his experiences teaching, and what higher education meant to him; he combines humor with solemnity, memories from the past with hopes for the future. He raised existential questions, forced me to think seriously about who I am, and what exactly I’m doing in college. As a student with an interest in pursuing a career in higher education, this was the first time I could actually connect with a written work we studied in class—it was a beautifully written, personally relevant piece.

And so when Edmundson came to speak to the English Department yesterday, I was more than thrilled. Here was a man, a brilliant man, who advocated studying a subject purely out of interest, for pursuing a career based on long term personal and career goals rather than salary, and for exploring the meaning of the self—what it is to be a young adult on the precipice of a career. In his lecture, Edmundson divided career paths into three ideals: Compassion, Courage, and Contemplation, and stated that essentially every career path correlates with an ideal (save for the arts, which constitute a separate ideal.) And here he was, this man who inspired me and gave me hope through his words, standing ten feet away and telling me I could choose a job I loved, simply because I loved it.

This is one of those moments when I felt so incredibly fortunate to be an undergraduate at William & Mary—this speaker, whose fame could not perhaps compete with the likes of Maya Angelou and the Dalai Lama, could journey here and talk to students like me, students whose lives he has changed without knowing. I had thought I had chosen the wrong major—the classic works of Dickinson and Dickens and James simply don’t hold the allure they used to. I know now that I have not chosen the wrong subject to study—I simply just needed to be re-inspired, to see English as something relatable and pertinent, rather than dusty novels from centuries past. Seeing an author—one who was very much alive, and acquainted with modernity, put English in perspective. Words will always be relevant, ideas will always inspire, and I do have the power to choose a career simply on the basis of personal ideals. I just needed someone to reaffirm it.

Spring Break!

March 20, 2014 by

I remember the first time I learned the word “misnomer.” I was reading The Reptile Room by Lemony Snicket, which found the unfortunate Baudelaire orphans living with their uncle, a herpetologist who had recently discovered a snake called “The Incredibly Deadly Viper.” The snake’s name, the book went on to explain, was a misnomer, as the snake was completely harmless!

I’ve since discovered other misnomers. Like the funny bone. (It’s a nerve, not a bone.) Or the strawberry. (It’s an aggregate accessory fruit, not an actual berry. Just in case you were wondering.) My most recent discovery? “Spring Break.”

This might not make sense to those of you still in high school, for whom Spring Break arrives as a warm, sunshine-y, homework-free week in the middle of April. But for us, the term is a little more confusing. I’d argue that in college, it’s not so much a “spring break” as it as a “mid-winter pause!” This year, the first official day of break was March 1, which meant that it was still technically February as most students packed their bags and headed home. Although I escaped the cold weather for a few days when visiting my sister in California, I came back to find my Northern Virginia hometown coated with several more inches of snow.

While it might feel strange to celebrate “spring” with hot chocolate and snow boots, there’s something to be said for this early break. We may joke about its early arrival, but by the time break rolls around, everyone agrees that it’s a welcome respite from the stress of the first six weeks of the semester. The timing of a typical college semester may mean that “spring” comes a little earlier for us, but it also means that when high school students are buckling in for AP Exams in the beginning of May, we’re already getting ready to head home for the summer! And a summer vacation that starts in May? That’s a misnomer that I’m okay with.

- Elisabeth Bloxam

In Response: One Tribe

March 20, 2014 by

I was linked to this article through Facebook, through mutual friends of mutual friends – there’s always less than seven degrees of separation between W&M and the other schools in Virginia.

After reading it – which I hope you have just done – I had two feelings: sympathy and inspiration. William & Mary does not struggle from a lack of community like George Mason might. I could argue the W&M community is so strong that it’s always there, even when you don’t need it, or don’t want it. I struggle to list examples of times when I felt entirely alone at W&M, when I was not supported by at least one friend or one professor or one random stranger. From long nights in Swem to sunny afternoons in the Sunken Garden, dismissing the feeling of community on campus is ill-advised. It’s an atmosphere – if you can’t feel it, then I suggest you walk around during finals and feel the tension in the air so thick you could slice it like chocolate cake.

Let’s start with our mission statement: “To attract outstanding students from diverse backgrounds…develop a diverse faculty…provide a challenging undergraduate program that encourages creativity, independent thought and intellectual depth, breadth, and curiosity… instill in its students an appreciation for the human condition” – amongst the better excerpts. Until I was writing this, I hadn’t stopped to read our mission statement. My thoughts? We hit the nail on the head, dead on.

But who are we, and where are we going? It’s important to recognize that much of our future is rooted in our history, but we do not limit ourselves to our traditions from the past. Sure, the vision for W&M includes the final construction of the Integrated Science Center and a new “Arts Quarter”. The College is working hard to improve student services, like dining and residence life. Students have made great strides in impacting the community of Williamsburg – Scott Foster recently announced his campaign for re-election to the Williamsburg City Council once his term is up on June 30. As early as 1699, a W&M student expressed, “That the College will help to make the Town, and the Town to make the College…”. Is this how we define our future? Is this what makes us unique? Many other universities have aspirations and plans and strategies, so no – these factors are not what set us apart.

It’s an issue for every member of the W&M community – unlike GMU, most W&M students are not commuters, but is residence really the qualifying factor? What about a “rallying point” – we did get pretty rowdy a few weeks ago with the CAA Championship. Everyone has their own favorite “historical” tradition: Commencement, Yule Log, Charter Day, and Convocation to name a few. What is the deciding factor for community? Mr. Muraca is spot on: people.

Our admission process seeks out the best people. People that, since Thomas Jefferson, have had high emotional intelligence, valued academia, and exercised moral judgment and ethical standards. We identify with each other, we celebrate each other, we impact each other. Each and every one of us is a brick in W&M’s foundation, regardless of whether or not we choose to be. This is who we are – One Tribe, One Family.



The Most Asked Question

March 19, 2014 by

We Admit It!  We are getting close to wrapping up the freshman Regular Decision process.  The last files are being reviewed, Committee discussions are winding down, the printer is going full speed printing out acceptance letters and Dean Broaddus’ green pen is at the ready – prepared to sign thousands of offers of admission.  These are just a handful of the literally scores of steps that we must go through in order to release decisions.

At this time, we are often flooded with questions about when we will release decisions.  All we know for certain is that they will be released by April 1, but we cannot be more precise beyond that.  Each of the dozens of steps that must be completed in order to release decisions is dependent on each of the other steps being completed in turn.  And then there are those things that are beyond our control.  Last year, an unexpected snowfall closed the College and set us back a day.

We appreciate that applicants are on pins and needles awaiting their decisions; we appreciate that.  We are just as eager to get you your decision as you are to receive it.  But right now we need to focus on completing our process.  Last year we received over 200 comments on one blog asking when decisions would be released.  While we are more than happy to respond to any question (be it on the phone, via email, a comment on this blog or on our social media channels), the time we take to respond to this question when it’s asked over and over, takes us away from finishing the process and getting you those decisions.

Remember, when we push the proverbial button and release decision emails, we will post that information on our website, social media and our “Decisions, Decisions” blog will go up.

Until then, we appreciate your continued patience.  We can see the light at the end of the tunnel.  It won’t be too much longer now.

Wendy Livingston ’03, M.Ed. ‘09
Associate Dean of Admission

What do people do for you?

March 18, 2014 by

From this week’s volunteer listserv:

Fifteen years ago, I met some good friends through my graduate program. They visited me this weekend from their home in Raleigh, where they tutor a little boy, improve energy efficiency in old buildings, and wrangle and dote on their three lively grandchildren. Over breakfast we discussed the big questions of life, including, “how do you feel most connected to something bigger than you are alone?” For each of us, our first answer was the same – through other people.

I encourage you to take the idea of Ubuntu seriously. (That is, understanding that people are people through other people, in the words of Desmond Tutu.) How do the people around you make you more human, by their implicit requests to be heard and seen? How do the people you avoid make you more human, by calling you to humility and reflection? How do the people you haven’t met yet make you more human, by their proleptic promises to changing your life one day?

This week, I invite you to hear, see, be humble, reflect and eagerly await the ways so many people will transform you.

Overheard in Committee — Estimating Class Rank

March 14, 2014 by

We Admit It!  Committee is a long, drawn-out, painstaking process.  But it’s also an exciting, fun, rewarding process.  It’s what helps us round out the incoming class and reminds us why we do what we do.  This week we press on.  Each day we dig deeper into applications and we learn about new students.  So without further ado, here’s what was overheard in committee today.

“Does the school give us any indication of where the student falls in the class?”

You can hear this question in committee multiple times each day.  It’s part and parcel of that all-important school context we’ve talked about numerous times in our Overheard in Committee blog series (as well as numerous other blogs about our process).  Fewer than 40% of the students who apply to W&M report a specific class rank.  And that’s fine.  We understand why schools choose not to rank, and we don’t disadvantage students who don’t have a specific rank.  But when we can estimate rank it’s helpful to us in assessing the student’s academic record.

Many schools will provide us some contextual information based on your GPA.  For example, the Common Application’s Secondary School Report allows counselors to indicate a decile (the student is in the first decile/top 10% or second decile/top 20%) or an estimated rank (approximately top 15%).  It also allows them to provide the high GPA for your class.  Or counselors may in their recommendations say this student “is near the top of her class.”  Or school profiles may provide a GPA distribution via quartile or quartile ranges or they might plot GPAs on a graph.

We’re not beholden to an exact number or even an estimated rank.  Again, it just provides context to your transcript so that we can get a sense of how well you are performing within your school environment.  A 4.2 GPA doesn’t mean much without that context.  If the high GPA for the class is a 4.3 that tells us the student is at the top of their class.  Or if on the secondary school report, the counselor estimates that rank to be about the top 25% of the class, well that gives us context also.  And this context doesn’t exist within a vacuum.  We then consider that information within the greater context of your schools (its courses/programs, competitiveness, grading scale, etc.).

As we review applications we try to collect all of the information we can glean from what’s submitted on a student’s behalf before making a decision.  Knowledge is power right?  The more we know the more informed our decision on your application can be.

And with that, we press on.

Wendy Livingston ’03, M.Ed. ‘09
Associate Dean of Admission

The Anti-list Manifesto

March 11, 2014 by

Ten things every human should know:

1. Love is the essence of life and all understanding
2. Spend time with yourself
3. You will get out of life what you put into it
4. Sometimes the things you thought were the biggest mistakes turn out to be the greatest blessings
5. Carpe Diem
6. Try new things
7. Explore the world
8. Reach for the stars
9. Pause. Breathe. Exhale.

And then?

10. Throw out numbers 1 thru 9…

Challenge the status quo by taking over-simplified bullet points and turning them into complex words and paragraphs that take energy to decipher. Push yourself to articulate observations and integrate experiences that speak to your heart through rich meaning and understanding. Refrain from speaking generally and instead focus on the various resources and opportunities that call you to action. Break the social norm and bring a new light to former lists that provide a framework for how to live. There are infinitely more than “20 things that every 20-something should do.” Get creative. Think for yourself. Inspire knowledge within by seeking opportunities that captivate your soul.

Use these lists as a guide, but do not take them for fact. The most dangerous trap is taking something at face value and believing it just because it’s convenient. Be wary of easy. The easier the challenge, the less opportunity for growth. When you want to resign to lists, ask yourself why? Your motives provide key clues to your actions and ultimate outcome.

Simple is easy to digest, but it is also easy to contradict. It is easy to agree with and easy to forget. The word itself defines its potential and perpetuates apathetic engagement.

In a world ripe with information, it seems silly to settle for simple. I understand the value of removing distraction and “getting to the point”, but I refuse to think that people should orient their lives around something as concrete as a list.

I believe there is beauty in descriptive words. There is beauty in explanation and reflection. Imagery, alliteration and detail provide our imaginations with thoughts and ideas to deliberate and discuss. Words bring definition and power to otherwise meaningless observations. Words explain, define, create and elaborate on experiences that enrich our lives and grow us into the individuals we hope to become.

Live in list and you’ll miss your life. Live in the moment and you might just be surprised at what you’ll find…

The Power of Teamwork: How I Know I’m Heading Down the Right Career Path

March 7, 2014 by

When I was in high school (and up to this point in college) all my school work had been rather lonely. In high school, group projects were only in class. In college a group meets just to delegate work for the individual members to do at home, and then meets up again to fit everything together. Most work is done silently and alone. The flow of knowledge is from teacher to student, and rarely do other students get involved in that relationship.

For most people, that works. I always thought it worked for me; it’s how I’ve been learning for the past 19 years. But this semester I started participating in more activities in the business school, and I found a totally new way of learning that makes more sense to me than anything before.

In late January, I participated in a conference called 3 Day Start-up, where teams literally build a company in 3 days. We started Friday night with everyone throwing around ideas for start-ups. New businesses do not need to be unique or revolutionary – you just need to do whatever it is better than anyone else. The 3DS participants with the best ideas pitched to the group, and we voted on 3 of our favorite ideas to execute during the weekend. We then split into groups and got to work. I ended up on a team that was trying to design a new hotel management system in which customers could check in on iPads and bypass the long check-in process. The traditional system costs about $30,000; we would sell ours for $4,000. Hotel clerks and clients would both have less hassle.

The guys who proposed this idea had been working on it for a while and already had a prototype set up. The team split into a group who worked on coding the system and a group who worked on marketing and business pitches. I was on the business side. My team spent Saturday doing market research – actually going from hotel to hotel to ask clerks what they thought about the product and what kind of suggestions they had for us. Learning about our market opened our eyes to a lot of nuances we would have never known about. Great Wolf Lodge, for example, we thought would love the idea because they get so busy at certain times. However, since they value customer interaction, they weren’t as enthusiastic about it as we thought. Other hotels, like the Hilton, thought it would be great during peak seasons or for business people who would rather avoid interaction.

On Sunday we worked on pitching the idea to investors and fitting the last pieces together. Watching everything come together was amazing! The prototype that the coders were working on all weekend looked like a professional app on an iPad. The business team had all the details of the pitch worked out. It was absolutely flawless, and I was so proud of the team.

The second instance of true teamwork happened for my Social Entrepreneurship class. The big project for the class is creating our own social venture in groups of 4. This is essentially like the 3 Day Start-up, except the start-ups are non-profits that help alleviate some sort of social problem. My group of four met up on a snowy night to figure out what in the world we were going to do for this project. What big social problem were we going to attempt to solve? We sat around pitching ideas, until someone said something that clicked for all of us: a website that crowd-sources local suggestions to fix local problems. We figured the best people to solve social problems are the ones actually there witnessing them.

With a big whiteboard and a rush of inspiration, we hashed out the business plan right there, challenging each others ideas and encouraging innovation. It was here that I had what I would call my first “flow” moment.

“Flow is the mental state of operation in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity. In essence, flow is characterized by complete absorption in what one does.”

I felt invigorated and unstoppable, and this, I realized, is why I’m a business major. I learn from my peers, not myself. Sure, studying for an economics test is rewarding and challenging, but my own efforts are not nearly as spectacular as the ending product through teamwork. Both these experiences showed me that the combined knowledge of multiple people who are committed to a goal is far more powerful than the singular knowledge of one person. A team is the convergence of multiple experiences, viewpoints, and educations. A well-functioning team can increase productivity exponentially.

I just got my acceptance letter to the business school a few weeks ago, and I’m already ecstatic by the possibilities ahead. In the first semester, called “the block”, administration puts together groups of 4 or 5 students that take all classes together and work on homework and projects together. I’m so excited to integrate teamwork into my everyday education. For the first time in college, I can really visualize transferring my classroom setting to a work environment. It’s thrilling and satisfying to know the path I’m choosing is leading to a career that I’m going to love.