Snapping change

The Madison of 1972 was a very different place than the Madison of today. During the 1970s, the public perception of the college began a dramatic transformation. One of the players in that tectonic shift was photographer Tommy Thompson. His photography helped the public understand that the Madison of old was shedding its identity as a teachers college for women and becoming a vibrant and exciting co-educational university. Tommy retired this year, but thousands of his images remain, along with the influence on many students he mentored over the years. Kayla Marsh (’16) takes a look back over a career defined by change.

A picture of change

by Kayla Marsh (’16)  

It was a dark year for Tommy Thompson. It was 1972, and Thompson had just taken over as the director of JMU’s photography department.  Processing photos in Thompson’s first year as the university’s photographer took place in the cold and dreadful “worm room.”  Sharing the Burruss Hall attic with another professor who was raising planaria — small worms used by science students — made the upgrade six months later to a real office in Godwin Hall feel all the more worthwhile. While the chemicals from working in the “worm room” stained Thompson’s fingernails and most of his clothing, nothing could stop his passion for photography at JMU.

“I did it all. I did sports and academic work. I enjoyed being a photographer. It was a neat time,” Thompson said in his gentle, southern accent.

(Photo of Tommy Thompson  courtesy of The Breeze)

(Photo of Tommy Thompson courtesy of The Breeze)

More than four decades later, Thompson is still at JMU, but just for a few more weeks. Although he retired from his job as a university photographer in 2000, he continued his work as an adjunct instructor in the School of Media Arts and Design, where he has taught photojournalism since 1975.

“I’ve always looked at students not as students, but as young photographers wanting to learn, and if I could trip a light on one out of the 18 [students I teach each semester] I thought I was doing pretty good,” Thompson said.

Thompson has seen numerous students become success stories. One former student, Maryland’s Portrait Photographer of the Year for four consecutive years and Kodak Gallery Award winner, Sandra Paetow, started out looking for federal work study that involved typing in 1976. Thompson’s department had one of the only jobs left.

“Well, you have to take pictures if you’re going to work for me,” Thompson said to Paetow while introducing her to the capital-letters-only typewriter.

Another Tommy Thompson success story happened in in 2004 — when Thompson mentored a student named Casey Templeton. Templeton, now 31, is a commercial advertising photographer based in Richmond, Va., where he works for himself. Though Thompson was no longer working for the JMU photography department after 2000, he still visited the department, where he met Templeton, who went on to become a nationally recognized collegiate photographer and also took photos for National Geographic and other major publications.

“He taught me to re-evaluate my standard of quality. He really pushed me to do better,” Templeton said.

He also taught the importance of maintaining quality relationships with clients. Thompson has built a platform in the School of Media Arts and Design and credibility for photography. He only teaches one class but takes it so seriously that it has raised the bar as far as how sought-after the class is among students. Thompson reminds students that they can always do better.

“I wouldn’t be where I was if it wasn’t for him. He’s continued to be a great asset for me, on my thinking, my industry and my work. He is the reason I am able to make a living doing this,” Templeton said.

SMAD professor George Johnson, who will take over teaching the photo class in the fall, has known Thompson since 1984 and has seen him work well with students.

“The photographers he’s had have just been phenomenal,” Johnson said. “The passion that the students had and the guidance that Tommy gave them is all it took to get them out there.”

Thompson’s own beginnings were humble. Out of high school, he wanted to be in the Navy but “didn’t like the bell-bottomed trousers,” and, at 5-foot-7, was too short, calling himself “the runt of the family.” After doing police reporting and surveillance photography, Thompson started working for Harrisonburg radio station WKCY as a newsman. Desperate for a new job, he worked for free starting out, but little by little began to get paid because of his quick ability to find stories, which led to a job at Harrisonburg’s Daily News-Record. He would beat others to stories and get them on the Associated Press wire, which then distributed content to member newspapers.

The university hired Thompson four years after he started work at the Daily News-Record.

“I had a natural curiosity. Being in the news and having those credentials gets you into a lot of places. It was helpful to stay in the news business,” Thompson said.

When JMU hired him in 1972, he was part of then-JMU President Ronald Carrier’s plan to hire photographers and expand the public information staff. At first, Thompson was given six assignments but didn’t have a camera, equipment or a studio.

Just like he did with students, Thompson guided JMU, helping the university make the switch from film to digital photography. In the 1980s, with computers becoming essential to photography, Thompson kept pushing for new equipment to match the change in technology.

“I told the institution we were changing to digital, which didn’t go over well with artists who were used to putting things together by hand, the old way,” Thompson said.

And so the photography department said goodbye to the wet darkroom and brown skin from the chemicals that came with it.

While working at JMU, he worked for media companies such as United Press International, shooting photography in Western Virginia until the 1990s.

“There weren’t that many people around. I was good. I won a lot of awards—a variety at the time,” Thompson said.

Thompson has been able to bring his practical experience to the classroom, where he most recently has taught every Tuesday and Thursday at 2 p.m. Smiling in his gray polo and jeans, he’s approachable. He assigns his class a “read the background” project in which the CEO of a company may want his picture taken under a tree when it’s sunny. He draws a diagram of the lighting setup before sending them outside, and says, “Here’s the sun. You probably recognize it.”

He lists off every possible situation that could happen in a real-life scenario, but reassures them one thing that will always help them succeed.

“You have to use you intellect, which all of you have. Your creativity, which all of you have,” he tells them.

He takes his students on an assignment to practice what he taught. He looks up, waving to other students passing by the photo site, turns and says, “Now how’d y’all do?”

SMAD student Abigail Moore (’16) said Thompson’s class has helped her become more comfortable with the camera.

“He’s really passionate, so he is really into the class,” she said.  “He has a good sense of humor and pushes you to step out of your comfort zone.”

When Thompson retires from JMU, he will continue to take personal and commercial photographs and keep up with new technology. He plans to set up his quadcopter, which can take aerial photos, something he’s always wanted more time for.

“I have plenty to do, it’s just finding time to do it,” he said. “I love just doing my photography. It’s just been amazing to see how receptive these young people have been to my techniques.”

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 Author Kayla Marsh, a senior from Louisa, Va., is studying journalism in JMU’s School of Media Arts and Design. She is also a copy editor for the student newspaper, The Breeze. After she graduates next year, Kayla hopes to work as a reporter or producer at a news station or as an editor for a magazine. She is still deciding between print and broadcast but says: “I hope to figure that out within the next year!” 
Our thanks, once again, to Brad Jenkins, adjunct instructor in SMAD and adviser to The Breeze, for sharing this story with us. It first appeared in April 2015.

 

80 semesters of lessons

The end of this semester marks the end of an era at James Madison University. After 40 years, David Wendelken, associate professor of media arts and design, retires from his post, a place where his influence has been great and his tutelage, beloved. In today’s blog, two of his many protégés, seniors Gabrielle Smith and Riley Alexander, take a look back at a career with tremendous impact…..

40 years and 80 semesters of passing down lessons

By Gabrielle Smith (’15) & Riley Alexander (’15)

wendelken graduation 2007 - Version 2Students, faculty and friends describe him as a mentor, both wise and supportive. After 40 years and 80 semesters, Dr. David Wendelken is retiring from teaching at James Madison University.

Wendelken began teaching at JMU in 1975. He founded and advised several publications at JMU: Curio, a general interest community feature magazine (1978); Madison 101, an orientation guide (1999); and South Main, a campus feature magazine (2000). Three years ago, he started 22807, a student-lifestyles magazine. All of these magazines have been part of the magazine-production class he has taught since 1978. Wendelken also advised the campus newspaper, The Breeze, for 25 years.

Brad Jenkins, a 1999 JMU graduate who returned to JMU in 2006 as The Breeze’s general manager, worked closely with Wendelken when he was a student working on the newspaper. He also took two of his classes (Feature Writing and Feature Magazine Production) as a student.

In 1999, Wendelken encouraged Jenkins to help create one of the publications Wendelken has begun at JMU, Madison 101, a guide to the university for new students.

“He trusted me and another student to basically launch a brand-new magazine,” Jenkins said. “That’s one of the things he does so well…he sees potential in students and then gives them the ability to get some experience and practice.”

In 2012, Wendelken began thinking about another publication called 22807, and he called on another student to develop it.

“There was an empty hole in the publications, so Wendelken and I and a group of other students kind of mind-melded and came up with 22807 as a culture publication,” said senior media arts and design major Griffin Harrington.

“We worked a lot on who would be right for each role,” Harrington said about the magazine. “It wasn’t as much as a line of advice for him, but a mindset that he gave me that I’m not going to be able to do it all on my own and that I need to find the right people and bring in the right talent.”

Wendleken also makes it a point to have a relationship with his students outside the classroom. In the fall of 2014, Harrington photographed the wedding of Wendelken’s daughter.

“We had a glass of champagne together…it was cute,” Harrington said.  “He’s been really cool about having me be a part of his outside life too, not just inside the walls of Harrison [Hall].”

wendelken teaching - Version 2Wendelken has a knack for guiding students and helping them discover their hidden talents. Jenkins remembers that when he took Feature Writing, he was more interested in hard-news stories and didn’t think he’d be able to write features. But Wendelken saw and developed his potential.

“He sort of encouraged me that I could do it,” Jenkins said. “He recognized the talent in me and told me I should do it [feature writing]. And now if I had to pick something, it would be that over anything else.”

Wendelken has given his students countless pieces of advice over the years to help them pursue their dreams, whether in journalism or some other field.

“He always told me to take it slow,” JMU alum Spencer Dukoff said. “That’s been some powerful advice in a world where you’re always hurrying and fudging the details.”

Harrington calls Wendelken a “real father-figure to everyone at JMU.”

“His office is where I go when I need some help,” Harrington said. “He’s one of the most important heads I bounce ideas off of [for projects].”

Screen Shot 2015-04-29 at 11.27.47 AMThe “king of publications,” Wendelken has left his mark all around the world.

“When I think about his mark on Madison, I think about all the journalists who are carrying his lessons, his mentorship and all those things into the business…I’m sure all those people are like me passing along his lessons, so it’s kind of like this ripple effect of mentoring,” Jenkins said.

Students and faculty say they will miss his wise words, wry sense of humor and, of course, the animal lover’s stories about his adopted cats and his adventures taking birding photos all over the world.

“I’ll miss just having his perspective on things,” Jenkins said. “I’ll miss learning from him as I watched him teach and interact with students.”

Although he will not be returning to JMU in the fall, Wendelken will continue to carry his love for journalism and photography with him throughout his life.

“He’s talked about all these bird adventures he’s going to go on: traveling to the Mediterranean, to the south of America,” Harrington said. “He’s going to take his wife and his camera and just look for birds.”

****
Gabrielle Foster ('15)

Gabrielle Foster (’15)

Gabrielle Foster, from Yorktown, Va., graduates next week with a degree in Media Arts and Design with a journalism concentration and a minor in Sports Communications. She hopes to land a position as a sports or news reporter for a local TV stations.

 

 

 

Riley Alexander ('15)

Riley Alexander (’15)

Senior Riley Alexander will also graduate from the School of Media Arts and Design with a concentration in journalism. The Richmond, Va., native plans to move to New York City to pursue a career in advertising, working on the account management side of the business.

****

 

 

Many thanks to Breeze adviser Brad Jenkins for sharing this story and photos with us.
To read more about the career and influence of David Wendelken, check out this story by Patrick Butters (’83) written for Madison magazine’s popular series, “Professors You Love.”

Saving 25

Save a little, save a lot. It could be Daniel Hill’s motto. This intrepid JMU alumnus is changing the way small businesses think about and use energy. Here’s his story written by JMU Public Affairs student assistant Josh Kelly.

Twenty minutes can save small businesses 25 percent on energy costs

By Josh Kelly (’15), JMU Public Affairs

A quick Google search of “How to save energy” yields plenty of short lists, tips and tricks, but finding information tailored specifically for small businesses is a different story. That’s why JMU alumnus Daniel Hill started the Green Impact Campaign.

The business model for the nonprofit company is simple: Empower college students looking for resume-building experience to do energy audits for small businesses that, in many cases, have no idea how much money they could be saving with some simple changes or how to get started.

Daniel Hill ('09) speaks to an energy group

Daniel Hill (’09) speaks to an energy group

“Our program streamlined the traditional energy audit, which is still primarily a pen and paper service. We consolidated it into a simple cloud-based tool that will actually train the volunteer as they walk through a business’s building,” Hill said. “It cuts out all of the wasteful man-hours spent on report writing, all of the calculations, and streamlines it to deliver the report as soon as the student walks out the door.” On average, the audit takes a student 20 minutes to complete and has identified 25 percent in energy savings for business owners.

Hill came to JMU for the integrated science and technology program because of his interest in renewable energy. He became interested in bio-fuels and ended up doing his thesis on switchgrass derived cellulosic ethanol. “I was really interested in figuring out the next alternative fuel, but I soon realized the industry wasn’t mature to the point for me to get a job in it right out of college,” he said.

Screen Shot 2015-04-14 at 11.54.18 AMWhen he graduated in 2009, Hill took an internship with an energy solutions company and was assigned to work on energy audits, something he knew nothing about. “That was when I realized this is what I want to do, work on energy efficiency in buildings. It was such an immediate method to mitigate climate change and I became fascinated by it.” After working in energy consulting for a while, Hill decided to get his graduate degree. He enrolled in the JMU MBA program, where he met his co-founder, Dave Hussey.

“Dave kept seeing this neglect of small businesses getting any type of help for their business, and I kept seeing a total neglect of small businesses in the energy efficiency space and climate change discussion,” said Hill.

They spent their time during class breaks further discussing the issue and began forming an idea on how they could help small businesses take the first step in becoming more sustainable businesses. Eventually, they created the Green Energy Management System (GEMS), a cloud-based energy auditing tool that prompts the user with a series of simple yes or no questions about energy use in the business.

JMU students volunteered to conduct the initial surveys with Harrisonburg businesses. Students were given access to GEMS and walked through the businesses answering each of the questions. After the survey was complete, a report of recommendations and cost and savings estimates was sent to the business owners. The Green Impact Campaign was born.

“Starting up my own nonprofit was never a thought I had. It all happened rather sudden and unexpected to be honest,” said Hill. “We went from JMU and then George Washington University in D.C. A couple months later, we had students from 35 universities wanting to join.”

Students conducting energy audits using GEMS

Students conducting energy audits using GEMS

Since its start, 150 students have volunteered to do audits from more than 90 universities. Those students have conducted energy audits for 300 small businesses, which have identified nearly $300,000 in cumulative savings every year.

The benefits of the campaign go beyond energy savings for businesses. “Helping small businesses save on energy is just one side of our mission. The bigger picture is really the concept of empowering this upcoming generation of future climate leaders. It’s been amazing to see the students that have run with it and tell us that after the second or third one, ‘I can walk into any business now and look around and find five things without looking at the tool.’ It’s really that simple, but it’s raising an awareness on the education side of things,” said Hill.

This spring, Hill is running a citywide competition in D.C. called Power to Save. “We are having students from five major universities in D.C. compete against each other to see who can conduct the most energy audits in a month period,” said Hill. Students who complete the most energy audits can win prizes, including paid summer internships at sustainability firms, cash prizes, and other professional development opportunities. The competition is already on track to help a hundred DC businesses identify a million kWh in energy savings.

In summer 2014, Hill became the first JMU graduate to receive an Echoing Green Fellowship. Echoing Green is a non-profit organization that provides seed-stage funding and strategic support to social entrepreneurs. Echoing Green Fellows include the founders of Teach for America, City Year, College Summit, Citizen Schools and One Acre Fund.

“For me, the Echoing Green Fellowship was a huge accomplishment for us to get that type of support and to be part of that type of network, but also totally humbling,” said Hill.

To learn more about the Green Impact Campaign, go to http://greenimpactcampaign.org

Green Energy Management System http://gems.greenimpactcampaign.org

To learn more about Power to Save, visit http://greenimpactcampaign.org/powertosavedc/

And for more information on JMU’s innovative integrated science and technology major, check out their website here http://www.isat.jmu.edu

2015-Josh_Kelly
Josh Kelly is a public affairs assistant at James Madison University. He graduates in a few weeks with a degree in communications and plans to travel west. When not writing, he enjoys exploring the worlds of audio post-production and cooking.

 

 

 

A bed, a snake and a big, blue sky

Imagine growing up where all the trees are ringed by concrete, where the only forest to explore is a crowded public park, where the sounds of rumbling trucks, honking cars, and air conditioners never cease.

Imagine never hearing a cow lowing, a creek running, or seeing a night sky filled with stars.

For many children living in New York City, this is their world.

In 1877, an independent not-for-profit organization began taking underprivileged children out of the city’s summer heat to experience life in rural areas of the Northeast. Many children suffered from tuberculosis, and “fresh air” was thought to be a preventative. Thus, the Fresh Air Fund began.

Today —138 years and 1.8 million children later — the Fresh Air Fund still provides city children respites with host families as far south as Virginia.

Jesco, Dejhaney and the Lohr kids getting their bovine on

Jesco, Dejhanay and the Lohr kids getting their bovine on

One of those families is Brian and Julie Van Pelt (‘91) Lohr of Rockingham County. Fifteen years ago Julie was a stay-at-home mom with three small children and another one on the way. What could she do to make a difference? she wondered.

“My husband’s family had hosted [with the Fresh Air Fund] when he was a child,” Julie said. “It was a pleasant memory…..We could bring a kid in.”

The Lohrs became a host family that year and have hosted nearly every summer since.

The benefit to the city children is great, Julie said. “They are unable to see past the city; this is the way we live, this is where we live, this is the way things have always been — and this is the way things will always be. If you’re stuck in a poverty cycle, that’s debilitating. What Fresh Air gives those kids is an opportunity to see outside the city, to see a different lifestyle. For some kids, it’s their first opportunity to see two parents in the same family. For others, it’s an opportunity to go outside without shoes, to see the stars. Really simple things we take for granted are brand new and thrilling for them.”

The Langridge family would agree. Last summer Nick (’00, ‘07M,’14D) and Jill Ruppersberger (’00,’04M) Langridge and their three children became a first-time host family.

“It really was a joy,” Jill said, “to see the ‘little things’ in our lives such as seeing a dragon fly buzz along the lake, roasting marshmallows over a fire or playing in a sprinkler bring so much happiness to our Fresh Air Fund child, Sincere.”

Camden and Parker Langridge with Sincere

Camden and Parker Langridge with Sincere

While the unknowns can be scary at first for host families and their guests, Julie estimates that 96 percent of the visits are successful, in large part because of the care taken with placements and the support both children and host families receive.

Julie reminisces about a 6-year-old boy name Taquan who had a rough start with the Lohrs. When Taquan arrived, it was apparent that he was very homesick. It didn’t help that it took him several days to muster the courage to tell the Lohrs that his name was “TAquan” not “taQUAN,” as they were pronouncing it. Between Taquan’s homesickness and managing a household of lively children, Julie worried. When the local chairman called to check on them, he heard the concern in Julie’s voice. “Do you want us to come pick him up?” he asked.

“That was probably the moment I fell in love with Fresh Air,” Julie said. “I realized I wasn’t on my own.” The fund offers 24/7 support to host families and the children. In the end, Taquan stayed with the Lohrs and the visit was a success.

In addition to hosting, Julie is the regional representative for Fresh Air, a job she took because she understood its importance. In that role, she accompanies children to the valley. Busses leave from NYC’s Port Authority station and deliver children throughout the Northeast to what the organization calls “Friendly Towns.” Last summer, 65 children visited the Shenandoah Valley.

“The friendly town department is made up of field managers and support staff, social workers, and people who contact the families in NYC,” she said. There is a small support staff in NYC. Outside of the city, though, everyone is a volunteer, including Julie.

Rebekah and Isaac Lohr swimming with Jesco and Dejhanay

Rebekah and Isaac Lohr swimming with Jesco and Dejhanay

To encourage families to try the program, Julie started 7-day trips, which are shorter than the usual 10-day visits.

After hosting boys for several years, the Lohr’s invited a girl, Dejhanay (pronounced “Dee-zha-nay — like the mustard,” Julie said). Dejhanay had been in and out of foster homes with little stability in her life.

“My kids loved her. I came in one day and they had taken out half of her braids ….. She loved the attention. One thing Fresh Air asks is that you have a bed available for the child, but most of the time, they would all sleep in the floor together or all pile in the bed together….One of them would come over from her room and sleep in the room with them. They all had to be together. All three girls. They just loved it.”

Jesco and Isaac Lohr wanted their picture taken to remember the snake summer.

Jesco and Isaac Lohr wanted their picture taken to remember the snake summer.

Each child comes with a different personality and that impacts the entire trip. Julie fondly remembers Jesco who found a snake in the Lohr’s yard. “He was very sensitive,” Julie said. “He had picked up that I was not comfortable [with snakes]. He said, ‘I probably won’t pick one up again. I probably won’t play with one. I’m gonna need to put it down now.’”

“[The children] would be playing Legos, and Jesco would stand up and walk out on the patio and just sit there. Sometimes he’d draw. Sometimes he’d pet the dog…..just soaking it up. He was made to live in the country.”

Benefits are not limited to the city children, Julie said. “For my kids, it’s an opportunity to appreciate what they have and to see life from a different perspective, particularly since they are homeschooled. It’s an opportunity — in a safe environment — to make new friends. They have friends now in NYC, and they’ve learned things.”

Nick and Jill Langridge with their family and Sincere

Nick and Jill Langridge with their family and Sincere

Nick Langridge, senior vice president for advancement at JMU, agreed: “For us the Fresh Air Fund was an experience that touched the whole family. I enjoyed watching our kids welcome and invite a new friend into their room, their home, and their lives, and who they became as a result. Just as we hope we offered some fresh experiences to our 6 1/2 year-old boy on a farm, at the pool and at the beach, Sincere in turn gave us great memories, lots of laughs, and a sense of what it means to really get ‘to know and be known’ as a whole family.”

Julie and the Fresh Air Fund are beginning to match NYC children with host families in the Shenandoah Valley. Anyone interested in hosting a child can contact Julie by calling 540.810.0474 or 800.367.0003 or emailing her at Julie.Lohr@friendlytown.org or the Fresh Air Fund at their website: http://www.freshair.org

See more Fresh Air Fund stories on You Tube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LdTbJS2wSBg&feature=youtu.be&list=UUqs_7ueSjwYmmO4RKsTDltw

 

 

Filming the future

If President James Madison’s belief in the power of education is true, then a new school in Somalia could change a nation. Recently we learned from JMU alumnus James Irwin (’06) about filmmakers from JMU and U.Va. who are documenting Somalia’s most successful educational venture in decades. It’s an important story to share…..

Juweeriya, a 7th grade student, was the first student from Abaarso village to enroll at The Abaarso School of Science and Technology, which draws students from all over Somalia.

Juweeriya, a 7th grade student, was the first student from Abaarso village to enroll at The Abaarso School of Science and Technology, which draws students from all over Somalia.

Can one school change the future of a country?

By James Irwin (’06)

A boarding school in the world’s No. 1 failed state is sending the first wave of Somali students to American colleges in three decades. And a group of filmmakers from James Madison University and the University of Virginia are making sure the world knows about it.

The Abaarso School of Science and Technology, an intermediate and secondary academy in northwest Somalia, sent its first students to study at American colleges in 2013. The efforts of the school, launched by former hedge fund founder Jonathan Starr, is the subject of the upcoming documentary, Abaarso (working title), produced by U.Va. alumnus Harry Lee and JMU graduates Ben Powell (’05) and Kate Griendling (’08).

The three filmmakers, all Northern Virginia natives, will travel to Somalia this month to complete the filming of the project. They hope to release the documentary in 2016. (You can follow their blog here: abaarsofilm.com/blog/ )

“These students will be the first highly educated cohort in Somalia in 30-something years,” Lee said. “It feels like we have this rare opportunity to document a turning point for a country.”

Abaarso fundeer Jonathan Starr leads the school's annual field day competition

Abaarso founder Jonathan Starr leads the school’s annual field day competition

Starr, the subject of numerous articles, including a 2011 feature in Emory University magazine, closed his quarter-billion dollar hedge fund in 2009 and moved to Somalia to open the school. Decades of civil unrest, war and terrorism have crippled the country. It is a breeding ground for at-risk youth. Somalia has been the world’s No. 1 failed state since 2008, according to The Fund for Peace’s Failed States Index.

“There is a complete lack of healthcare, functioning system of governance and infrastructure,” said Lee, who spent three years on staff at Abaarso. “If you are a child in that world, you don’t have opportunities.”

The school was created to provide promising Somali students access to something that could elevate them out of turmoil, and possibly change the future of the country: an education. In 2010, Abaarso sent its first student to America for a one-year fellowship at Worcester Academy. Three years later, that student, Mubarik Mahamoud, was part of Abaarso’s first graduating class, a cohort of 32 students. A handful of them received admission and scholarships to American universities. Poor recordkeeping is a hallmark of the world’s leading failed state, but Somali experts tell the filmmakers that this is the first group of native students to enroll at U.S. schools since the 1980s.

JMU graduate and "Capturing Oswald" filmmaker Kate Griendling joined the film project in late 2014.

JMU graduate and “Capturing Oswald” filmmaker Kate Griendling (’08) joined the film project in late 2014.

Today, 29 Abaarso students are studying at boarding schools and universities in the United States, including Amherst, Georgetown and Carnegie Mellon. Abaarso recently received its first capital grant, a $291,000 investment that will expand the school by adding classrooms, dormitories and computer labs. The campus—a 200-meter-by-300-meter hilltop rectangle in the middle of the desert—has grown into a community of around 185 students and 15 faculty and staff. It’s a testament, Lee said, to how far resources can go in the developing world.

Still, the odds are stacked against Abaarso students. They are submitting grades from a school no one knows, taking standardized tests written in another language. And they need full scholarships to study in America. The documentary, Powell explained, will follow a handful of students and demonstrate a country-wide struggle for education, healthcare and women’s rights, among other topics.

Those fortunate enough to make it to America, he said, seek to return to Somalia.

“They want to go back and make it a better place,” he said. “They are cognizant of the opportunities they have. They recognize they have a chance to make a difference.”

Ben Powell ('05), pictured above, began working on the documentary in early 2014.

Ben Powell (’05) began working on the documentary in early 2014.

The filmmakers plan to blog about their experiences during the three-week trip to the country, providing an unfiltered look at a land that has no U.S. diplomatic or military presence. Powell is making his second trip to Somalia. Griendling, who co-produced the documentary Capturing Oswald in 2013, is traveling to the country for the first time.

Their goal is simple: tell the story of Somalia’s most successful educational venture in decades, and the challenges it still faces.

“We’ve seen developing countries rise and fall,” Griendling said. “This is an opportunity to showcase a country that may have a blueprint for other developing nations to replicate.”

James Irwin ('11)

James Irwin (’06)

James Irwin is a 2006 graduate of the School of Media Arts and Design and the author of Midnight in Chattanooga: The game, the team and the dream behind the rise of JMU football. Formerly the assistant director of JMU’s alumni association, James is associate editor of George Washington Today at George Washington University.

Many thanks to James for pitching the story and doing most of the work.

All photos courtesy of Abaarso Film

A pocketful of quarters

Today we feature not a student, alumnus, or faculty member but a James Madison University parent who is Being the Change…..

Unknown-3It’s mid-morning in Lawrence, Massachusetts. Sunlight shimmers through the trees. The air is warm, and parents and children are milling around the local farmers’ market when a car pulls up to the curb and a woman steps out. A little buzz rustles through the crowd. She’s here! The woman carries a brightly colored quilt and pulls a cart overflowing with books. Soon, like the Pied Piper, she gathers an audience of children who jockey for spots on and around her quilt.

They have come to hear her stories…

1507adfTwelve years ago, after a career in marketing and software development, Nicolette Nordin Heavey enrolled in a storytelling class at a local community college. “It sounded fun,” she says.

It was a natural fit for a mom of three who grew up surrounded by a culture that valued the art of storytelling. Nicolette, whose English mother and Swedish father provided her with a childhood spent partly in Belgium, England, and Saudi Arabia, was greatly influenced by diverse cultures and by the strong aural tradition of storytelling. Europeans, more than Americans, she says, preserve their history and culture through telling stories. It became a part of her — a part she shared with her three children, including her daughter, Devon, who is a freshman at JMU.

“I would be the mom in the back of the bus telling stories during school field trips,” she says.

After finishing the storytelling class, Nicolette tried out her newly-honed skills at preschools and day care centers, where she discovered that her passion for storytelling was also a tremendous opportunity.

She received a call from a social services agency in Lawrence, Mass., asking for her help in developing a literacy outreach program. The project was a family and community engagement initiative, funded by a grant from the national program Race to the Top.

Unknown-4Stories in the Street, a grant funded literacy initiative, was born out of this association, and Nicolette Nordin Heavey had serendipitously embarked on a second career that would change lives.

The choice of Lawrence was strategic, she says. With a poverty rate exceeding 60 percent, it is the poorest city in Massachusetts. And there is a clear — and negative — correlation between poverty and literacy.

Nationwide studies indicate that children from lower socioeconomic status homes lag significantly behind their peers in language skills. Much of the disparity stems from the fact that these children simply hear fewer words during the critical birth to age 4 period.

The disparity is startling.

Researchers estimate that by age 3 children from impoverished communities have heard 30 million fewer words than children from higher-income homes. Experts call it the 30-million word gap, and it is a serious problem because children do not catch up.

Nicolette knows that early language exposure is not just a nicety; it’s a lifeline to success. But because not all children are similarly blessed, she says: “You have to go to them, and storytelling is a perfect means for that. All you need is a portable mic and a colorful quilt.”

“When I first began storytelling on the street, people looked at me like I was on Candid Camera,” she says. “But soon, they began to expect me. By the end of the summer, people were waiting for me to show up.”

To offer Stories in the Street, Nicolette (and now four other storytellers who work with her) fan out throughout Lawrence. In a normal week, Nicolette will visit and “tell” at two regular spots, like a park or a farmers market, and she’ll choose a third, random location. It might be a basketball court or playground — anywhere that children gather.

UnknownOne story Nicolette likes to tell is about a lion and and a mosquito.

“I get to introduce words like ‘Serengeti,’” she says. At more-affluent schools, children who are asked where lions live might shout out “Africa!” or even “the Serengeti!” she says. Students with broader experiences and more exposure to literature know this.

But ask the same question in Lawrence or any socioeconomically disadvantaged community, she says, and children are more likely to say: “In the zoo.”

Nicolette introduces and defines new words by association. She explains: “In telling my story about the lion and the mosquito, I use the word ‘thirsty’ three times. Children understand this. The fourth time, I might say, ‘And the lion was thirsty. He was so thirsty, he was parched,’ exposing them to a new word.”

While storytelling infuses lower-income communities with literacy tools, it also benefits children in another way.

In the Hart/Risley study, which identified the 30-million word gap, researchers found a disparity in encouraging feedback — positing, perhaps, yet another benefit to storytelling: hope. Without dreams, no child succeeds…and storytelling — that simple and comfortable conveyance of stories — seeds dreams.

Stories on the Street, which is entirely grant-funded and became a nonprofit this year, has seen its funding increase four-fold over the past five years, one clear indication of both success and need.

Stories in the Street and similar programs also create a sense of community, so it’s not only the children who are eager to see Nicolette arrive. One elderly man, an employee of the city’s public works department, helped her load and unload her car at a farmers’ market.

Unknown-3 - Version 2“He also helped me with my cart filled with books,” she says. When she asked him why, his reply was affirming: “We need people like you.”

For the rest of the summer, he manned Nicolette’s parked car, feeding the meter with a pocketful of quarters to make sure she didn’t get a ticket. And the children left each storytelling session with new words, a book of their own from Nicolette’s cart, and dreams inspired by stories they heard in the street.

 

 

To read more about the 30-million word gap, go to the American Educator’s story, “The Early Catastrophe” by Betty Hart and Todd R. Risley.

To learn more about Stories in the Street, visit Nicolette’s website: http://www.nicolettestory.com

My newest favorite word

dictionary2_1418194cI have a new word in my personal lexicon: Gruverize.

It is defined thus:

1. to go out of one’s way to be helpful

2. to unselfishly offer one’s expertise to those who have less understanding of said expertise

3. to be aggressively cooperative

The etymology of my new word (as many in JMU’s School of Media Arts will recognize) is derived from the name of SMAD’s John Gruver.

I first heard the word more than a year ago when I asked a friend for some help with my Mac laptop. After trying unsuccessfully to solve my problem, he called in John Gruver, who quickly realized that my computer needed more than a quick fix and then offered to take an in-depth look at it.

SMAD's Jon Gruver

SMAD’s John Gruver

Now understand that John Gruver works with computers all day long, and my request was out of the purview of his regular duties. As the network and lab manager for SMAD, he is responsible for lots and lots of computers. At the beginning of each semester, he makes sure that constantly-used student and faculty equipment — essential to SMAD — is up and running efficiently and effectively. In that department — more so than in many others, I suspect — John’s role is essential.

SMAD has lots of highly technical computer equipment, so John is busy.

You also might think he would be inundated with requests from people like me. (Let’s just call us less-than-computer-savvy.) And if so, wouldn’t we be just a bother to an expert in Mac computers like John?

Apparently not.

After he worked on my computer, making it better than ever, I asked him why he offered to help me, and he said this: “I enjoy helping people. And I remember the people who helped me when I was first starting out.”

People like John make life for the rest of us better by sharing their expertise generously and unselfishly.

Years ago, I worked for a man who termed people like John “aggressively cooperative.” I’ve always liked that description because it’s more than just getting along, more than simply doing one’s job, more than just cooperating. To be aggressively cooperative means to go out of one’s way to cooperate, to seek out ways to help, and, in John’s case, to offer expertise unselfishly.

That’s John Gruver, my aggressively cooperative friend.

I would be remiss if I didn’t also acknowledge the equally helpful John Hodges (SMAD’s technology manager), who introduced me to John Gruver and to my newest, favorite word, Gruverize.

 

 

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