“Toto, we’re not in high school anymore.”

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So I’m driving to work this morning, thinking about today, which seems a little anticlimactic after an earthquake and a hurricane. But while today may seem like the calm after the storm, today could prove equally eventful as freshmen attend their first college classes. It is the universal freshman experience that comes before the full bore Madison Experience.

Today, freshmen are crisscrossing campus to Showker and Harrison and Forbes. They are hunting for room numbers and finding seats, hoping to see friendly faces and smiling professors. 

Michelle Hite (’88), editor of Madison magazine, remembers her first JMU class. “Mine was oceanography,” she says, “and there were about 100 people in it. There hadn’t been 100 people in my high school class!”

Another alum I asked said, “I remember I didn’t sleep a ton the night before. I worried about not looking like a freshman and knowing where I was going. Even though I really didn’t know. I am sure I thought a lot about what to wear before I realized that college is way different than high school. Sweatpants and flip flops are more acceptable. I was completely overwhelmed when I received all my syllabi. I wondered how I would ever survive — and none of the work had even been handed out.”

I remember my first class clearly. I was the only freshman in a sophomore political science class. It was intimidating. It was also incredibly exciting. I had arrived. Little did I know, however, that I had only begun.

Some freshmen will saunter into class today confident that this is just grade 13. Others will slip in, sit on the back row and take it all in. For all of them, it will be a new experience — even those who took college/AP/IB courses in high school. Today is their beginning, and I wonder how today’s freshmen are handling their first forays into their JMU classrooms? Did they make it to their 8:00 classes? Did they even sleep last night? How did they fare with no moms around to roust them out of bed, with no morning announcements by the principal reminding them where to be and when, and with no more calls from the principal’s office if they skipped school or showed up late.

Some, certainly, have had Dorothy moments: “Toto, we’re not in high school anymore.”

This summer we’ve been featuring 100 alumni — all freshmen once — in 100 days to celebrate the 100 years of the Alumni Association. Each had his or her own first class day at JMU.  Was it a music class? Was it English? Was it geology or economics? Do you remember that day? Where was your first class? Who was your professor? What were you thinking? Did you understand where this monumental day might take you? For freshmen, expectations are great. Their potential is even greater.

It has been a long time and an eventful road since that first class for most alumni. They survived day one and the next and the next. Some, like Phil Vassar (’85) and Charles Haley (’87) found fame and fortune, just as some in the Class of 2015 will no doubt. I wonder if Phil and Charles had an inkling of that when they sat down in their first class?  I wonder what they remember about their first class?

How about you?  What do you remember?

To follow the 100 alumni in 100 days, visit: http://www.jmu.edu/alumni/awards/centennial.shtml

Read more about Phil Vassar who is featured on the JMU website this week:  http://www.jmu.edu/

To get a glimpse of the Class of 2015’s first week on campus, visit: http://www.jmu.edu/jmuweb/general/news/general11684.shtml



The Washington Monument is the tallest structu...

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When the earthquake hit Virginia on Tuesday, it did not expose bedrock but something far more important.

Near Richmond, one women driving across the fault line as the quake hit thought something was wrong with her car tires. A woman in Roanoke thought she was having a stroke until her rocking chair began to rock sideways. Staffers in the U.S. capital wondered if terrorists had struck again. A dozen miles from the epicenter, figurines toppled off shelves near an elderly woman who was recovering from surgery. I got up to see if a tractor-trailer was idling next to our building. Co-workers gathered in the hall all asking the same question. “Was that an earthquake?”

Within minutes we confirmed that a 5.8 or 5.9 earthquake had hit on the other side of the mountain. The epicenter was Mineral, Va., a small town of 500, between Richmond and Washington. Quickly, cell service was overwhelmed. Facebook lit up like a firecracker. Wolf Blitzer was on air instantly giving the blow by blow.

We, Easterners, are not quake savvy like Californians, who laughed at us, but they should not be so quick to chuckle. It could have been different. For us here in Harrisonburg and most of the East Coast, it was just a little excitement. For others nearer the epicenter, however, it was frightening. Historic buildings in Culpeper, Va., were damaged. Brick facades fell off buildings crushing cars in Vienna, Va. Groceries tumbled from shelves and a house collapsed in Mineral. In perhaps the most symbolic result, cracks appeared in the Washington Monument.

Earthquakes happen every day and most are non-geologic. They happen in our lives and have nothing to do with seismic activity. These human earthquakes aren’t always covered by the media. When a parent dies or a friend leaves us or even when a beloved pet dies, these all feel like earthquakes, not in the seismic sense, but earthquakes nonetheless. Earthquakes, big or small, personal or public, remind us of our fragility and often drive our humanity.

When the earth shakes, our first response is to reach out to another. We want to hold hands for support. We want to know that they’re okay — that we’re okay. That’s what happened after Tuesday’s quake. A daughter  from Maryland called her mother. A son called from North Carolina. I checked in with my children. My husband couldn’t reach his mother who lives 16 miles as the crow flies from Mineral, so we sent a niece to check on her. An old friend from Boston texted me: “Earthquake. Are you okay?” (I’ll be checking on him this weekend as Irene blows up the coast.)

Collectively over the quaking earth, we created  a patchwork of communications of the heart. Our first thoughts were of each other, as they should be. Californians can laugh all they want at our response, but I’m glad to have this reminder that in a crisis, it is each other that matters more than monuments and buildings.

Many posted a “funny” picture on Facebook of a single lawn chair overturned with the tongue-in-cheek message: 8.23.11 Never Forget. Funny, maybe. But it misses the point entirely. Earthquakes feel different the farther you get from the epicenter. That we don’t feel seismic activity, that we won’t be picking up rubble and repairing buildings, that we lost no lives does not mean that it couldn’t have been — or that someone else isn’t hurting more than we. We are just lucky. But if we are part of the human community, no matter how small our tremors feel — even if we don’t feel them at all — we should empathize with those close to the epicenter. We should care and not scoff at their reactions.

The takeaway from Tuesday’s earthquake should be this — earthquakes of the heart are as powerful as earthquakes of the ground, and we all feel them with varying degrees of magnitude. On Tuesday and Wednesday, mothers and fathers left their sons and daughters at JMU for the first time. For them, it was a tremor in their lives far larger than Tuesday’s rumbling earth. Some may scoff at their tears, but others will reach out to comfort them. Change is sometimes hard. Sometimes change feels like an earthquake.

And no one survives earthquakes without each other. No one should have to.

A cup of sugar, please…

Ricky Porco during an interview with WHSV news.

If you’re old enough and fortunate enough to have grown up in a neighborhood that flourished with close friendships, you’ll understand the title of this post.  Once upon a time when you ran short of sugar in the middle of a batch of chocolate chip cookies, you walked next door. Before the Internet captured our attention, before airlines crisscrossed the world accessing places once utterly remote, and before our new global mentality altered our perspective, neighborhoods defined our worlds. Community didn’t mean, “we are the world.”

But that has changed — and not all for the better. Too many of us are disengaged from our neighbors and communities. I’m guilty. I don’t even know many of my neighbors’ names. Some say it hasn’t made us happier. The truth is: no matter how far we travel electronically or otherwise, how connected we feel to the world at large, the immediacy of a physical locality has benefits like nothing else.

One JMU student from Westchester, N.Y., has worked all summer to put the sugar, as it were, back in our neighborhoods. Ricky Porco (’13), an energetic, determined, hard-working JMU junior majoring in communication studies has started a local online community with a huge goal: to reverse our electronic separateness and reinvigorate our sense of local community.

I learned about Ricky’s work when a flyer arrived on my front porch about CommonPlaceHarrisonburg. Intrigued, I got in touch with him. I learned that he, inspired by the book Bowling Alone by Robert Putnam, was determined to make a difference. Ricky explained his mission so well in an email to me that I’ll let him tell you more. Here’s what Ricky wrote:

The book Bowling Alone outlines a simple principle that seems to have less publicity than it should: Civic engagement in America has been on a consistent decline since the 1950s. Across the board, from participation at town hall meetings, to participation in civic social groups, right down to the most minute metrics like “picnics in public parks” have been on a downward slope for substantially longer than I’ve even been alive. People don’t know their own neighbors, don’t trust them, don’t care about interacting with them. In my opinion, this is a tragedy, and thankfully mine isn’t the only opinion that matters because many sociologists would agree that these factors contribute to our (also declining) happiness as people. A nation that prides itself on togetherness, ironically, is so ‘un-together’! If we could increase neighbor-to-neighbor interactions, and thus, increase the level of trust people have in their neighbors, maybe then, could people be happier? I certainly think so, and that is one of the things that motivates me most. I love happy people.

Human beings are tribal by nature; we to want to be part of a group, a community. I believe that the decline in community cannot be directly attributed to the notion that people don’t engage within their community simply because they don’t want to. Rather, I believe that community is in decline because of a whole host of other distractions, and most importantly an increase in a communication gap. Every minute that you spend watching television is one less minute than you spend interacting. Currently, 54 percent of households in the US have at least three TV sets, up from 11 percent in 1975 (back when community was experiencing decline, but still mattered more than it does today). TV is just one example of a distraction and has proven itself expert in drawing people away from their community.

The other important factor is a widening gap in local communication. Remember way back when the best place to communicate with one of your neighbors was the post office? Well, the post office barely exists these days. I’ve sent one letter through the USPS in the last three years, and I’ve sent about 250 emails in the last week. So how else do you communicate with your neighbors? How would you, lets say, find other new mothers in your area who have 2- year-old children to start a weekday play group? You can utilize social and work networks that you’re already part of, and meet and communicate with those people who are connected to you by an organization. You can take out a classified ad in the local newspaper or on Craigslist advertising for moms to contact you if they wished to start a play group. You could start calling random people out of the phone book or walk around town with a megaphone calling to all new mothers. All acceptable answers, all pretty fruitless efforts to connect with people around you. Simply put, people don’t start civic groups not because they don’t want to, but because it’s not easy.

Convinced?  Ricky was. After developing a similar, successful program in Falls Church, Va., he brought it to Harrisonburg. Part Facebook, part Craigslist, part newspaper and part old-fashioned party line, CommonPlaceHarrisonburg is an online LOCAL community that acts as a platform for local civic engagement. It connects people with common needs and interests within a specific locality. It’s so local, in fact, that you need a Harrisonburg or Rockingham County address to join the network.

Out of this platform, Ricky hopes face-t0-face engagement will occur. “While interactions on the CommonPlace platform start out as electronic,” he wrote, “many of them require face-to-face interaction at some point, and the hope is that all communication that happens on the platform leads to increased face-time with your neighbors. That’s a big difference between the type of communication that happens on CommonPlace and most other electronic-based communication.”

So, if you need a cup of sugar, go next door. If you live in Harrisonburg or Rockingham County and you want to find someone interested in yoga or recycling or starting a children’s play group, or if you want to trade a piano for a gas grill, or organize a group for spelunking or beading, CPH is the place to start.

The possibilities are limitless — yet close to home.

To explore and join CommonPlaceHarrisonburg, visit the website: https://www.ourcommonplace.com/harrisonburg

You can read even more about Ricky Porco and his work at Harrisonblog: http://www.harrisonblog.com/2011/06/commonplace-harrisonburg-uniting-local-residents-and-organizations-in-one-central-site/

(Harrisonblog, by the way, is run by another community member who believes in the local community, Harrisonburg Realtor and JMU alumnus Chris Rooker (’92). Like Ricky, and hundreds of JMU alums who’ve made Harrisonburg their permanent home, Chris is also interested getting people together.)

The great migration

Students on an Alternative Spring Break form JMU (photo by Mary Slade)

Some are counting socks. Some are buying plastic bins. Some are making  rounds to see friends and relatives before they leave. Shortly, they’ll pack minivans, sedans and trucks to head north, south, east and west toward Harrisonburg.

The freshmen are coming.

Next week, roughly 4,000 students, along with their parents, will descend on Harrisonburg. The traffic will swell, the restaurateurs will open their doors eagerly, and the excitement will reach a fever pitch as the great annual move-in begins. Residence Halls and advisers are ready. The FROGS are poised. The dining hall pantries are stocked, and the new and improved Bridgeforth Stadium looms over campus heralding the coming of the year’s first football game.

The great migration that will take place here and all over the country is a rite of passage. Only going to kindergarten for the first time holds the kind of expectations for students that going off to college does. It is the beginning of a great adventure for students, one that will change their lives.

Some JMU freshmen will move into a renovated Wayland Hall as part of a learning community centered on performing arts. Others will join athletics teams for practice. Some will walk the campus reveling in the friendliness for which JMU is known. They have come to learn and they will leave transformed.

Albert Einstein said: “It is not so very important for a person to learn facts. For that, he does not really need a college. He can learn them from books. The value of an education in a liberal arts college is not the learning of many facts but the training of the mind to think something that cannot be learned from textbooks.”

That is the challenge for the members of JMU’s faculty — and one they are well-equipped to surmount. The incoming freshman don’t yet know how fortunate they are or what a wise choice they have made to have chosen a school where the art of teaching is highly valued and supported.

For as long as Madison has existed, teaching has been paramount— not secondary to research or publication as it is in many institutions. And with a faculty student ratio of 15 to one, incoming freshman have the chance to do more than learn en masse. Instead, they have the opportunity — the very real and tangible opportunity — to experience what has long been considered the gold standard of Socratic education: engaging closely with educators and peers to discover new thoughts, new ideas. To mine the gold that cannot be squashed into a textbook or corralled in a PowerPoint.

JMU’s faculty is brimming with educators who want nothing more than to break the bonds of the classroom to help students think critically and creatively. One of those is Scott Stevens, professor of Computer Information Systems and Management Science in the College of Business.  He is one of an elite group of collegiate professors whose courses are available through The Teaching Company, which vets the top one percent of the nation’s professors and selects only one out of every 5,000 professors they consider. Last week, I learned that Scott’s class on game theory is one of the company’s top selling courses. No surprise there. In an interview I did with him a year or so ago, he could not say enough about his love of teaching. If he won the lottery tomorrow, he said, he would still teach.

Yesterday some colleagues and I toured the classrooms, labs and work spaces used by the engineering students on campus. Serendipitously, we ran into Jon Spindel, professor and associate dean of the College of Integrated Science and Technology, who gave us an impromptu tour of the expanded design spaces for engineering and ISAT students. Jon’s enthusiasm was evident — and contagious.

Scott and Jon are not alone. JMU is brimming with educators of a similar mindset. They are eager to challenge, teach, encourage — and perhaps most importantly — to engage students.

After four years, the current freshman class, the Class of 2015, will graduate transformed by their engagement with professors and peers. Their perspectives and perceptions about life and the world will have been reshaped – like the students who have worked during Alternative Spring Breaks in Welch, W.Va., under the engaged direction of College of Education Professor Mary Slade. They see the needs of the world from a new angle.

Out of this new-found and earned understanding that is so carefully nurtured by an academy devoted to teaching, students will find ways to make a difference. Next week is just the beginning. The changes freshmen embrace, the adjustments they will make over the next few months, and the growth and learning they’ll acquire over the next four years will — without a doubt — change the world.

Lessons in Italian Pig Herding

Coat of Arms of Florence, Italy, traced off of...

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Lessons in Italian Pig Herding

by Nicole Martorana (’07), guest blogger

I never expected to herd pigs. This may sound odd considering I had signed up to volunteer through the international nonprofit Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms (WWOOF). However, when I decided to quit my job last spring and travel through Europe for six weeks, I envisioned escaping my routine to seek creative inspiration and a more tranquil existence. Pigs were never part of the plan.

But first, let me rewind to the semester I spent studying abroad in Florence, Italy, during my junior year at JMU. This experience irrevocably changed not only my sense of the world, but also my understanding of how I existed in it. For four months, I studied Michelangelo’s awe‐inspiring sculptures, conducted diligent gelato research, and decisively failed at market‐haggling. Throughout it all, the language of my family’s heritage surrounded me and made a country so different from my own still feel like home.

When I left Florence, I left a piece of my heart amid its cobblestone streets. And while I was determined to return, I had no idea when this would be possible.

Naturally, when I found myself stuck in a rut four years later and completely sapped of artistic motivation, my mind started to wander to those domed cathedrals and steaming cups of cappuccino. Around the same time, I happened upon a description of WWOOF in a book I was reading called Delaying the Real World: A Twentysomething’s Guide to Seeking Adventure by Colleen Kinder. I was 24, tired of the “real world,” and definitely looking for adventure.
WWOOF, which offers free housing and meals in exchange for volunteer work, seemed like the perfect way to try something new and return to Italy with minimal expense.

So with my WWOOF Italia membership in hand, I set off for a Tuscan teaching farm which I had chosen for its description of the artisan retreats and cultural classes it hosted – an opportunity, I thought, to be in a creative community and put that SMAD degree to use. But whether through my own naiveté or a miscommunication with the volunteer coordinator, when I arrived on the farm, I wasn’t led into a room full of artists but rather handed a pair of work boots and sent out to cavort with the pigs.

Though they possessed the tendency to snort and charge unexpectedly at my knees, the pigs, oddly enough, became my favorite part of the day. As they were of the free‐ranging, chestnut‐rooting Cinta Senese breed native to the region, most of my time involved chasing them around in the woods with a big stick and a tall intern named Noah. My afternoons involved a lot of colorful narration between Noah’s instructions in his thick Texan drawl to just “sneak up and whack ‘em” in the direction of their feed troughs and the Sienese farmer Giulio’s shouts of pig‐related obscenities when they continually ran away. Needless to say, the pigs wanted to be herded just about as much as we wanted to herd them.

Don’t worry, I’m not going to get all mystical and reflect on how the pigs taught me the finer points about the nature of the universe. But what did start to happen was a growing realization of the knowledge and resources I’d gained during my semester abroad. I knew this country’s rail system and how to find a cheap, yet safe hostel. I still remembered enough rudimentary Italian to ask for directions or, more importantly, a bowl of pasta. As the days went by, I became more confident in my ability to take care of myself on foreign soil and devise a new plan that would allow me to follow the intention of my original soul‐ searching journey. And that’s exactly what I would go on to do for the remaining four weeks of my trip. Plus, with my newfound knowledge of Italian curse words, I was well‐ prepared should I encounter any more pigs along the way.

Nicole Martorana graduated from JMU in 2007 with a BA in Media Arts & Design and a minor in Writing & Rhetoric.

To learn more about Nicole’s trip after life on the farm, stay tuned for future posts. And let us know if you have an adventure that changed your perspective.

For more information on WWOOF, please visit http://www.wwoof.org/. To find out more about Colleen Kinder’s book, please visit http://www.delayingtherealworld.com/.

It’s so JMU

This week we learned that College of Business alum Latane Meade (’01) is a

Latane Meade ('01)

finalist for Entrepreneur Magazine‘s Emerging Entrepreneur of the Year award. Latane is the founder of VaVi, an emerging company that brings together young professionals for social and sporting events. According to the company:

VAVi brings together over 55,000 professionals through adult sports leagues, social events, races and volunteer opportunities in San Diego. Our core purpose is to Bring Fun to Life.”

Why am I not surprised?

Any graduate of JMU who has played on an intramural sports team will recognize the JMU-like propensity to have fun. It’s part of what makes the Madison Experience so great. You can have a good time — while getting a kickin’ education.

It’s so JMU.

I could tell you more about Latane’s company, but instead I’ll let him tell you. Here’s the company’s link: http://www.govavi.com/

And I encourage you also to register your vote for one of our own. Check out Latane’s video on the Entrepreneur site, and while you’re there, vote for VaVi:  http://www.entrepreneur.com/e2011/vote/emerging/

People magazine, Madison-style

People magazine's first cover

Back about 1974, some New York executives had an idea for a spin-off of the popular, game-changing, Henry Luce-started news magazine, Time. The new venture was to be an expanded version of the magazine’s regular “People” feature. Some said it was a dumb idea that would never fly.

How wrong the naysayers were. The executives persevered, succeeded in dramatic fashion — and proved a point. People magazine, launched in March that year, was a rousing success. Part gossip, part expose, part journalism, part news, People proved that people are interested in people.

Alumni associations understand this intrinsically. Anyone who has learned from an exceptional professor or who has been impacted by a classmate or who has made a lifetime friend, understands that the past, present and future wealth of universities is vested in people.

This spring, while the Alumni association planned a celebration of a century of Madison alumni, James Irwin (’06), assistant director of communications and marketing, and his colleagues in the Alumni Association office came up with an idea to feature 100 Dukes in 100 Days as a roll-up to this year’s Homecoming (Sept. 30 – Oct. 2) where the celebration will crescendo.

The challenge of the idea was who would research and write 100 alumni profiles? It was a daunting task — almost as daunting as pairing down the list of 100,000- plus alumni to a manageable 100.

Gabrielle Piccininni ('11)

Enter writer Gabrielle Piccininni (’11).  On loan from Madisonmagazine,

Gabrielle pitched in and started assembling profiles. Gabrielle graduated Magna Cum Laude in May with a double major in English and studio art. She was also inducted into Phi Beta Kappa. 

“Gabrielle has proven to be a driving force behind our ‘100 Years, 100 Days, 100 Dukes’ campaign. She’s an exceptional writer, a gifted storyteller and really understands how people are at the foundation of The Madison Experience,” James says of her work.

At last count, more than 65 profiles have been completed, some by James but the bulk has been written by Gabrielle.

What I love about the list — besides reading about interesting people — is that it features alumni from all decades, all walks of life, all disciplines and all occupations. The list that represents the thousands of other alumni clearly shows the tangible proof that JMU is changing the world.

So today’s blog post is a shout-out and an encouragement to Gabrielle. Thanks for featuring some of the people who make JMU such a special and exceptional university.

To read Gabrielle’s profiles of Madison alumni, go to: http://www.jmu.edu/alumni/awards/centennial.shtml

You can read more of Gabrielle’s work here: http://www.jmu.edu/bethechange/stories/invisibleChildren.shtml

And to sign up for this not-to-miss Homecoming that celebrates a century of Madison alumni, visit: http://www.jmu.edu/homecoming/index.shtml

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