As JMU goes, so go the Olympics

Wimbledon decked out for the Olympics in JMU purple.

The Olympic family and the Madison family have more in common than you might imagine, writes Jeremy Brown (’94,’96M) from London. Jeremy is guest blogging this week from the 2012 Olympics, his third trip to an Olympic Games. He’s traveling with JMU friends Liz Hadley (’98,’04M), Jennifer Philips Bost (’97) and Jimmy Bost (’97).  During their first few days they’ve taken in the London Zoo, Regents Canal, Hyde Park, the Torch Relay, Bell Ringing, Big Ben, Parliament, Camden Market, Opening Ceremonies, Wimbledon Tennis (and rain), the tube, the pubs, and lots of interaction with new friends.

Jeremy writes: JMU is alive and well here in London.  I have spotted more than a few JMU hats and bags around town, and JMU’s Jacob Wukie (’09) earned a silver on Saturday. Might have to try and find a ticket for the archery events on Monday and Tuesday to support Jacob!  

Welcome to London!

by Jeremy Brown (’94,’96M), guest blogger

The world has gathered here as they do every four years to celebrate sport and come together as a truly global family. This shared fortnight in 2012 happens only once and is unique to these athletes, officials, coaches and spectators. The Olympic family will gather again and again in the future, and each time those who participate will be added to the fold and connect with those from the past. The Olympic family and the Madison family have more in common than you might imagine, read on…

Tyler Rix lights the torch at Hyde Park as the torch finishes its final day before heading to the stadium.

The Preparation: Getting to the games, whether as athlete or spectator, takes advanced planning and preparation. You have to figure out if you qualify to go, in which events you will participate, where you will stay, who will you meet and how you will pay for it. (Sounds like preparing for your first year at Madison, doesn’t it?) Will you attend fencing or will it be volleyball? Will you meet people with similar interests and ideas? Will you be able to communicate and interact? (Take English lit or ballroom dance?  Who will be in my hall? What if I don’t connect with other on campus?) Arriving at the games you’re not sure where anything is, how to get there, and you can feel overwhelmed with the sheer mountain of things to do that lies ahead. (Yup, that’s summer before freshman year)

The Reality:  You get to the games and all is well — fantastic even. There are volunteers to assist at every turn. Hundreds of hours of planning and preparation went into assuring you enjoy the visit and get the most out of it. Everyone you meet had the same worries and challenges but work together for the good of all. All have their own unique background and story to tell, but they come together to create a new community. You can’t be a Duke and be at the games and not feel the similarities. The way everyone is focused to be the best and to do well is contagious. The positive energy is something you can’t shake.  Just like Madison Pride!

Traveling Dukes: (l-r) Liz Hadley, Jennifer Philips Bost and Jimmy Bost

Traveling Dukes: (l-r) Liz Hadley, Jennifer Philips Bost and Jimmy Bost

The Bond:  After the games you always will be connected to those who were with you and took part in what happened. Even if you never interacted or connected directly, you are linked. I met a woman this afternoon who also attended the Torino games in 2006. We had never met but were able to connect with the energy we still had from the experience. So it is with Madison. Whether JMU Class of ’38, ’68, ’98, or ’08, we are all Dukes and we share the same flame inside, just like the Olympic family. Following that focused time together we must go forward, to go out into the world and Be the Change!

Many thanks to Paula Polglase (’92,’96M) JMU’s social media specialist, for connecting Jeremy and this blog.

Through the chain-linked fence

Change comes in all forms. Sometimes it’s external, like Hurricane Katrina. Sometimes it’s educational, jumping from one school to another, for instance. And sometimes it’s personal, figuring how to find your way through life’s many changes and viewing them as opportunity. JMU alum Dan Smolkin (‘11) understands this. He’s lived it — and shares a few thoughts on how he successfully navigated some heavy-duty change.

Dan has also initiated change. While at JMU, he and  Sandra Tran (’12) developed JMUTeach, an innovative program that allowed Madison students to design and teach courses. Dan also served as a student-member on the JMU Board of Visitors. Currently, he’s working with an innovative start-up company in Palo Alto, Ca. He sums up his job at Quixey as “human resources, building a whole lot of IKEA furniture, and making my company a great place to work.”

Dan Smolkin (’11)

Through the chain-linked fence

by Dan Smolkin (’11)

Reflecting on my education, I am the product of several solidly unique educational institutions. I would try to plot all of these schools along some sort of continuum, but I’m not sure that would even do them justice. Each of their approaches was truly unique in (reasonably) meeting the needs of the students that attended and likewise they would find themselves directly in conflict with the philosophy of one of the others.

My education started in New Orleans, a city known for having one of the worst public school systems in the country. The logical choice for many families that could afford the price tag of attending a private school would inevitably be to send their children there during their grade school years – aside from a few brave families I knew, albeit those were few and far between.

My father was a product of New Orleans public schools at a better point in their history. While still a far cry from a perfect system, my dad remained highly committed to his high school alma mater – Benjamin Franklin. Franklin consistently stood apart from the rest of the public schools in New Orleans and has been toward the top of the Newsweek lists for as long as I can remember.

This anomaly happened because the best and brightest of the school system flocked to Franklin. At the same time, many parents who had sent their children to private schools through the 8th grade were willing to make the leap and send their children to the highest performing magnet school for miles around. Who could argue with taking a break in making tuition payments in favor of sending their child to a school held in such high regard?

My parents took “the leap” twice. First, with my brother in 2000 and second with me in 2003. I remember my brother confessing to me that our grade school hadn’t prepared us to make the leap from a small private school centered around individualistic learning styles to the education-en-masse of a public magnet school.

The atmosphere was tense and competitive from day one. I knew making a name for myself would be difficult — especially when I could count everyone I knew on one hand the first day. Many of the students had travelled in packs from other public schools, but I was one of the break-aways form the private system. There wasn’t much of a guidebook for how to gain standing in a school that brandished graduation rates, Ivy League graduates and National Merit finalists as a testament to what it could produce.

For two years I could barely keep my head above water. I was in over my head. Undoubtedly I was a liability against the merits speaking to the success of a school like Benjamin Franklin. My grade point average was so low that I thought I could never recover from the hole I had gotten myself into.

Hurricane Katrina

Hurricane Katrina (Photo credit: earthhopper)

I was seven days into my junior year of high school when the orders for the mandatory evacuation of New Orleans were given. In the coming days, Hurricane Katrina would cause unfathomable damage to the city I called home.

Within days, my family knew there was no returning anytime soon. Within a week, my address had changed and so had my school. My family evacuated to Palo Alto, Calif., and I was the newest student at Henry M. Gunn High School.

Classes had started about two weeks earlier and I was, once again, the new kid in school. But the culture of Gunn was a far cry away from that of Franklin. The only way they resembled each other was their commitment to seeing all of their students succeed — in the forms of a rigorous course load, enviable graduation rates and jaw dropping college acceptances. Other than that they were worlds apart.

My grades improved dramatically while I was in Palo Alto. But it was only because enrolling as a student at Gunn opened the door to the opportunity to learn from the multitude of mistakes I had made during my freshman and sophomore years.

For several years after Hurricane Katrina, I made numerous trips back to New Orleans as my family rebuilt while I finished high school from California. Though with every trip I consciously avoided driving past my old high school out of some fear that it may reawaken the student I once was.

One break I finally gave in and drove to the campus, reopened with new paint and renovations from the flood several years before. I slowly walked up to the gate I had walked through hundreds of times. A flood of relief rushed through me as I grasped the chain-linked fence.

As I looked through the chains I whispered, “Thank you.”


To learn more about JMUTeach, visit

And to read more about Dan’s experiences, you can check out his blog.

Taking “meaningful” to the max

So far it seems Leigh Brown (’14) has taken life to the max.

I ran across a story about Leigh on the JMU Her Campus blog. It was written by campus correspondent, editor-in-chief and SMAD major Alexa Johnson (’14).  I wanted to share it because Leigh — like so many JMU students — takes a significant word out of the university’s mission statement — “meaningful” — and puts feet to it. Leigh demonstrates that Madison’s beautifully simple mission statement really is a call to action —

We are a community committed to preparing students
to be educated and enlightened citizens
who lead productive and meaningful lives.

Here’s Alexa’s story:

Leigh Brown: Giving Back in Cameroon, Africa*

By Alexa Johnson (’14)

Finding the time to volunteer in college can prove quite a challenge for the majority of us. Between studying, working, and of course, socializing, one month in an agenda can get filled in a snap! The key to finding time for college community service? Make it. Leigh Brown, a rising junior at James Madison University, does just that.

At first glance, one would never guess this blonde and bubbly nineteen-year-old had completed six mission trips to various states throughout the nation all before she grabbed her high school diploma. Leigh has volunteered at nursing homes, food banks, and with immigrant children. She has helped run a Vacation Bible School, clean up the roadside, hand out food to the homeless, and even fix up houses.

Upon coming to college, Leigh knew she wanted to keep donating her time to make a difference. Her schedule became pretty packed when she took on two majors (Health Science and Biology), two minors (Anthropology and Human Sciences), and even joined a sorority. She continued to do small but meaningful things to fit it all in (not to mention hold her place on the Dean’s List). Most recently, however, she spent a month studying abroad and giving back in Cameroon, Africa.

“I came back with almost none of the stuff I had packed,” she says. “Originally I had brought two soccer balls, five coloring books, and five packs of crayons to give away… by the end of the trip I had give away most of my clothes, and anything I didn’t need for the trip back home!”

Leigh believes that giving back has helped her become more aware of the people around her and has taught her ways to make use of the resources we all share to help those in need. “I am grateful for everything that I have,” Leigh says, “A lot of people aren’t as fortunate, and it’s a good feeling to be able to give something back.”

To learn more about JMU’s Study Abroad program in Cameroon, visit

*written originally for Her Campus and the Neutrogena Wave for Change campaign; used with the author’s permission.

There’s an app for that….

I was traveling around the blogosphere today and made a stop at Harrisonblog, a site run by JMU alum and local realtor Chris Rooker (’92). On the site, I noticed a great feature. While sitting at my computer I can take a virtual tour of most of Harrisonburg’s neighborhoods, as if I were driving through them. Imagine how cool that would be for someone moving here from Colorado or Italy. Instead of making an initial expense in traveling, take a virtual tour?

And imagine this: What if  you were a newly-admitted student DUKE and wanted a closer view of where you will live? What if you could virtually tour your room and your residence hall?

Right now — at the halfway week of summer break — a whole lot of members of the Class of 2016 are wondering just that. What will the rooms where they’ll be living look like — and the halls where they’ll be hanging out? Wouldn’t a virtual tour of campus residence halls be a great idea?

At Madison, that may become a reality.

Josh Smead (’12) has recently signed on to a position in Residence Life. Josh will coordinate social media for the office. He will work toward creating a brand new app for the university.

“The new app will feature a virtual tour of campus built for new and prospective students, which will also allow students to see a virtual tour of their rooms on campus,” he says. 

You may recall that Josh and a few fellow Dukes had already done a few cool things with iPad apps. Now Josh is turning that experience and the expertise he acquired as an undergraduate into building the new app for Residence Life.  He’s taking his education and paying it forward in a way. He’s making the transition smoother for future Dukes as they move from home to, well, their JMU homes.

A positive change. Definitely a positive change. Definitely.

To learn more about the app that Josh Smead (’12), Peter Epley (’12) and Matt Burton (’12) created click on the link above. There’s the link to a great Chris Myers (’11) video about Josh and his undergraduate experience.

To learn more about JMU’s Office of Residence Life, go to

Deadly bubbles

photo by istargazer

photo by istargazer

For some time now, the news coming out of State College, Pa., has gotten worse and worse. The scandal involving the venerable football program and its all-too-venerated coach sheds a cold and chilling light on what happens when success masks dark secrets.

On all levels, the story is tragic. For Penn State. For the Paterno family. And most poignantly, for the young victims. The story explodes the notion that wise, smart, highly educated individuals can always be trusted to do what’s right. The lessons learned from the Penn State scandal are deep, meaningful and should be heeded by every administrator in every business, university and organization.

But what is most fundamental about the scandal, and what is perhaps its most important takeaway, is a simple truth often overlooked: change should be wisely considered and welcomed when it is right.

At the heart of the Penn State scandal is the now sadly exposed truth that no one wanted things to change. The bubble in Happy Valley grew bigger and thicker and the air inside grew fouler and fouler to the point that no matter how dark and hard became the pressures that could have — that should have — burst it from the inside, nothing did until  David Newhouse, the editor of the Harrisburg Patriot-News, broke the story

An article on CNN’s website this morning, tells the story of one brave academic who dared challenge the status quo at Penn State. To her initial detriment, and now her eventual vindication, Vicky Triponey, then Penn’s vice president overseeing student affairs, stood up to the administration, and most importantly to the vaunted football coach. She tried to change the system for the better.

But they would have none of it. They loved “The Penn State Way,” and come hell or high water, they weren’t going to let anyone change it. They were determined, all of them, to keep the bubble they loved intact, the myth alive and the money, prestige and accolades flowing.

Then the floods came, along with a living hell that certainly hastened Joe Paterno’s death.

The inability to see and explore change is shortsighted, if not wholly foolish. Whether change is imminent in one’s individual life or in the life of a university, change almost always holds something positive. Change is healthy, renewing, refreshing and often life changing.

That’s why Being the Change is so important to JMU. It grounds us, focuses us forward not inward, and it gives us the freedom and the mindset to value the future — to look critically at what is and optimistically at what might be.

Simply put, it is the wise acknowledgement that we are never as great today as we can be tomorrow. And perhaps, just perhaps, the constant examination of our status quo will save us from getting caught in a bubble filled with deadly air.

Perfect timing

Christine Bolander and friend

Christine Bolander and friend

Ask Christine Bolander (’12, ’13M)  how she got connected to JMU Be the Changer Sarita Hartz Hendrickson (’02), and she’ll tell you it was God’s perfect timing.

Christine and her graduate research partner, Brooke Helsabeck (’12, ’13M), are working on an occupational therapy master’s thesis that focuses on rehabilitative methods for victims of the shadowy world of sex trafficking. The problem is huge. Although figures vary, according to a 2005 report by the U.S. State Department, between 600,000 and 800,000 individuals are trafficked internationally every year.

Knowing that JMU psychology professor Bill Evans had traveled to Uganda to work with the Zion Project, which Sarita founded, Christine and Brooke stopped by his office. Is there a way to develop a connection with Sarita’s project? they asked the professor.

“We had no idea what this ‘connection’ would turn into at the time,” Christine says. “By God’s perfect timing, Sarita just happened to be in the United States at the time, and just happened to be in Harrisonburg that weekend, and just happened to be be staying at the Evans’ home. It was incredible.”

Incredible indeed. And life changing.

When Christine and Brooke met Sarita later that week, Sarita invited them to spend the summer working in Gulu, Uganda. The experience was life changing. “Working with Zion Project,” Christine says, “has put more than a face and a name to the sexually exploited. It’s given me a care, a love, and an investment in these girls and these women.”

You can read more of Christine’s personal journey in Uganda at her blogspot

And watch for the next Madison magazine to see how Christine’s experience with JMU’s Huber Residential Learning Center became a catalyst for her important work that will change lives.

Uncle Jemmy’s cradle of change

In Eastern Virginia, sitting majestically along the banks of the Rappahannock River, is a beautiful old home that will open later this year as a bed and breakfast — Belle Grove Plantation Bed and Breakfast. (pictured below)

When I stumbled across it recently, I was puzzled. I’ve visited Belle Grove — but this house was not the Belle Grove near Middletown, Va., in the Northern Shenandoah Valley that  is a national historic landmark, a destination for history lovers and the home of President James Madison’s sister, Nelly Conway Madison Hite.

So I dug a little deeper.

It turns out, Virginia has two Belle Groves, one in the east and one in the west, and both have ties to the fourth United States president.

The river-seated Belle Grove Plantation to the east is the place where James Madison was born. (The original house of his birth no longer stands.) The future president’s mother, Eleanor “Nelly” Conway Madison was living in Mount Pleasant, Va., with her husband of a year as the birth of their first child neared. Anticipating the event, Nelly traveled to her mother’s home, Belle Grove, in Port Conway. At midnight on March 16, 1751, James Madison Jr. was born.

The Shenandoah Valley’s Belle Grove

The owners of the eastern Belle Grove, an intrepid couple interested in preserving the beautiful old house and its history, have posted much about its heritage on their blog.

The Valley’s Belle Grove was built by Major Isaac Hite and his wife Nelly Madison Hite, the sister of President James Madison. According to one website, this valley plantation was named as a remembrance of the earlier, eastern plantation where Nelly and “Jemmy’s” mother grew up.

The aftermath of July Fourth is a good time to reflect on the impact of Mr. Madison and the legacy of the two Belle Groves, one that cradled a future president and another he likely visited.

Often overlooked and sometimes underestimated, James Madison lived “Be the Change.” His life defined what it means to be involved, to have feet on the ground, to be in the game, to make a difference — all those cliches we use to describe what it takes to create change. If there is a better exemplar for a university to follow, I’m not sure who it is. James Madison set a high standard for change.

And there’s one more historical twist that might will surprise you. It turns out that Michelle Hite (’88), the editor of JMU’s award-winning Madison magazine, is a descendant of the Hite family, the original builders of Shenandoah Valley’s Belle Grove Plantation. The Madisons married into her family, she’ll tell you with a laugh. I’ll leave it to the genealogists to figure out the exact connection, but somewhere up in Michelle’s family tree there’s an “Uncle Jemmy” every Duke can claim.

He’s our Uncle Jemmy.

To learn more about Virginia’s two Belle Groves, click the embedded links above.

And to read more about President James Madison, check out Liberty and Learning: The Essential James Madison by JMU alumnus and Be the Changer, Phil Bigler (’74, ’75M) and Annie Lorsbach (’08M).

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