Twitter, Tumblr, iPad, Tweet

If you’re a fan of 1970s spy novels, you probably know George Smiley, the main character is John Le Carre’s novel-turned-movie, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. The book’s adapted screenplay is now vying for Oscar gold. George is a retired intelligence officer recruited to find a mole. Like any spy novel, it’s full of twists and turns, red herrings and dead ends. One clue, one revelation, one discovery leads to yet another question.

In this case, it leads me to this question: Why are we so enthralled by movies? If you don’t think we are, consider how much Oscar discussion is going on right now…..think of it as Twitter, Tumblr, iPad, Tweet.

We are captivated by movies. None more so than today’s students who are incredibly video saavy. Film studies, in fact, has been one of the fastest growing majors across the country for a decade or so. At JMU, the always popular and cutting edge School of Media Arts is churning out videographers every year into industry careers that, their professor tell them, “don’t yet exist.”

Much of the growing influence and interest in movies and film is its ubiquity. We are surrounded by it, largely due to technology. Film is —literally — at our fingertips.

Case in point: According to Wikipedia, after the iPad launched 21 months ago, it sold 3 million devices in 80 days. By the end of  2010, that number had jumped to 14.8 million. Recently, Bloomberg’s Peter Burrows reported that Apple is worming its way into business. Burrows wrote that iPad seems to be the mole that is burrowing (sorry, couldn’t resist) into the corporate world. The iPad, Burrows observed, “has become a standard business tool.”

While technology is changing business, it is changing us as well. Psychologists tell us that social media is altering the way we interact and technology is transforming how — and how fast — we communicate. Platforms like Vimeo and YouTube have wrestled film out of the hands of big studios, giving independent filmmakers a place. New technologies such as High Definition are sinking in price. Creative 3-D graphics are more available to independent filmmakers who continue to increase their market share, as films move from studios and theaters onto laptops and iPads.

We are all filmmakers or partakers of the craft. Who today doesn’t have a camera phone that takes videos or who, at least, hasn’t laughed at a YouTube video. Widely quoted, it is said that we absorb 10 percent of what we read, 20 percent of what we hear, 30 percent of what we see and 50 percent of what we see and hear. And that brings us back to the impact of film. Because of film’s ubiquity, availability and popularity, it is a potent medium of change.

Most of us can point to a movie that has changed our lives. For me, it’s To Kill a Mockingbird. You’re thinking of one that changed your life, right? For others who stand on the other side of the camera, like JMU alum Steve James (’77), film is the means for delivering a powerful message and changing others’ lives. Right now, Steve’s documentary  The Interrupters is changing minds about inner city life. Sadly, however — and perhaps as a commentary on Hollywood’s fickleness —  it was overlooked by the Oscars this year.

Last summer, SMAD major Peter Jackson (’12) made a video to promote the work of Every Orphan’s Hope, an organization building homes for children orphaned by HIV/AIDS in Zambia. And last summer as well, SMAD students  interned in Los Angeles, preparing the enter this powerful world of influence. You can read about them on JMU’s website.

The ability to reach millions of people with an uploaded video is a stunning opportunity. When such an opportunity is coupled with a sincere and honest desire to improve the future for others, to solve problems, to rally forces for positive change — and when it falls into responsible, compassionate hands like those of Steve or Peter — it will change the world.

To learn more about Steve James and The Interrupters, visit
Peter’s video is finished and you can view it here
And check out SMAD at Here you can read about how video has changed the lives of two alumni — to the tune of a million dollars.

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: )

“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

The persistent kind

Unknown-1This year’s Super Bowl was as fun to watch online as it was on television as people weighed in throughout the game on Facebook and Twitter. When the power went out and the game was temporarily halted, some people ran to their computers and smart phones, while sports commentators caught flat-footed tried desperately to fill air space.  All the while, we were treated to over-hyped commercials that often fell short of expectations

One Facebook post caught my attention. Justin Constantine (’92) wrote: “In case any of you missed the commercial about the Wounded Warrior Project during the Super Bowl tonight, here is the YouTube link.” He posted the video with a reminder of how easy it is to contribute to the cause.  What struck me was Justin’s dedication in the midst of the gridiron contest that borders on a national obsession. He wasn’t taking a break from his all important work.

The same should be said for Adam Armiger (’07) whose commitment to the Hope Marietta Foundation found Adam cheering on his Facebook page about Hunter Paulin, a friend of the foundation and the Play 60 Super Kid of the Year. Hunter who has a congenital heart condition delivered the game ball.

It made me realize that significant change — the kind that alters lives and has widespread and lifelong impact — requires commitment of the persistent kind. Lasting change demands a commitment that does not ease up, slow up or give up. It is on going, devoted and never interrupted by even the most memorable of Superbowls.

Individuals like Justin and Adam demonstrate this.  To care and wish and even work a little isn’t enough.  Change happens with serious commitment, persistence and a relentless drive for the long haul.

More than a silver lining

Major Constantine crossing a canal.

Major Constantine crossing a canal in Iraq.

No one changes the world alone. This is a story about two people who wrapped their arms around brutal change that came to them unexpectedly and found ways to support each other — and change a part of the world.

Justin and Dahlia Constantine are simply amazing. Justin’s courageous recovery from a devastating war injury and his subsequent advocacy of wounded warriors, and Dahlia’s selfless commitment to the man she loves are more than inspiring. They are life changing.

On Saturday, Dec. 15, Justin (’92) will address the December graduates of JMU’s Class of 2012. In anticipation of Justin’s commencement address, I asked him to write today’s blog post. Here is a part of Justin and Dahlia’s story.

Courage, commitment and change

By Justin Constantine (’92)

Nothing in life remains constant, and we are continually changing, adapting and evolving. Just like JMU looks and feels a lot different than it did 20 years ago when I graduated, I too am quite a different person now. Six years ago my life changed drastically, and by all objective measures I shouldn’t have survived to be here today.

Justin (far left) and his Civil Affairs Team

I joined the Marine Corps after my second year of law school, but when I deployed to Iraq in 2006, it wasn’t in the role of a JAG officer. I had the honor of leading a team of eight Marines, and we were attached to a Marine infantry battalion.

On October 18, 2006, our combat patrol stopped at one of our forward operating bases, and I noticed that the reporter accompanying us that day was kind of standing around. When we got out of the vehicle at our next stop, I told the reporter that he needed to move faster, because we knew a sniper had already killed a few Marines in that area. Based on that, he took a big step forward, and a split second later a round came in right where his head had been and hit the wall behind us. The next shot hit me right behind my ear and exited out my mouth, causing catastrophic damage along the way. In fact, the Marines around me thought that I had been killed, and when the Corpsman came running over, told him, “Don’t worry about the Major – he’s dead.”

George Grant and Justin Constantine

But George Grant is an amazing young man, and although the sniper was still shooting, he saved my life. As torn up as my face was, George performed rescue breathing on me, and then an emergency tracheotomy, so that I wouldn’t drown on my own blood. In fact, despite all that was going on around him, George did such a wonderful job on my tracheotomy that my plastic surgeon at the military hospital thought another surgeon had performed it.

Back in 2006, Dahlia and I were not yet married; we were married two years later in 2008. We had met earlier in 2006 at a Spanish immersion course in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Dahlia was there from California, and I came from Virginia. We were in the same small class, and we really hit it off during that time. We dated that summer back in the States, and then when I deployed to Iraq, Dahlia left to pursue her Ph.D. at Cambridge University in England. Unlike in other wars, we were still able to communicate with email, and letters and packages and the occasional satellite phone call, and we often talked about our lives together and how we could work that out.

The Constantines on their wedding day

After I was injured, Dahlia decided to temporarily drop out of her doctorate program to be with me in the hospital. Never mind that studying at Cambridge had been a lifelong dream of hers, or that she didn’t know anyone in Maryland near the military hospital, or that at that point the doctors didn’t even know if I would survive. When I awoke from my coma, Dahlia was there and we have been an inseparable team since. Because of the injury that caused these problems, I am far closer with Dahlia than I would have thought possible, I now know that I am far stronger than I ever would have imagined, and I can put everyday obstacles into their proper perspective and focus on what is truly important to me and Dahlia.

And they say that every cloud has a silver lining, but all the changes that have happened since that day in 2006 are far more than a lining. I am truly very lucky for my “new normal” and have some great things going on in my life. I have stayed in the Marine Corps Reserve and am now about to be promoted again. I am attending Georgetown University at night for an advanced law degree through the VA’s vocational rehabilitation program, and I work full time as a lawyer with the FBI and also recently started my own inspiration speaking company.

Justin and Dahlia when he received the Purple Heart

Because of my injury, I belong to a number of different wounded warrior organizations committed to helping so many of our returning heroes, and frankly, I know that I would not be doing this kind of advocacy if it weren’t for my injury. It sounds crazy, but this change that was violently thrust upon me, and all that comes with it, has actually been very beneficial to me in the long run.

Life changes, for better or worse. It all depends how you look at it. I choose the glass to be half full, not half empty, and to embrace change. I want to live in the future, not the past. Be the Change!

To read more about Justin and Dahlia Constantine, go to this link:
Learn even more about Justin or engage him to speak by going to his website:
You can also find Justin on Facebook, follow him on Twitter and see him accept the 2011 George C. Lang award for his work with wounded warriors on YouTube.

Changing your job prospects

Kelsey Mohring ('12) posing with the Duke Dog statue

Kelsey Mohring (’12)

The American economy is limping. The job market is tough. And new college graduates are feeling the pain. There is one tool at their disposal, however, that’s a great way to finesse a job. An internship, the proverbial foot in the door, provides an avenue to transform job prospects from discouraging to promising.

The advantage to an employer is clear: inexpensive and sometimes free labor, as well as the opportunity to see how a potential employee works and fits into the company environment. For the intern, the benefits are even greater — hands-on experience, the chance to hone basic work skills, demonstrate their value and, best of all, become strategically positioned for a great job. One clever JMU alumna, Kelsey Mohring (’12), a magna cum laude graduate in communication studies, is mastering the art of interning. While at JMU, she interned with JMU’s Office of Public Affairs. Now, she’s interning with CRT/tanaka. Recently, we caught up with Kelsey. She writes..  

I did an externship with CRT/tanaka in high school, which led me to pursue an education in public relations at JMU. As an account coordinator at CRT/tanaka, I have had the opportunity to work with a wide variety of clients including Wilsonart, Cambria Suites, Air New Zealand, BISSELL, the Federation of Quebec Maple Syrup Producers, the Partnership at and I work on research, social media, media relations, strategic planning and day-to-day tactical execution for our clients. One of the most notable projects I worked was conducting blogger and Twitter outreach for the Partnership at’s Medicine Abuse Project, which launched in September. I garnered over 31 million impressions and secured tweets from Maria Shriver and Larry King in support of the five-year campaign to end prescription drug abuse among teens. At CRT/tanaka I have had the opportunity to learn from some amazing minds in the PR field and I have grown immensely from the experience.

Earlier this month, Kelsey published a blog post about how to handle that all-important internship. Reprinted with permission from CRT/tanaka Buzz Bin, here’s Kelsey’s best advice:

Take that, Real World; I made it!

By Kelsey Mohring (’12) (@mohrinkd)

Quick disclaimer: What you are about to read is about the PR industry as well as the transition from college to the real world, making it in a new environment, discovering your strengths, weaknesses and passions and making some mistakes along the way. So, if you aren’t ready for a life chat, turn back now.

I have grown immensely in the past five months as a CRT/tanaka Account Coordinator. I was one of the lucky few who actually graduated from college with a job and was excited to enter the professional realm, feeling like my college career had prepared me to offer value to a team. What they don’t tell you in college is it ALL changes in the real world. Suddenly research that you did hundreds of times for papers needs to be more in-depth; pitching isn’t just sending a quick email, but actually calling reporters; a lunch break becomes nonexistent (despite what Applebees might want you to believe), so you have to become skillful at eating and typing at the same time; and you now have to carry the weight of worrying about finances. Oh, and all of this is occurring at a pace you never experienced safe within your college bubble. The good news is, once you get the hang of it, you’re able to reflect on what you’ve learned and accomplished and can look back and say, “Take that, Real World; I made it!”

Here are my top 10 takeaways from my experience thus far:

1. Be humble

You may come out of college as a straight-A student, thinking your skills and excited attitude could add a lot to a company, and you’re probably right. Even so, your work and your attitude should be able to speak for themselves. Confidence is important (this industry would beat you down without it), but cockiness is unnecessary, and frankly kind of annoying.

2. Be a sponge

Listen in on as many client meetings, brainstorms and ordinary office conversations as you can. This is your chance to learn about the different facets of the industry, experience various clients and assist in multiple and varying projects. Soak up the knowledge of the talented people around you.

3. Be slow to speak

If you have something valuable to offer, by all means do so. But, carefully think about when you want to speak up and when it may be better to listen (while furiously taking notes). This is an important skill, because when mastered, people know that when you speak it is going to be good!

4. Be kind

You would be surprised how far this can get you with colleagues, contacts and clients. In an office environment, constructive criticism is important, so, yes, you have to learn how to take it. However, we should also start trying to catch people doing things right. In relationship psychology, they speak about the 5-1 rule, meaning you should have 5 positive things to say for every 1 criticism. The type of positive work environment resulting from this practice might just make for employees who are more passionate and productive.

5. Be social

This is applicable in a few different ways. Firstly, maintain a social life of some kind. Going home on Friday night and sleeping until Monday morning is just not acceptable (even though it sometimes feels necessary). Make the effort to get out. Secondly, if you aren’t already being social online, start. Read blogs, make comments, tweet, re-tweet — do whatever you need to do to start building connections in the PR world. You never know when that food blog you have been following for years may become your next pitching assignment (trust me, it happened).

6. Be positive and stay strong

Once all of the stress of being a grown-up hits you, this one becomes difficult, but is essential. There are days when you might get yelled at by an angry blogger for asking how he was doing (also happened), you run a Vocus search and get booted off just as you complete your 200-person list of contacts, you are starving because you haven’t mastered the eat-and-type, then a client calls on Friday at 4:59 p.m. with a last-minute request. It sounds cliché, but try to keep your chin up. First, because poor posture will give you a back ache on top of a bad day. But second, because you are going to have lousy days; it’s is just part of the real world. Remind yourself you are capable, smart and valued and that tomorrow will (hopefully) be a better day.

7. Be open

I came to CRT/tanaka with no strong indication as to where my talents and passions in PR lie. As a result, I tried to look at any project that was thrown my way as an exciting opportunity. This helped me discover that I enjoy conducting formal research and I can skillfully run a social media audit. I would never have known where my true interests lie if I wasn’t open to every opportunity.

8. Be overly helpful

Make the extra effort. When I first started here, my mentor told me, “Your job is to make the person who’s next in line’s job easier,” which I think puts it perfectly. This means researching a blog’s unique monthly visitors before suggesting a client team respond to their ProfNet inquiry. Even when creating an informal document, make it neat and easy to read (Hint: provide an executive summary to make it even easier to digest). And, in any meeting, take detailed notes, even if no one else in the room is. You just may be the person they turn to when they forget about that brilliant idea someone had but they never wrote down.

9. Be able to pitch, develop a media list and conduct research

These tasks are never going away and they are crucial tactical skills for our job, especially upon entry into PR. Also, learn how to provide social media content, and learn about monitoring and measurement tools like Cision, Vocus, Radian6 and Traackr – you’ll be more valuable to your team.

10. Be ethical

Never compromise your personal morals for your job. What’s even more ideal is finding a job that shares your values and a company culture that fosters your ethics. I chose CRT/tanaka because of their “Shared Values” which I felt matched perfectly with my personal attitude towards life. Find a place that you feel does the same for you.

I’m not going to say the real world doesn’t still scare me, or that I have somehow mastered this “grown-up” transition period, but I will say that “I made it!” and I learned a lot along the way.

Are you wrapping up an internship in the PR industry? What has your position taught you about yourself and about life?

Nice piece, Kelsey.  How would you answer Kelsey’s final questions? How has an internship changed your future?

A virtual homecoming

JMU's Homecoming 2012 purple and gold logo featuring Wilson HallOkay, this is Homecoming weekend at JMU.

Hundreds of loyal Dukes will be streaming back into Harrisonburg. Local Dukes will be hauling carloads of food to campus. Some Dukes will see the new and improved Bridgeforth Stadium for the first time. For others returning to JMU, it will be all about experiencing a little Madison vibe once again — walking the campus, cheering at the football game, enjoying tailgates and seeing friends.

But what is Homecoming if you live, say, in Japan or on the other side of the United States?  Or what if your job or funds or other obligations preclude you from traveling and you can’t be here in person? Why not change it up? What about enjoying a virtual Homecoming?

If you’re social media savvy (and you certainly are if you’re reading this), you can have that experience. Between Facebook, Twitter and the Internet, you can “be” here while, well, not being here.

Why not start here, or the JMU website. “Walk” around, look at JMU’s Flckr feed. Follow the Homecoming events, the football game — there’s already buzz about a new quarterback — or just reminesce. Maybe you can gather a few local Dukes wherever you are this weekend and have your own long-distance Homecoming. I mean, come on, we have distance learning. Why not a distance Homecoming?

So if you’re a Duke, if your Madison Experience still lingers in your life, if some of life’s fondest memories have a purple or gold haze over them, then — definitely — you should be here for Homecoming — one way or another.

How do you move on?

photo by Matthew Merritt ('14)

How do you pick up and go on after a day like September 11? Even 10 years after the event, it feels strange to move on, as if by moving on we somehow leave the memory behind. Yet we have to go on. I don’t know how to follow last week’s blog.  Anything I write seems lame. But as a father might gently lift his child from a precipitous perch to the safer, firmer earth, it feels right to go gently. So today, for one more day, others will reflect.

After I posted last week, I heard from Be the Changer Levar Stoney (’00). Levar wrote:

I was a sophomore resident adviser in Ikenberry Hall. I can remember waking up for classes and my suite mates telling me that a plane had flown into one of the twin towers in New York. I initially thought it was just an accident until I watched the second plane fly into one of the towers. I remember thinking this wasn’t a coincidence, and then I heard the TV broadcasters agreeing.

When you’re on campus in Harrisonburg you always feel a tad bit isolated from outside events. That day though, I felt like just about everything stopped, or it started going in slow motion. I remember only going to one class. Ironically, it was a course on global politics. We sat and talked about what was going on in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania. We were dismissed early, and I remember this eerie empty feeling walking through the Commons. I was a part of SGA, and this was supposed to be election day. Usually the Commons would be bustling with people. As I walked by one of the polling tables, I recall folks telling me not many folks were voting. A lot of folks rightfully had their minds elsewhere.

Another alumnus Rob Beaton (’00) was working in the World Trade Center. Undoubtedly, he was one for whom friends were searching. He posted his thoughts in a comment to the blog.

I had been out of JMU for only a few months, having walked across the stage of the Convocation Center during my graduation in December of 2000. By August of 2001, I was working in the World Trade Center. I had landed an amazing job with Empire Blue Cross Blue Shield on the 28th floor of WTC. Most people had a pretty good idea of where my office was — it was pretty easy to spot with the big antenna on top of it.

On September 11, 2001, everyone in the entire world knew exactly where my office was, and they were all watching in horror. I had been sitting at my desk when the first plane hit my building. I have replayed the day’s events in my head countless times over the last ten years, and I have shared my firsthand perspective of my escape with countless people. Yet, it is always fascinating to hear other people’s accounts from that day since everyone has their own unique point of view. It is especially fascinating to read stories from JMU students about how those events impacted the campus. After all, I was barely out of JMU at the time — it felt as if I had just stepped off the Quad and straight into the center of the most significant historical event of our time.

Before that day, the corporate hierarchy in my company was quite clear and rather intimidating. On September 11, all hierarchy vanished as we were instantly united in our common cause. During our escape from the tower, I crossed paths with one woman who was part of the company’s elite upper management team. We were suddenly on the same playing field despite our mismatched corporate ranking. Slipping on the wet floors of the World Trade Center mall, we linked our arms together to help each other make our way to safety. There was even unity on the streets. Never before in New York City — a notoriously unfriendly city — could you approach a complete stranger to strike up conversation, ask for directions, or have a shoulder to lean on. Amidst the mayhem, a greater power truly prevailed.

Last night on the Quad, students gathered to commemorate September 11, 2001, as they have done every year since the event. SGA President Pat Watral (‘12) opened the program and President Rose offered thoughts. Like so many initiatives at JMU, this remembrance was student-driven and student-run. Nick Langridge (’00) who is now assistant to Dr. Rose, remembered how students rose up in response to 9.11.  Kemper Funkhouser (’02, ’10M) and Kevin Warner (’02) organized the first ceremony of remembrance. It has occurred every year since.

Tom Culligan (’05), who works on Capital Hill handling terrorism issues, spoke to hundreds of students gathered under a threatening sky last night. He recalled that he had been on campus for only a few weeks when he woke to the jarring experience. He remembers crowding around a 20-inch television in Ashby Hall. “As we tried to make sense of it all, one tower fell, then the second, then the Pentagon. It felt as though our world was collapsing.”  So many students were from Northern Virginia, he said, but with only email and telephones — no cell phones or Facebook or Twitter then — “all we heard were busy signals…. The joy of orientation had suddenly evaporated…..I still remember how still the campus was.”

Except for the wind and singular voices struggling to be heard in its midst, the Quad was quiet last night. Even a chant U-S-A couldn’t catch hold. Students seemed to want to reflect, and perhaps that is the best acknowledgment of shared sorrow. I invite any of you to add your own thoughts here as comments to be archived along with those of others who remember the day.

And then we move on.

To see some of JMU’s 10-year remembrance, visit the Breeze’s video coverage here:

The ought-to-be-bridled freedom of speech

Language is a magnificent construct with which we can express beautiful subtleties, clever thoughts and challenging ideas. We can discuss thorny issues. We can visit controversies. We can work toward solutions.

Or we can beat each other over the head.

Anyone who peruses the Internet frequently will have noticed a trend in the discussions: an unfiltered proliferation of words flourishing on Websites, blogs, online publications, Facebook pages and Twitter. The ability to “speak” with inflammatory, disparaging and downright mean words is a temptation that apparently befalls many people.

Here some samples that I found posted today (and these are the mild ones):

Alas, the GOP field of candidates reminds me of going to the supermarket to find that this year’s crop of fruits and vegetables is rotten to the core. (Washington Post)

No matter what happens the US is done, finished, over.  All bow to your corporate masters. (New York Times)

I am ashamed of the people who are supposed to be running this country…it’s a “my way or the highway” attitude in Washington DC.  They are a disgrace. (CNN)

We Americans take our freedom of speech very, very seriously.  It’s right up there with breathing.

We speak fearlessly and the press foolishly takes our “pulse” with such comments. How many times have you heard “news” people, say “this is what people are saying?” Add in the “tabloid effect” — the likelihood that the most sensational, outrageous and often the most irresponsible comments will rise to the top of the discussion — and one has to wonder: How valuable is this, anyway?

While often people are blowing off steam as they pontificate, such loaded, thoughtless rhetoric rarely advances civil discussion. Political correctness has banned whole categories of words; it’s a shame that all malicious phrases (akin more to baseball bats than words) aren’t banned from print or posts. But alas, they are not, and I don’t suggest it. Instead, we should dispense with them ourselves.

Far too frequently, online “discussions” — and I use that term with a certain amount of sarcasm — sound more like verbal beat downs. (“McDonnell is an idiot”; “Obama is the anti-Christ”) Reason and civility are lost to the unbridled sentiments of frustrated individuals. The status quo seems to be “say anything you want and turn a deaf ear to the consequences.” Piling on this way in expressing one’s dislike for a particular political candidate, an elected official or a specific piece of legislation is common, and frankly, quite unhelpful.

Far more infrequent are discussions that explore interesting, controversial and divisive ideas with candor and civility, with honesty and open mindedness. Sadly, these are exceedingly rare.

Once in a while, however, you’ll come across a thoughtful comment that makes you think and that adds to understanding. Earlier this month, Nathan Alvado-Castle commented on a post on this blog about being “green.” In the same thoughtful way, John Reeves commented on a post about Sudan. What they wrote added  new dimensions to the discussions.

Both Nathan and John exercised “free speech” in positive, reasonable and valuable ways. Perhaps commentators elsewhere should follow their lead.  Neither yelled, condemned, name-called. They expressed viewpoints with reason and consideration — and frankly, it was refreshing. So, Nathan and John, thank you!

Somehow we need to change the tone of discussion from the current dismissive rants to comments that further discourse. And while I would never imply that freedom of speech should ever be quelled, I would suggest that thinking before one “speaks” online — or anywhere else — is a policy that might make our sacred freedom far more productive. So let’s change the tenor of of freedom of speech; let’s bridle our own, so we can really talk.

You can read Nathan’s comments here:

You’ll find John’s comments here:

Joplin and the best things in life

Information can shake you in your boots and then again it can absolve your fears. And sometimes, it’s a catalyst for action.

Last night as the news from Joplin, Mo., unfolded after a tornado tore a six-mile hole through the heart of the city about dinner time, I immediately scoured the Internet for information because I have a cousin who lives in Joplin. The scope of the devastation hadn’t yet made it to television news. Producers, I’m sure, were scrambling to bring it to viewers, but I couldn’t wait. I was worried about Sarah and her family.  I found her house on Google maps and then tried plotting the path of the tornado through the neighborhood with what information I could glean from local news outlets, weather sites and Twitter feeds. Most of the destruction was along Ridgeline Road and north of the I-41.  That was encouraging; Sarah lives south of the interstate. But St. John’s Medical Center sustained a direct hit. Her husband is a doctor and her daughter, pinned on Saturday, is a brand new nurse. Were they there?

I dug out her phone number, but telephone service was down. Texting — I read somewhere —was the best means of communicating in an emergency, but I only had the number for her landline.

More digging. I found the Jasper County emergency services broadband feed. It crackled off and on with clinical and efficient messages. I was struck by the calm in their voices, the sense of purpose in the midst of absolute chaos. I listened, riveted: “Traffic is flooding in here. Can someone stop it up there?”  “We can’t get through the streets; can you give us an alternate route?”  “Where’s the shelter being set up?” An accompanying Facebook page added more to the rescuers discussion. Here I learned that J-4 was a code name for someone who had not survived. Rescuers, referencing J-4, were asking, “Where is the temporary morgue?”

The tornado was “rain-wrapped,” the worse kind, meaning it couldn’t be seen coming. Only felt. All the bits and pieces of information pelting the broadbands were frightening knowing that Sarah and her family were there. I sent her a Facebook message, not knowing if she had power.

As I watched the destruction coalesce across news outlets and blogs and finally on television, I thought about all that was lost. I am certain that many people in Joplin who escaped with their lives would eventually agree that the things — even the precious things — are replaceable. Some things like photographs may not be, but their loss pales in comparison to lives.

It should always be all about lives.

We graduate from college. We pack up our diplomas and our graduation gifts. We sail off on a journey to build successful careers that we too often measure by what we own, by what privileges we earn, or by what we “have.” But in the end, an education measured only by power or wealth or accomplishment isn’t worth very much during times like Sunday in Joplin. If our educations, on the other hand, prompt us to roll up our sleeves like the citizens of Missouri, particularly the search, rescue and emergency people, our diplomas mean something very different.

Being the change sometimes means picking up the pieces after a disaster. Ultimately it means understanding that it’s the things that we can do without; it’s the people we can’t. I’m reminded of the massacre at Virginia Tech and JMU’s response. The university sent teams to Blacksburg to help. After the tornadoes in Virginia recently, I am sure Madison people were helping their neighbors. Jon McNamara (’05) with the Red Cross in Virginia certainly was, and soon I’ll share with you some of his perspectives. This week Madison magazine heard from Justin Constantine (’92) who has been appointed to a congressionally-mandated committee on wounded warriors. It is not the prestige, though, that excites Justin. “It is great to have the opportunity to be part of the solution,” he wrote. Be the Changer Anne Stewart, professor of graduate psychology, knows this too through her work with crisis intervention. There are hundreds of others who everyday take seriously the charge and responsibility to Be the Change.

Last night in Joplin, rescuers dug out the living trapped from under collapsed roofs and overturned cars. They rescued the wounded from rubble-filled basements, and they comforted those without bearings or belongings. If we respond as they did last night to everyday needs, then we validate education. And we change the world.

This morning, to my great relief, I heard from Sarah. She wasn’t in the path of the storm, but her daughter and son-in-law were not so fortunate. They lived in the path of the destruction. Their home and their cars are gone. Destroyed.  Nothing is left. They, however, were not at home when the tornado hit. They are safe.

Relieved, I sent Sarah a reply: “The best things in life aren’t things.” No, they certainly are not.

If want to help the people of Joplin, including some who are Dukes, the link to an ABC news story about how you can help:

To learn more about Anne Stewart and Justin Constantine, click on the links below:

Hope for broken hearts

When Adam Armiger (’07) was 10 years old, his sister Hope Marietta was born with a congenital heart defect.  During her first two weeks of life, she endured two open-heart surgeries. But that wasn’t enough. Her tiny heart couldn’t be fixed. Hope died as a result of her broken heart.

Hope Marietta Armiger was not alone. According to the March of Dimes, some 35,000 children are born every year with structural heart defects ranging from the undiagnosed to the catastrophic. Many children are not even aware of the condition and lead normal lives; others discover it later. But many infants born with damaged hearts require immediate and significant intervention and care.

Adam Armiger understands this and has taken steps to help.

More than a decade after losing his sister, Adam founded the Hope Marietta Foundation to keep her memory alive and to raise both funds and awareness of congenital heart defects. According to the foundation’s website, CHDs claim the lives of twice as many children as all childhood cancers combined, yet funding for research amounts to only one fifth of what it is for cancer. The Hope Marietta Foundation supports research through contributions to the Children’s Heart Foundation, the only organization created to exclusively fund congenital heart defect research.

But the Hope Marietta Foundation does much more. Adam, a College of Business graduate who works as an analyst with CW Capital Asset Management in Northern Virginia, knows firsthand the difficulties faced by families struggling with  heart defects. The foundation supports these families — and they have fun doing so, raising funds and visibility with events as varied as casino nights to skeeball tourneys to stockings and cold beer.

The Hope Marietta Foundation has a distinctive JMU feel. Co-founder and legal counsel for the organization is Sean Wainwright (’06), an international affairs graduate who went on to earn a law degree from Rutgers University. He is an account executive for a startup floral service out of Manhattan, now operating in D.C.  Also working with the foundation is Kerrin Delaney (’07), a communications studies graduate who directs brand development for the foundation. She is corporate marketing director for Amphora Group, a successful and award-winning food service company consisting of gourmet catering, European style bakeries and local, national and international fare restaurants.

Together Adam, Sean, Kerrin and scores of dedicated friends are keeping Hope Marietta’s memory alive — and changing lives along the way.

To learn more about the Hope Marietta Foundation, go to their website:

You can also follow the foundation on Facebook and Twitter.

And here’s an interview with founder Adam Armiger:

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