Golden treasure inside hid

client_id_210_media_file_name_1456438758.7976Who among us hasn’t wished to find a treasure—buried or otherwise? The allure of opening up a seaweed-encrusted trunk filled with gold doubloons or having Publishers Clearinghouse knock at your door or hitting the lottery is pretty universal. Yep. We’ve all dreamed about it.

What if I told you that you’ve already won? It all depends on how you define treasure.

Treasure is one of those words that has a thousand fulfillments. Yet looking through a long list of quotations about treasure, you quickly realize that the things we humans treasure are as diverse as we are.

Christopher Columbus treasured gold. Gandhi treasured truth. “God, as truth, has been a treasure beyond price,” he said.  Ralph Waldo Emerson would have agreed with Gandhi. “Truth,” he wrote, “is the treasure of all men.”

Many people treasure love in all its myriad forms. Some consider memory their best treasure. Others find it in relationships. Martin Luther’s treasure, next to the Bible, was music. Author George Sand treasured kindness. One man valued witty women. One famous woman valued anonymity. Louisa May Alcott valued friendship, especially a faithful friend.

Some treasures are more mundane. Some treasured pets, BBC programming and food processors. Surprisingly, Walt Disney valued books. “There is more treasure in books than in all the pirate’s loot on Treasure Island,” he said.

Friedrich Nietzsche valued knowledge: “Our treasure lies in the beehive of our knowledge.”Philosopher Roberto Unger suggested we should treasure what we do not yet know: “The scientist should treasure the riddles he can’t solve, not explain them away at the outset.” Another person said that treasure can be found in what we learn from facing our fears.

When I think about JMU’s first-ever Giving Day — which is today, March 15, 2016 — it seems that many of our human heart’s treasures are touched through the experiences we gain during a college education — friendships, knowledge, love, books, truth. In toto it is an experience that empowers, challenges, prepares, teaches, encourages — and changes us.

Isaac Bashevis Singer wrote, “There is great treasure behind our skull.” And that’s the place where a university’s treasure is discovered — in the knowledge and promise that an education provokes. And it is priceless.

Author L. Frank Baum (of Oz fame) said it this way: “No thief, however skillful, can rob one of knowledge, and that is why knowledge is the best and safest treasure to acquire.”

If you graduated from JMU—or any other college or university—you understand that the value of an education wraps within it the means to find so many of the yearnings we desire throughout life: truth, love, memory, music, friendship, books, knowledge, riddles and even fears. To have a transformative Madison Experience touches on all of these treasures — and far more.

Perhaps J.R.R. Tolkien, a man who well knew universities, was describing them  when he wrote, “A box without hinges, key, or lid, yet golden treasure inside is hid.”

So you see, you’ve already won treasures more valuable than even a lottery can provide. Tomorrow on JMU’s first-ever Giving Day, think about those treasures — your personal treasures — and think about how you can give back so that someone else can unlock their own.

Learn more about Giving Day here:

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Squeegees and the Sigma Nus

IMG_1381Any mom can tell you where kids roam, messes follow. Multiply that by hundreds and you’ll need a cleaning crew.

That’s what downtown Harrisonburg’s Explore More Discovery Museum got recently when members of the Sigma Nu fraternity descended on the museum after hours. They grabbed buckets, rags, mops and squeegees. They wiped tables and counters, cleaned bathrooms, mopped up floors and polished windows. When they left that evening, the museum was sparkling.

Volunteers like the brothers of Sigma Nu are critical to the operation of the museum, a downtown treasure. So we applaud the guys for their volunteer service to the community’s children. It’s a great way to be the change.

To learn more about Explore More Discovery Museum and its JMU connection, you’ll find a story on the JMU website.


Tamping down the animus

If you’re a Facebook regular, you’ve no doubt been treated to a barrage of politically charged pictures, quotes and opinions. Frankly, I’ve been stunned at some of the things people have posted. Some are junkyard-dog-mean, vulgar and irresponsible. Despite calls from both sides to tone down the rhetoric, the opposite seems to be happening. In fact, the omnipresence of social media seems to have liberated our nastiest sides and ratcheted up the acrimony.

But has it really?

In an interesting post earlier this month, William E. White of the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, debunked the modern consensus that the current political firestorm is worse than any other. He writes: “Partisanship and rancor are not new. We have not fallen from some republican ideal into a new style of debauchery.”

If we’re such smart Americans, then why don’t we know this?

The reason, White writes, is that “Americans are a terribly ahistorical people.” We really don’t know our history. White explains further:

That does not justify the way modern politicians attack each other, but if we provided a decent American history and civics education in this country, twenty-first-century American citizens would at least recognize the historical roots of our current situation. Most, however, are woefully ignorant about our past and the way in which elections are conducted. Most don’t understand that the electoral process has changed dramatically over time. Nor do they understand that most voting requirements are established by states, not the federal government. People are amazed to learn that, until 1913 and the ratification of the Seventeenth Amendment, most U.S. senators were appointed by state legislatures, not elected by the people.

White goes on to say, “If we believe there is too much rancor in politics, the people must demand a change. We are the American people and American history is the only way for us to understand the responsibilities we hold for insuring the future of the republic.”

One JMU alum is taking a step toward the positive change that White suggests. Patrick Spero (’00), assistant professor of history and leadership studies at Williams College, teaches an experimental course on the American presidency “using the latest technology to create campaign ads for presidential elections from Washington to Lincoln,” he explains.

Employing all the advantages of modern technology, Spero’s students recreate earlier political campaigns that are historically accurate. Quite a challenge certainly, but what an interesting and enlightening one.

So if we are going to change the rhetoric, the tenor and tone of our political discourse, maybe we should start by knowing what we’re talking about, like Spero’s students. Maybe understanding history will give us the knowledge and context to change things. Maybe it will give us more thoughtful avenues of discussion and maybe, just maybe, it will tamp down the animus. It’s worth a shot.

I’m not sure I’ve seen a timelier or more interesting opportunity in this election cycle to be the change.

To learn more:

Colonial Williamsburg is offering an electronic field trip about the election of 1800, Gift to the Nation.

To learn much more about Patrick Spero’s work and his class, click on the links below:

To read the entire text of the blog, which appeared in the Aug. 14, 2012, Huffington Post, click the embedded link.

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.

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.

Still busy fighting …

Patrick Wiggins (far right) and friends who helped with  HARTS – Harrisonburg’s thermal shelter for the homeless

Patrick Wiggins (’11) has been busy this past year as a first year masters of public health student at Drexel University. His passion to abate hunger problems worldwide has turned into full-fledged pursuit of solutions to this problem.

In May 2012, Patrick helped organize Beyond Hunger: Real People. Real Solutions, a national conference on hunger and poverty that attracted hundreds of spectators and participants, including those who had been directly impacted by poverty and hunger in the United States.  The conference was a unique event, as not only did it feature researchers, students and philanthropists as speakers, but also “true experts” as Patrick calls them — those who have experienced poverty and hunger firsthand. Patrick’s desire to end hunger that he displayed through his undergrad volunteer work in Harrisonburg area soup kitchens, is expanding to a national level; the conference attracted people from all over the country to discuss the issues of hunger and poverty.

In his article on the conference, Patrick writes: “The Beyond Hunger conference provided a masterful venue that juxtaposed the expertise of anti-hunger advocates, government officials, and philanthropists with the expertise of people who experience hunger and poverty firsthand.”

Patrick is also a staff member of Drexel University’s Center for Hunger-Free Communities, an organization that works with communities dealing with hunger issues. The center has a particular emphasis on helping families with malnourished children, and works with Children’s HealthWatch and Philadelphia-area hospitals to provide outreach to families stricken with hunger and poverty.

Link to Patrick’s article on the conference:–1108/

Patrick’s Be the Change Profile:

Center for Hunger-Free Communities website:

– by Tyler McAvoy (’12), Be the Change intern

Asking the right question

Rheannon Sorrells triggered change by asking the critical question. (Photo by Norm Shafer)

Sometimes Being the Change means asking the right question.

Rheannon Sorrells (’04, ’11M), a teacher at Ressie Jeffers Elementary School in Warren Co., Va., watched as children struggled to read. At the same time, she was working on  her master’s degree in JMU’s College of Education and had discovered a new methodology for reading instruction called Response to Intervention. The RtI program recognizes that teaching methods that identify individual students’ strengths and weakness, and that are designed around the child, are highly effective.

Rheannon posed a critical question to her graduate professor: What would it take to try RtI at her elementary school? The result of Rheannon’s question was a partnership between JMU’s Allison Kretlow, professor of education, and the teachers at Ressie Jeffers.

And it  worked.

Because Rheannon asked the right question and acted on her convictions, Rheannon triggered a process that changed hundreds of young lives. Eventually the RtI reading program was adopted countywide.

For Rheannon’s work and especially for being the “spark” for change, we’re adding Rheannon Sorrells to our long list of Be the Change people.

You can read Rheannon’s full profile here:

And you can read the entire story of the successful Warren County reading program by visiting

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