Now they are looking ahead

(Photo by Jeff Wingo ('80, '95M)

Photo by Jeff Wingo (’80, ’95M)

JMU dad and double-Duke Jeff Wingo (’80, ‘95M) posted a picture on Facebook from this past weekend’s graduation on the Quad. It’s a look at a collection of decorated mortarboards — a salute to the individuality of each student. (To see many more decorated mortarboards, check out JMU’s Facebook page.)

It’s also a view of their backs, as they leave JMU and go out into the world. As we watch them leave en masse, they are looking forward.

Every year graduates leave behind their shadows in the minds of their professors, in the organizations they joined, in the friends they made, and the classes they attended. One professor told me that it was a bit sad watching the students leave — those he had nurtured and befriended. He’ll miss them. Graduates also leave behind proud parents who  believe in their futures, parents like Jeff and Michelle (’79) Wingo. But the time had come.

What graduates leave behind, however, is far less than what they take away. They walk away with sharpened talents, earned knowledge, rich experiences and unsullied dreams. With these, they enter a new phase of their lives — and new worlds ready for shaping and changing.

Some will head to Wall Street or D.C. to work 80-hour weeks to “pay their dues” as their fields require.  Others will take their talents to inner cities or creative suites or classrooms. Jeff and Michelle’s son, Owen Wingo (’13), will take his B.A. in musical theater  to New York to face auditioning and the roller coaster of dreams and hopes that is the nature of the theater business. Some will find purpose in nonprofits. Others will find it in technology, science or industry.

Some will venture to other worlds, like Will McLaughlin (’12, ‘13M) and Becky Blecksmith (’12, ‘13M), two English graduates who will move to China to teach English.

All of them take with them  the optimism of youth, something that is intense, infectious and irrepressible in the typical 20-something. Few could persuade them otherwise. And who would want to? They believe in the promise of the future. This week they are energized and excited at their prospects for finding jobs, creating their futures and finding their places in the world.

Eventually, they will discover, as every alumnus already knows, life isn’t always what you expect it to be. Sometimes it’s better. Sometimes it’s harder. Sometimes it’s disappointing. Sometimes it’s wonderful. But our hope is that they have all graduated with enough moxie to handle whatever life brings. Most importantly, we hope they have learned what a meaningful life should look like, and that what they bring to the world is not just themselves, not just talents, not just drive and ambition and hope. Life is not a simple pursuit of personal fame and fortune, but a desire to find and carry out ways — small, large and in between — to change the world.

By seniors, for seniors


During the last four years, members of the Class of 2013 have learned from professors, from peers, from experiences and from challenges. In doing so, some of these seniors have demonstrated particular characteristics that I’ve watched and admired. As I thought about how they’ve succeeded, I realized that these seniors (and a few underclassmen) have demonstrated some wisdom that is worth emulating and that every graduating senior should carry with them out into the real world. So I compiled a list. Think of it as the Class of 2013’s six big lessons: By seniors, for seniors.

1. For much of this year, I’ve followed a JMU health blog, You Caught it Here, written by 15 intrepid students. I say intrepid because as a regular blogger I know how hard it is to continually push out fresh content. They’ve consistently published excellent and honest posts. But they’ve notched another cred that I think is equally important. Often in their posts, they have detailed their own personal challenges. They have looked at their own lifestyles and tried to make changes, and they have engaged in research and reporting on a wide range of topics from alcohol consumption to flossing to smoking to running that has sometimes changed their minds. Their honesty is refreshing, and with it they set a good example. They’ve learned the critical lesson: Be teachable. If you discover something in your life that needs to be changed, then do it. Be willing to look at your skills, your approaches, your opinions, even your own understanding critically and make changes when necessary. And have the humility to say I could do better and that maybe someone else is right.

2.  I’ve also followed two foodie blogs this years. From them, I’ve learned a lot about food — and about how one pursues a passion. Students graduating next week are faced with challenges in the job market, but they are also presented with opportunities to be creative, inventive, to travel, to explore and to find out how they want to shape their lives. Cameron Young (’15) and Morgan Robinson (’13) have demonstrated a second important lesson: Be bold.  If you have a passion, go for it. Don’t hesitate. Try. You may fall flat on your face, but nothing can ever  be accomplished if you don’t take that first step.

3. Tyler McAvoy (’13)  has interned in our office for almost three years. He’s written blog posts and stories for the web and for Madison magazine. He’s been my right hand man, and I’m going to miss him. There was a time, however, when I wondered if Tyler would ever graduate, but not for the reasons you might expect. Tyler’s a smart guy and part of the reason for his extended stay at JMU is because he kept finding classes and subjects he wanted to explore. He really loves to learn, and although he’s graduating next week with a degree in English with a concentration in British literature and a double minor in philosophy and political science, Tyler will never really graduate in the sense that he will never stop learning. He’ll always be a student and probably head to law school at some point. So Tyler’s lesson is this: Be a lifelong learner. Graduations are a mark in time, but it should never mark the end of learning.

4. And then there’s  Brett Sierra (’13), another marketing and communications intern. Brett, a very smart biology major, has moved boxes, updated excel spread sheets, distributed magazines, and executed a host of other jobs that some students might have found tedious. Brett has done them eagerly, and in doing so, demonstrates one of the most important principles for success: Be willing to work. In any job situation, eagerness and willingness to do whatever it takes to get a job done even if it’s beneath or above your pay grade is an admirable characteristic. It says plenty about an employee. He is a team player. She is engaged. He cares about a company’s success. She is one to be relied on. Employers love this attitude, and more importantly, they hold on tight to those who are genuinely earnest.

5. Fortunately, it was not a JMU student who demonstrated the negative corollary of this lesson: Be thoughtful about your words and actions. “Sorority girl’s” rant that went viral last week should be a lesson to everyone. Think before you speak, act, write, film — or hit send. An irate outburst, no matter how well-intended or even justified, is eternal on the Internet and in the minds of those who witness it. Thinking first and practicing the old adage, “When in doubt, don’t,” is a pretty darn good rule to follow. The world is a different place than it was eight years ago when YouTube was launched, but one thing hasn’t changed: What you say and do reflects who you are. You can’t take it back or cover it up. Discretion is always preferable to regret.

6.  Adam Breeden (’13), who is office manager for JMU’s marketing and communication department, has been pursuing his degree for a number of years while working full time. Adam, a 30-something, will graduate with a degree in computer and web technology. Adam’s perseverance has paid off, and that is his lesson: Be persevering. Don’t give up, even when things get hard or when the road ahead is long. It’s worth it in the end. Find your best goals and pursue them until your goals become your accomplishments.

Congratulations to these seniors, and thanks for demonstrating what it takes to be successful starting May 5, 2013.

Senior wisdom

Weather permitting, in about 10 weeks writing and rhetoric major Anthony Baracat (’13) will walk across the university’s historic Quadrangle for the last time as an undergraduate to collect the diploma he’s worked toward for the past three and a half years. As he walks, he  — like so many seniors before him — will reflect on his Madison years and the change that commencement will mark. I asked Anthony, who interned in the Be the Change office last semester, to think about what he might tell a newly admitted student. This is what he had to say….

Some senior wisdom

by Anthony Baracat (’13)

Anthony Baracat ('13) in the red Capital's shirt and JMU friends.

Anthony Baracat (’13) in the red Capital’s shirt and JMU friends.

James Madison is the only university I have ever attended. So while it may be true that I cannot adequately compare JMU to other colleges, I can tell you we have some great stuff. Look at a cork board anywhere on campus to see some of it: author and poet lectures (both Donald Miller and Sean Thomas Dougherty are visiting in the next two months), free concerts, great food all over the place and, if you’ve taken a class, quality education and professors. I mean it. And as a graduating senior, there are surely some more of these things I wish I had done earlier. Here are a few:

1) TAKE ADVICE   Listen when professors and involved students make announcements, write down the date and time. You never know whom you’ll meet at a show or friends you could make joining a club. My prime example would be visiting professors during office hours. I was adamant about not doing such a thing until this year, but now I have two “mentors” I talk with regularly. We talk about jobs, writing and even share books. Of course they’re great “connections,” but they’re also great friends. In essence, if you try something and don’t like it, fine. But try it first.

2) LIVE IN HARRISONBURG   Don’t just go to JMU. Stretch your mind and consider that maybe, just maybe this is one of the most beautiful spots in Virginia. Volunteer at Skyline Literacy as an English tutor, help out at H.A.R.T.S., a local homeless shelter, or even attend a high school football game or play. The point is, meet folks who have been here a while and be in settings uncomfortable to you—it’s worth the trouble.

Rose Library

Rose Library

3) BE ALONE   Get some time to yourself. College is a time to meet people, hang out, go to six events a weekend, sleep for four hours, study, and then do it again. But between social events and school, it’s okay to need recovery (if that’s how you get it). Tuck in a corner of Carrier or Rose Libraries or walk off-campus, read and get coffee. Take the bus by yourself to Target. Go for a walk or a hike if you can; just head toward the mountains. Turn off your phone even!

All in all, do everything you can and do it again if it’s for you. Be around people and try new things. Don’t be the typical college student (grown-ups sure appreciate that!) and when you’re tired, take a break until you’re ready to face the world again. This college and the city it’s in provide a great range of opportunities for anything you could want to do. We’re lucky.

And study! The real world awaits when you’re done with all this fun.

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.

C change

Wharton B. "Zie" Rivers Jr.

On Saturday, former vice rector of the JMU board of visitors Wharton B. “Zie” Rivers Jr., delivered the commencement address to the 773 December graduates of the Class of 2011. The telecommunications executive and retired Army office shared with graduates a prescription for success — four “Cs” that lead to success, the kind of success that has the potential to change the world.

In excerpts below, Mr. Rivers’ message bears repeating — and remembering.

Competence, he said, is the first “C.” That means a whole lot more than being well versed in your field.  It does not matter if you are graduating from the College of Arts and Letters as a linguist or from the College of Applied Science and Engineering as a geographic scientist or from the College of Arts and Sciences as a chemist.  It really does not matter; you got to know your stuff.  That is what your professors have been working hard to help you master during the past four years or so.  They have prepared you well—now it is your turn! 

Commitment is the second “C.” No matter how well you have learned your lessons, you have got to jump in with both feet.  And that requires Hard Work and Passion! …. If you ever need a good example of commitment, think back to the time your professors opened their doors to you and listened to you and helped you.  They didn’t have to do that.  At a lot of other colleges, professors don’t do that, but here at JMU they do.  I would bet that every one of you sitting out there is bound to be thinking of at least one professor who did that for you.  Their willingness to help you, their commitment to teaching has made a huge difference in your life.

Candor is the third “C.” No matter how competent and committed you are, candor-honesty-will set you apart.  You have to tell the truth, to yourself and the people around you.  Candor is the kind of honesty that leads to open and productive communication. 

Courage is the fourth “C.”  You will need courage. You will need it more often than you think.  Most of you are heading into one of the roughest job markets we have seen in a long time, and it is likely that it will take some of you a while to find a job.  You might fail a few times.  It takes courage to fail and keep trying.  When you do, think about the late Steve Jobs.  He got fired from the company he started. He returned a few years later to build the most innovative and valuable company in the country.   

This prescription, the speaker said, will lead to another C — the one for which JMU is known. Change.  Take what you have learned from professors who have committed their lives to educating you.  Then seek out and commit to your own worthwhile endeavors.  Practice candor by living ethically and finally, muster the courage to do hard things.  If you do—you can’t help but Be the Change!

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