If James Madison had never lived….

If James Madison had never lived or lived a life of less impact, there would be no James Madison University. And if there were no JMU, we would not be asking “Why Madison?” And if we were not asking “Why Madison?” I might not have a blog post for today.

But I do.

When I thought about today, Constitution Day, and I thought about James Madison, the father of the Constitution, I realized that President Madison’s legacy impacts every student who enrolls here. In a very real way, President James Madison and the Constitution are largely the reason why today JMU President Jon Alger is asking the question, “Why Madison?”

So on Constitution Day, I thought it was fitting to ask a student “Why Madison?” Be the Change intern Tyler McAvoy (’13) answers that question in today’s blog post, and proves that James Madison is still changing lives.

Why Madison?

by Tyler McAvoy (’13)

Back when I graduated from high school in 2008, I didn’t want to go to JMU. It was a fallback option, a secondary place that if I had to go to I would, but I really didn’t want to.  At the behest of my parents, I begrudgingly submitted an application on a whim, but consigned myself to the fact that even if I get in, no power on Earth could get me to enroll at JMU.

See, my mother is JMU alum. My grandmother took nursing classes on campus way back in the day. I’m what current JMU’ians call a “townie” and I really hated the idea of remaining one for a further four years of my educational experience. I felt that JMU was always looming over me like a shadow of stagnation: Not only did I see it as boring and exactly what my parents wanted me to do, I felt that enrolling here meant I was dooming myself to a “townie” existence for the rest of my life, living in The Friendly City and getting sucked in the “black hole” of Rockingham County.

I had to get out. So I did. But not far.

I ended up attending a Roanoke College in Salem, Va., for my freshman year, exactly a hundred miles south on I-81 from exit 240.  It lured me in with its beautiful campus, small classroom sizes, outdoor adventure opportunities and a vibrant, established history.  I was excited to go there. Very excited.

Then I started my freshman year. I hated it.

It wasn’t the school per se, I just didn’t feel a connection.  For some reason, it felt sterile to me, the people all looked the same, there never was anything to do, and pretty early on, I realized I had made a mistake.

Not knowing what to do, I transferred to JMU, head hung low and my tail between my legs. I moved back in with my parents, and realized that I had indeed become (GASP!)  a townie. I started my sophomore year half-heartedly, under the assumption that my life of adventure and excitement was over before it had even begun.  I had become my parents. I was convinced I would live here my whole life, looking at the same mountains and seeing the same fields everyday. I was exactly the person I had promised I would never be.

Yet, after a few weeks I realized something was different. I was beginning to connect with people. Professors seemed intrigued at my ideas, and people I met around campus seemed generally invested. That sterility of my old college seemed like a distant memory in the face of this overwhelming warmth. Vibrancy. Excitement. The campus buzzed all day long, and it was just fascinating for me to sit on a bench and just watch students go through their day. Smiles flashed. Laughter. Friendly waves to people all around.

It was different. It was friendly. The personal shame I felt for becoming a townie began to melt and I soon realized that JMU was where I needed to be all along.

See, I was so concerned that it wouldn’t offer adventure, that I didn’t see the reality of what JMU could offer.  Ask me about the time I went 170 miles per hour in a Corvette at Virginia International Raceway, or the time I went rock climbing to only learn that I was horribly afraid of heights. Ask me about getting published, or all of my hiking excursions, or zip lining, or roller derby or any number of a million things that I’ve done while I’ve been here.

It’s been a great adventure this past four years, and a completely surprising one, and what’s best: I know that my hometown can offer a lot more than I gave it credit for my entire adolescence.

I may not have chosen JMU at first, but I sure am glad that JMU chose me.

To learn more about President Alger’s 2012 Listening Tour visit http://www.jmu.edu/stories/president/2012/why-madison.shtml


Without missing a beat

The campus is muted this week. It’s raining and although Maymester classes started today, the campus is quiet. All over town, apartments are vacant, doors locked, shades and blinds are pulled down. Cars stuffed with boxes of clothes and memorabilia and books have driven out of town. Following the celebration of commencement, it feels a little like summer break or like the aftermath of a great party. Time to kick back, catch up and reflect on a successful year.

This year’s commencement marked more than the end of an academic year, but the end of an era. Very soon — only weeks away now — Dr. Linwood Rose will retire and Jonathan Alger, J.D., will become JMU’s sixth president. While the presidency will change hands, a whole lot will not change because JMU understands its mission and purpose — and has a strong and collective sense of self. Former Board of Visitors rector Joe Damico (’76, ’77M) probably said it best. “Lin Rose has led JMU in such a way that JMU will miss him and, frankly, proceed without missing a beat,” he is quoted as saying in the recent Madison magazine.

Without missing a beat indicates an effective and efficient way to accomplish change. Perhaps at JMU it’s because change is part of this university’s DNA. Change is our status quo. We don’t shy from it, fear it, challenge it (unless necessary). We embrace it.

(photo by Guillaume Cattiaux)

Thousands of brand new alumni also are embracing change right now. They are adjusting to new lives, some in new cities, many in new jobs or new schools. As a university we will too, but rather than dreading it, there’s a certain excitement about the future. And for a year and half now, we’ve been gearing up for it. While recent alumni look expectantly toward their futures, the university community looks forward to the next era for JMU.

Rain has a way of pausing our senses, letting us take a breath, clearing the air. Soon, though, the sun will come out, a new day will dawn and JMU will continue on its successful trajectory of changing the world.

Henry Buhl and the yellow socks

Henry Buhl ('64, '74M) in his element, surrounded by students.

Today is Groundhog’s Day, a day that optimists love and pessimists dread.  The sun is shining here in Harrisonburg and in Punxsutawney, so according to the legend, we can expect six more weeks of winter. Call me a doubter, but I don’t see how we can have  six MORE when we haven’t had six YET this year….but weather aside.

Groundhog Day, always hold a different meaning for me.

It’s Henry Buhl’s (’64, ’74M) birthday. Mr. Buhl was my high school U.S. history teacher and adviser to many senior classes at Harrisonburg High School. The year I took his class, our class gave Mr. Buhl a pair of yellow socks for his birthday. I’m not sure why. That part of the story I don’t remember, but I do know that the birthday gift was rooted in the admiration and affection we all held for him. The yellow socks represented more than a simple, practical and somewhat silly birthday gift. They said, in the awkward way that teenagers can say things, that we all loved Mr. Buhl.

Mr. Buhl was an exceptional and beloved teacher for more than three decades. In fact, when he retired in 2005, the senior class of HHS chose him as their graduation speaker. And if you need more proof, the last time I looked, he had almost 450 Facebook friends and his own Fan Page  —  no doubt started by former students.

The incomparable Mr. Buhl.

Many teachers are excellent at their craft. They know their subjects backwards and forwards. They are experts in their given fields. After years of teaching, many can recite lessons in their sleep. But one characteristic always distinquishes the very best teachers: They care about their students. And second only to Mr. Buhl’s wife — the “luckiest woman in the world” — Mr. Buhl cared about his students. And we all knew it.

Mr. Buhl’s classes in U.S. history and A.P. government were not easy, but the academic material was always secondary to us. Mr. Buhl understood intuitively that his first concern should be our lives, not our grades, although he cared about those too. Throughout his career, he influenced thousands of lives and helped launch careers in medicine, business, law, education, journalism and dozens of other fields.

The very best educators are those who see students as people first, as Mr. Buhl still does. Today, when former students run into him, they see that familiar little half grin and that ever-present twinkle in his eye. He’s genuinely glad to see them.

So here’s a shout out to Mr. Buhl.  Happy Birthday!  And say hello to the luckiest woman in the world. We all like her too.

In honor of Mr. Henry Buhl’s birthday, I would like to propose that everyone who reads this, do something in his honor — thank a teacher who cared about you.

Many, I am certain, will thank Mr. Buhl.

To learn more about JMU’s College of Education where Mr. Buhl got his start, visit http://www.jmu.edu/coe/index.shtml

The penchant for nicknames

Maybe we’re lazy. Maybe we’re just efficient or too busy. Or maybe it’s something else.

Whatever the reason, we all have a tendency to shorten names. Take Rhode Island. The official name is (take a deep breath) The State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations. Really.  And then of course, there’s Wolf Trap — officially known as Wolf Trap National Park for the Performing Arts. Imagine answering their phone.

Most people shorten names of people they know well. How many Roberts, Williams, Jennifers or Elizabeths do you know as Bob, Bill, Jenny or Beth?

Institutions do the same thing. At JMU, Gibbons Dining Hall is D-Hall. East Campus Library is ECL. And the newly dubbed Montpelier Hall has already been shortened to Monty Hall. Nicknames are efficient. They also imply some kind of familiarity, comfort and fondness. In fact, an old Chinese proverb says that a child with many names is loved.

It made me wonder what JMU’s recently re-named Skyline Museum will become. Officially, it is to be named in honor of Gladys Kemp Lisanby (’49) and retired Rear Admiral James W. Lisanby, the patrons who enabled the university to acquire the life’s work of famed and influential artist and set designer Charles A. Lisanby.

When I attended the opening on Monday and talked to Madison Art Collection Director Kate Stevens, she had a great idea. “What about The Lisanby?” she wondered. Immediately, I could see the comfortable words floating from student to student.

“Have you see what’s on display at The Lisanby?” or “I’ll meet you at The Lisanby?” Or maybe an enticing notice in mad4U that says, “Bring your favorite poem to read  by moonlight at this month’s Lunar Cafe at The Lisanby.”

The Lisanby.

Has a nice ring to it, don’t you think? It will be fun to see what the museum is nicknamed. Whatever name it takes, though, this new Madison location will definitely be loved.

The Lisanby

If you’re not convinced, then take a look at some of the photos from the opening, including the moment that Mrs. Lisanby learned of the honor. Stunning.

Or better yet, go take in The Lisanby. I promise you’re in for a treat.

The moment she heard....

And tell us, have you visited JMU’s newest museum?

You can learn much more on at these links:

(You can find even more photos of the opening on JMU’s Flickr site. Just click photos on the right side of the blog site.)

The little snapping turtles of higher education

It came as no surprise when I looked through JMU’s Top Ten Stories of 2011. All of the featured stories are compelling, and each one demonstrates the spirit of change that is such a part of JMU.

There is one interesting aspect to the list that most readers might not notice. Four of the top ten stories were written by students. Two were written by Be the Change intern Tyler McAvoy (’12).

For almost two years now, Tyler has interned with us in JMU Communications. He arrived with an extraordinary natural writing talent, a good instinct for stories and a necessary boldness for interviewing and tackling topics he was unfamiliar with. He quickly became my go-to person.

What I find so remarkable ­— next to Tyler’s talent — is that so many student-penned stories have floated to the top.

Amelia Wood (’13), an intern with Madison magazine, wrote about alumnus Wes Mitchell (’10) and his innovative use of soccer to fight HIV/Aids. Austin Farinholt  (’11) who interned in the Office of Public Affairs told the story of engineering students who designed and built a bicycle for a high school student challenged by cerebral palsy.

That says something about JMU and the opportunities that students regularly find at this university.

In many ways, JMU is changing the playing field for college students. Ours is not a top down delivery system, where professors simply do an information dump on students, expecting them to become their clones. In very real and valuable ways, JMU opens doors for students, especially undergraduate students — doors that are not eagerly opened elsewhere. We see it everyday from the arts to the sciences and everywhere in between. It is part of a culture of collaboration that permeates the university.

Later this month — and you’ll see it previewed on the JMU web soon — the university will premier an extraordinary art collection, the Charles Alvin Lisanby Collection, to open the new Skyline Gallery. Once again, it is a student, Josh Smead (’12) who played an instrumental role. It was hardly the kind of internship that only allowed him to float around the edges and observe.

Opportunities, though, are only as good as those who seize them. Tyler and Josh, like so many JMU students, look for and seize opportunities like little snapping turtles. And, if I may carry my analogy one step further — they hold on tight. The result is extraordinary education.

Out of every college at JMU, we often hear stories of the immediate impact students have on the companies, businesses and institutions they join after graduating. Much of their success has to do with a culture that takes students seriously, not as subjects but as soon-to-be professional managers, artists, engineers, physicists, geologists, kinesiologists, biologists, financiers, publicists, historians, environmentalists, social scientists and the list goes on….

There’s also another aspect of the top ten list isn’t obvious. Beneath the accolades, beneath the heart-warming stories, there’s the JMU spirit that says, “Why not?” and “Why not me?” If some schools are caught up in traditions and the status quo, Madison is not one of them. Throughout it’s history, JMU has always been kind of a rebel — in the best sense of the word. It’s not afraid to try the unconventional, and as many individuals on our Be the Change website demonstrate — sometimes the seemingly impossible.

We’ll try things, experiment, take chances. Some things work out. Some things go up in flames, but on par, courage and determination move us forward. Steadily and tenaciously.

Like snapping turtles.

To see the Top Ten stories of 2011, visit http://www.jmu.edu/bethechange/stories/top-ten-2011.shtml

Think Cinderella

If you could make dreams come true, would you? Or would you leave the dreamers to fend for themselves — or worse yet, to abandon their dreams.

For most students, earning a college degree is a dream come true. It doesn’t, of course, happen on a wish, and it certainly isn’t guaranteed by the stroke of a wand. Still dreams are dreams. And some dreams, like a college education, can fall into jeopardy.

On Monday, when President-elect Jonathan Alger spoke for the first time to a collected JMU audience, he said that education is one of the best investments that one can make. As a parent of three (almost four) college graduates, I couldn’t agree more.

For some students, however, that investment is tough, sometimes impossible. Some dreams can slip away. Especially now, when the American economy is rather shaky and joblessness hovers stubbornly around nine percent, some students and their families struggle to make tuition payments. Any number of unexpected circumstances — a parent’s sudden death, illness that strains budgets, the loss of a job — all sorts of financial setbacks can derail a college education in a hurry, just as surely and as soundly as an evil stepmother.

Because JMU is a university that cares deeply about student success, it is difficult to see students who are otherwise bright and filled with potential stumble and fall, often through no fault of their own. At some schools, I’m sure administrators and other students might look blankly at the plight of a struggling student, thinking, well that’s tough. There are plenty more where they came from. But that doesn’t happen at JMU.

How do I know?  Why am I so sure?

Because in 2010, when a call went out to help students who were struggling to stay in school, the response was overwhelming. We called it Madison for Keeps. Students, alumni and friends opened their hearts by way of their wallets and helped out. As a result 107 students who might have been forced to drop out didn’t because almost 3,500 donors raised more than $400,000 to help these students who were at risk of losing their dreams.

I was talking to my middle son, an ’08 JMU grad, over Thanksgiving about what happened in 2010. Because he was deep into building a career, I was surprised that he was so in tune with what had happened in 2010, but when the word went out, he was paying attention.

“They should call it Madison Forever, he said.

“They have,” I told him.

What we thought would be a one-time push to help students needed to be permanent, we quickly realized. And now it is. Madison Forever.

JMU is a community with a whole lot of traditions, but none is perhaps more telling: We hold the door open for each other. And that’s what we are doing again today. Today is your chance to do a little magic, to keep the door to a college degree open for a current student. You can help change a life by helping make a dream come true. And you don’t need a magic wand, just a generous Madison heart.

To quote Cinderella, “No matter how your heart is grieving, if you keep on believing, the dream that you wish will come true.” Some students are wishing that today. Madison Forever will make sure their dreams come true if you’ll help.

If you’re on campus today, look around, or go the the JMU web. It’s Madison Forever Day. You’ll see signs in Carrier Library and East Campus Library of the commitment to hold open the door, so that students in need will be Madison Forever.

To read more about Madison for Keeps, visit: http://www.jmu.edu/madison4keeps/index.shtml

And visit Madison Forever to help make some very important dreams come true: http://www.jmu.edu/madisonforever/

A punchy little word with possibilities

Only writers, I suppose, would get excited over a story in the Chronicle of Higher Education about the subjunctive mood. I certainly did. I pondered as I

Roop Hall (photo by Diane Elliott)

threaded the traffic on Reservoir Street on the way to work this morning. (If Harrisonburg were to synchronize their lights, then I would get here faster. subjunctive.)  I’ve always liked the subjunctive ever since my college grammar teacher explained all of its ramifications and how it is deciphered. It is an optimistic part of speech — in large part because of the little word “if” that so often accompanies it.

“If” is a word that exudes hope. If I were president. If I were rich. It’s a punchy little word with lots of possibilities. “If” has shown up in music that symbolized a generation. Pete Seeger’s “If I Had a Hammer” comes to mind.  And then there are the delightful possibilities imagined in Tevye’s optimistic rendition of “If I Were a Rich Man” in Fiddler on the Roof.  Imagine how dull these song would have been without the optimism of the subjunctive.

“If” is a powerful word. What if this?  What if that?  It is a word that propels us forward. Starting a sentence with “if” feels like being shot out of a cannon and getting to pick where one lands. Everyone uses it.  Students use it often like this: “If I study hard, then I’ll do well on my test.” And some say: “If I can make next semester’s tuition ….”

“If” is a little word with a future — a word to dream by.

But if “if” is the dreamer, then “then” is the doer. It’s what comes after the “if” where change occurs. If this, then that. For colleges and universities, one phrase might be: “If our endowment were larger, then…” or “If we were able to fund more scholarships, then….” Just imagine these possibilities.

Sometimes “if” is a call to action. Last year, when JMU issued a charge to help students hit hard by the economic downtown through Madison for Keeps, many Madison folks finished the sentence with “then I can help.”

For college graduates who have benefited from education, the challenge of “if” is great. It becomes a responsibility. “If I were to change the world, then I would do this….”  Many of our Be the Changers have, no doubt, said this.

This week on JMU’s Be the Change page, we are featuring longtime friend, benefactor and alumna Inez Roop (’35). She and her husband Ralph made the leap from “if” to “then,” when they funded numerous scholarships.  They must have thought: “If we give this much, then….” History would prove that their “then” has had a lasting impact on thousands of lives.

“If” requires a leap of faith into a haystack of possibilities. It is a lovely little word we should never relinquish and never underestimate.  I wonder how many Madison people have used it this way: “If I do this, then I can change a part of the world.”

To read more about Inez Roop, visit: http://www.jmu.edu/bethechange/stories/Roop-100Dukes.shtml

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