"5 Things That I Have Learned About and from Baruch Students as Director of Student Life"
#1. Baruch students will surprise, amaze, and impress you—you just have to give them the chance.
For many years, I organized groups of Baruch students to participate in the annual Making Strides Against Breast Cancer walk for the American Cancer Society (ACS). This cause was important to me because my wife is a breast cancer survivor. Each year the Baruch team would raise a few thousand dollars.
About seven years ago, I was contacted by the ACS and was asked if Baruch would like to host a 15-hour overnight fundraising event for them called Relay For Life®. I was intrigued and said yes. In planning meetings, I was asked how much money I thought Baruch students could raise. At that time, the most money we had ever raised for any cause was about $10,000. So I went out on a limb and told the ACS folks that we might be able to bring in $25,000. During the night, I received updates from the ACS staff on how well we were doing. I questioned whether there had been some mistake; perhaps they were counting the money twice. That morning we announced that we had raised $48,167.
As I was leaving Baruch after being on campus for more than 26 straight hours, I cried. I could not believe how a few hundred Baruch students could raise that incredible amount of money in their first effort with a program that no one had ever heard of before. After seven annual Relays, involving thousands of students, Baruch has raised almost half a million dollars. I could not be prouder.
From this experience and so many others, I have learned that you just have to give Baruch students the opportunity, and they will surprise and impress you every time.
#2. We can make a difference in the lives of others every day.
Each year for the past 28 years, the Office of Student Life has sponsored a Student Leadership Training Weekend. Approximately 100 student leaders attend each year together with staff from the Division of Student Affairs and other staff from around the College. At the opening session, I usually tell this story which I found years ago, I forget where:
An old man walked up a shore littered with thousands of starfish, beached and dying after a storm. A young man was picking them up and flinging them back into the ocean. ‘Why do you bother?’ the old man scoffed. ‘You’re not saving enough to make a difference.’ The young man picked up another starfish and sent it spinning back to the water. ‘Made a difference to that one,’ he said.
My point: Through our interactions with one another, we have the opportunity to touch each other in profound ways. Regardless of what it is that we are involved in, we are in a position to lift others up and help them transform themselves and make a difference in their lives.
Some years ago, I realized that I was in the business of helping students build their self-esteem and self-confidence so that they can take on challenges and be successful. One of the things I learned was that it didn’t have to be a big, significant undertaking to make a difference in their lives.
Over the years, students have sent me cards and e-mails or even posted on my Facebook page telling me that I made a difference in how they experienced Baruch College. Frequently they would cite seemingly small things: that I sat down with them to discuss something they were involved in or some problem they had or that I said hello when I saw them and asked how they were doing. A number of them have stayed in touch over the years; others have moved on. But they all taught me that it isn’t the big things that make a difference. Rather the smallest, sometimes insignificant things can make a difference. And sometimes you don’t even know that you have made a difference.
#3. “Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.”
I love this quote! For a long time, higher education has embraced accountability and assessment in order to show that what we say we are doing we actually are doing. So we came up with measures that judge whether learning is taking place. In the student affairs arena, measures are also being applied. When I first encountered Einstein’s quote I started to ask myself, “What are we measuring, and does it matter to anyone other than accrediting bodies and politicians who determine our funding levels?”
When I thought about my collegiate experience at a sister CUNY institution, what I remember is not the courses or the exams but the experiences interacting with my fellow students, the programs and projects that I worked on in the extra- and co-curricular areas. I realized that these experiences were so significant that they drove me to pursue student affairs as my career.
And so, I started to wonder how does one measure the significance of or the learning that takes place in many of the areas that I have been responsible for.
What is the significance of an annual street fair on the first Thursday in May? [2011 marked the 33rd annual Spring Fling.] How do we quantify and measure the experience of being the editor of The Ticker or The Lexicon? What is gained by being on the air on the college radio station, WBMB, or by participating in student government? Is it important to have 1,000 students shouting and cheering on the Bearcats at a Battle of Lexington Avenue basketball game or have close to 1,000 students plan and fundraise for months for the Relay For Life event in April?
I don’t know a measurement tool that will indicate the significance of all of this. But, from what students have told me, they can’t imagine what kind of place Baruch College would be without all of these things going on. So there may be no way to measure these things, but I am convinced that they count.
#4. “I get knocked down. But I get up again. You’re never going to keep me down.”
—Lyrics from the 1997 song “Tubthumping” by British band Chumbawamba
This line is a Baruch student anthem. Over the years, I have met many students who have overcome significant obstacles and challenges to get to Baruch and stay in Baruch. No matter what, they were persistent. When they stumbled, they wouldn’t throw up their hands in defeat but would dust themselves off, pick themselves up, and try again. Sometimes they would reassess and take a run at things from a different angle or just come up with a new direction.
Years ago, there was one member of student government who served as a senator and vice president in her first two years at Baruch. She ran for president at the end of her sophomore year and was roundly defeated. She picked herself up and decided there was something else that she could do and became the editor of The Lexicon for the next two years. In that first year, her team delivered the first full-color yearbook. Moreover, the two yearbooks under her direction were the first books in decades to sell out and make a profit.
In more recent years, an undergrad, who had served for two years in student government, suffered, what I am sure he felt, was a crushing defeat the first time he ran for president. He came back the following year and put together a political party that successfully took over student government. He and his party have brought a ton of energy and enthusiasm to the USG.
These are just two of the many students who got knocked down, got up again, and blazed a path of success for themselves.
#5. “Sometimes you want to go where everybody knows your name, and they’re always glad you came. You wanna be where you can see our troubles are all the same. You wanna be where everybody knows your name.”
—Lyrics from the theme from the sitcom Cheers; song by Gary Portnoy and Judy Hart Angelo
These lines from the Cheers theme song resonate with many of us—students especially.
During my three-plus decades in Baruch’s Office of Student Life, the College has enrolled between 15,000 and 17,000 students each year. In other words, it’s easy to attend Baruch and be relatively anonymous. But I have learned that the human condition seldom desires invisibility. We have this disconnect between wanting to be just like everyone else while simultaneously wanting to be unique. In no place does this conflict play out more frequently than in the student life arena—but it can also be resolved there. In the student life community, you are recognized for your unique contributions, but there everybody really knows your name—and we are always glad you came.