Lessons from Matthew


As most of you know by now, yesterday was a really tough day.  It started with a call that we had lost one of our beloved Orientation Leaders, member of our programming board, and UNE student Matthew Denger.  I spent hours with his family as they told the students, faculty and staff who were closest to him.  We spent hours as an Orientation family gathering, sharing hugs, telling stories, and remembering one of our own.  The day ended with a beautiful remembrance of Matthew at the Activities Programming Board meeting where we all shared stories and lessons we had learned from him.  Last night, trying to reflect and think of the words I could say to express how I was feeling and how much Matthew meant to me and this community, I looked to his blog for inspiration.  Matthew was a great blogger.  He shared everything from life lessons to music he was into and to his everyday struggles with Muscular Dystrophy.  I soon discovered after reading through each post multiple times, that I did not need to find the words to console myself or others; that Matthew had them there for us all along.  The following are some of my favorite quotes/lessons from his blog posts.

From Something New [First Post] April 6, 2012

“Sometimes I do wish some things were different but I can’t just sit around and expect it to happen. Change can come about when it is least expected but other times there needs to be a jump start in order for something to happen.”

From Growing Up April 24, 2012

“These are the years of my life that are the most exciting. I’m hoping I make them exciting and do all things that I want.”

From Time is In Motion May 26, 2012

“In life I believe we are supposed to see people and events again to be reminded of how important times can change and to experience things again so I can move on or be kept on the path I am on. I wish people could stick around longer but everyone’s life path goes different ways and sometimes intertwine into mine. It is hard to see people go there own way without me getting to stick around in there lives. Life has its ups and downs but I have to deal with its changing nature and watch people go while others stay. I can’t stop memories from becoming memories but I can still make the best of them.”

From I am a Man June 21, 2012

“I often deal with people who either don’t know how to help me out and do not offer to or just don’t want to be helpful because they don’t want to leave their comfort zone. Other times people are too helpful and end up doing something wrong. For me there is a middle ground that people need to go in order to help. Offering help and just giving the right amount of assistance is all that I want. I will often refuse help but my wishes, I hope, will be respected.”

“I say to these people, I am no different and getting to know me won’t be so bad. After all using a wheelchair is almost like wearing glasses, they are only there for help and do not define the person.”

“I understand that no one will ever know or be able to comprehend how I live my life. In that case it doesn’t mean that I can’t give people a chance to at least get an idea. I believe education is very important so the best thing to do is ask questions. People can change and leave their comfort zone and the best way to do that is overcome fear.”

From Life’s Journey and Orientation September 8, 2012 (Matthew read this post out loud to his teammates during our closing reflection for Orientation Leaders)

“Life is just one huge journey. All our paths go in different ways and we all go through different experiences that shape who we are. We all change in so many ways. Our lives change throughout our journey. Sometimes it’s a good change, other times it is a bad change. We all know where we came from but not all of us know where we are going. We have a chance to shape it in the present moment.”

“Without Orientation I would still be the same as I was before. Without it I would not have met so many great people who are 100% genuine. I would thank them every single day if I could. I hope they understand how much they have done for me. I feel welcome now. I feel like I belong and like people actually feel fine being around me.”

“Things have changed for the better and are about to get even better. Thank you so much Orientation Family (Team) 2012. You guys know what it means to help others. I hope you all know how important you are to me and that you have brought about the greatest change in my life.”

From My Inspiration for Pursuing My Dreams November 10, 2012

“Bottom line is pursue your dreams regardless of your ability. Let your inspiration build you up.”

From Year 2, Semester 1 Complete December 26, 2012

“I am a strong person and will do whatever I can to be there for those who need help. At the rate I am going there is no slowing down. Nothing can stop me from being who I was born to be. My body may have physical problems that keep me from being someone who is independent but I have a working mind and as long as it still works I will keep going becoming a mentally independent person even though I am not physically independent.”

From Goodbye 2012. Hello 2013 January 3, 2103

“Life will find ways to test me but I will make it past these tests with flying colors. We are handed certain things in life and we have to figure out what we will do with it.”

From The Happiest Place on Earth [Last Post] February 12, 2013

 “Walt created Disney so everyone could see what can happen. I think our society has forgotten what Disney’s dream was. Anyone who does hard work to get their dreams will get there eventually.”
I hope this blog post provides some solace for those who knew and loved Matthew in a way writing it has done for me.  For those who did not know Matthew, I hope this post gives you insight into the remarkable young man that he was.
Rest easy, Matthew.

How to be innovative (sort of) in Student Affairs

I have been reading and thinking a lot about innovation lately.  The culture at my institution is fast-paced, forward thinking and innovative, especially in the last few years.  In general, the landscape in Higher Education is changing and we as Student Affairs professionals need to adapt our thinking, programs and services.  Something I have noticed though, is that for some, innovation and new thinking can be difficult.  Often, we get stuck in the “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” mentality.  For many of these folks, they have an all or nothing approach to innovation. The notion is that you have to come up with the next best thing, this big new idea, and it has to be grand.  It is when you realize that is not entirely true, that you can begin to think differently and in a way that fosters innovation.  I am writing this post to share some tips that have worked for me to think about innovation in a smaller, more manageable scale.

1.  Assess first

Trying to innovate without knowing what the needs or problems are is like running a marathon without shoes, and perhaps without any training.  It can be done, but it makes your task much more difficult.  I am a firm believer that you can’t find a solution until you have identified the problem and its scope.

2. Think thrift shopping

Sometimes you don’t need to spend all kinds of money to get a pair of jeans when you can get something just as good from a thrift shop.  The same  thought process can be used while seeking new ideas.  Some of my most “innovative” ideas for my work and my institution have come from colleagues or by researching what is done at other institution.  Though it is not a new idea or innovative in the truest form, it is new and innovative for my work and my institution.  You will be amazed by how many incredible things your colleagues are doing and we are fortunate to be in a field that is so willing to share and help.  Utilize your resources and watch the new ideas flow.

3. Think small

The point, for me, of innovation is not necessarily thinking large scale.  It could be the smallest tweak to a program, a minor change to a service that could make the biggest change or impact.  By thinking small, you open yourself up to more ideas that are practical, and oftentimes more cost effective

4. Brainstorming; groups or individuals? BOTH!

It is no secret that Higher Education loves committees!  We have meetings about meetings.  While thinking and brainstorming in large groups can be helpful, it is not the only way.  Sometimes group think can occur and the politics involved with any organization can stifle individual creativity.  With my students, I encourage them to brainstorm on their own, once the problem has been identified, then come together as a group.  Instead of a rattling off of undeveloped ideas, the group gets to hear solid, well-thought out ideas and evaluate them instead of starting from scratch.  This saves a lot of time, a valuable resource for all of us.

5. Be flexible and adaptable

This final step is, perhaps, the most important.  Sometimes an idea can seem so profound and everyone is sure it will work; and then it all blows up!  There are outside factors that effect whether or not a new idea will work.  These are often out of our control.  It is important to not let the failure of one new idea deter you from trying others.  It is important to learn from your mistakes and move forward with the new knowledge.

What innovative ideas have you implemented in your work lately?  What was that process like?

If you could do anything….

We have a staff member at my institution who asks the same interview question for every candidate, regardless of the position or department, and it goes something like this….

“If you could do anything, create your dream job, what would that be?  What would you be doing?”

I think this is such a fantastic question and one we should think about often and earlier.  I read an interesting article this morning that talked the characteristics of college students.  One theme that stood out to me, was their reasoning to go to college and to choose their given major: a job that will provide a comfortable living.  Students are coming to college, less and less, to explore, learn, and enjoy the process.  I wonder how many students, when pondering the above question, would realize their intended career path or major is far from their dream job.  I am fortunate for my experiences that led me to explore and develop, which led me to student affairs.  Being a first generation college student, I of course, had no understanding of student affairs coming into college, thus no intent on it as a career path.  It was getting involved, exploring interests, learning new things, and starting to figure out what I was passionate about, good at, and most interested in that led me to where I am today.

Just for fun, here are some of the elements that would make up my answer to this question:

  • Drum set tester: Who wouldn’t love to be paid to play with drums all day?  Right?
  • Ice cream taster: Let’s be real, this would be sweet.  Literally!
  • Bat boy: I love baseball!  It would be a dream to sit on the field and be paid to watch baseball every day – and pick up equipment once in a while.
  • Chopped judge: Getting paid to taste all kinds of tasty creations all while being on TV?  Count me in!

I am sure there are lots more, but those top my list.  Because most of these are not (traditional) career paths and have limited opportunities, I won’t be leaving my profession for them anytime soon.  My point in encouraging others to engage in this process is to see what elements within each of these are things that you enjoy.  Believe it or not, I can relate something in each of the above to what I do.  I am confident in my own path to know that I truly love and am challenged daily by my work.  I reached this point because I explored and figured out what I was interested in and good at.  We need to allow ourselves, and encourage others, to do the same.

How would you answer the question? 

Think before you post: Social Media advice for college students

I have been seeing students (not just at my institution) post some things lately that have really caused me to think; how are we teaching them about social media? I don’t necessarily mean how to technically use it (though important). I mean how do we teach them proper communication with Social Media? I asked my student affairs colleagues in the #sachat community the following question:

The response was overwhelming. From the #sachat advice and my own thoughts and reflections over the last few years, I offer the following for undergraduate students (or anyone, really) to consider before posting:

There is really no such thing as privacy

Yes, you can (and should) set your privacy settings on Facebook. Your tweets can (but shouldn’t be) private. However, that does not truly protect you. Did you know that most Twitter platforms allow for private tweets to be retweeted? That’s right! If you post something about your weekend partying and your roommate decides she wants to retweet the photo, it is now public, for all the world to see. This is just one small example of how complex “privacy” can be with Social Media. My general rule of thumb is to do your homework and know how private your content is. Above all else, don’t post it if you don’t want it to be seen by the general public, your boss, or your grandma!

What you post should be (and is) a reflection of you

Whether you like it or not, what you post is a reflection of you. Peers, friends, family, faculty, employers, colleagues, future employers, and more are looking at what you post and assume that it is a true representation of you. This gives you great power. You have full and ultimate control of your online presence. You can use Social Media to positively reflect who you are and all that is great about you. Why not use it in a positive way to add to your personal brand? Ultimately, when someone googles you and reads your posts, you want them to get a true representation of who you are and leave them with a positive impression. Be genuine and authentic.

Stop being so negative

We see it often and you know who you are: the person who posts all the time about every little thing they are mad at or annoyed by. Instead of negative posting, be an agent of change. Send an email, call, or better yet, meet with the person or office that is the source of the anger and frustration and come up with a compromise and a solution. Saying that the person in the library is mean (for sake of a PG rating on this blog) is not helpful to anyone. Raise the issue appropriately. We have a rule with my student orientation staff called the 24 hour rule. Basically, the rule says that if your are frustrated or upset with someone, you have 24 hours to address it with them face-to-face or let it go. Social Media does not replace face-to-face communication!

Social Media is a tool

Social Media does not replace all other forms of communication. Email is still important, and in a college setting, is often the main form of communication between students and the University. Face to face conversations and spending time to get to know someone beyond their Facebook photos, tweets, and what they write on their blog is invaluable.

Student Leaders, pay attention

Social Media can be a great tool for you to showcase all you do and let your peers know what is happening with your club, floor, team, etc. However, it can be a double edged sword. We all know about the fish bowl: that as a student leader everyone pays attention to what you do. This is especially true online. While you may not connect with professional staff on Social Media, your peers and those whom you are leading see what you post. Don’t be a hypocrite. Role model proper behavior and use of Social Media.

Social Media is a professional tool

Social Media can be used as a tool to connect with professionals in your field and to showcase who you are and your value to a given organization or profession as a whole. Create a LinkedIn account, get connected with professionals in your field on Twitter, and create a blog. Become an active contributor to your profession. This will get you noticed and will keep you learning about what is happening then and now in your field.

Google yourself

Have you done this before? What comes up? Is it you? Look at the images. Are you proud of what comes up? Remember that Flickr account you created for that Spring Break trip? Didn’t know that would be seen in a Google search of your name did you? Spend some time cleaning up all of your accounts and presenting yourself in a way that is genuine and that you are proud of. Move from hoping that potential employers won’t Google you from hoping they will!

A few thoughts about email

A personal pet peeve of mine – you are college students, so use proper grammar and spelling! When addressing a member of the faculty or a staff member, “hey”, “yo” and “what’s up” are not appropriate ways to begin an email. Emails are not tweets or facebook messages and should not be treated as such.

I am not trying to be too preachy here, but feel it is important that student at least hear and think about some of this. Don’t let it come to your senior year and find out you did not get that job because of those pictures you posted or that rant you went on about not getting your way. Trust me when I tell you, potential employers will Google you and will dig deep to see who you are online. You are in ultimate control of what they see and read. Use these tools and this power to your advantage and showcase all that is great about you!

What additional advice would you give our students?

A Little Positivity Goes a Long Way

I was struck by something very clearly this weekend while working with a team of students and staff to welcome over 420 accepted students and their families to campus: genuine positivity is contagious.

Let me share a story to highlight this. A student leader came up to me at the end of the day and asked me this question (I paraphrase): How can you remain so calm, cool, and upbeat while all of (series of challenges out of our control) was going on? I responded by asking her what would happen if I didn’t. What would happen if I was flustered, mad, annoyed (at least visibly)? She thought some and came to the realization that it would trickle down. It would impact she and her fellow leaders. From them, it would pass down to the Orientation Leaders they supervise and eventually to our guests; accepted students and their families.

We may not have all the answers, things will go wrong, and we certainly are not perfect. However, if you approach these imperfections and challenges with a positive attitude, you will prevail and others around you will follow. Positivity multiplies, and it does so quickly.

Positivity is my top strength according to StrengthsQuest. Until very recently, I have taken this for granted. What I mean by this is that I never considered my positivity as a strength, rather a personality trait. I now notice more how positivity from a leader or supervisor can motivate, encourage, and empower those he or she is leading.

As contagious as positivity is, negativity is more so. One negative person in a meeting can dampen a mood. One negative encounter with a person during a day filled with many positive interactions can stand out and, in many cases, ruin an otherwise fantastic day. This is why it is vital that leaders lead with positivity. This of course is not easy, but will benefit the organization in the long run. I know at least for me, the happier I am, the better and harder I work.

What do you do to bring positivity into your day and for others around you?