Meet Nancy: She sews hats for charity

Because she’s retired and likes to sew hats, that’s why.

Nancy Carlson transforms funky-patterned skirts, pants and jackets into hats, mostly newsboy caps and berets. Make enough hats, and you start a business; so, Carlson started Homegrown Hats and donates 100 percent of the proceeds to charity.

The retired telecommunications professor has donated most of her sales — hundreds of dollars — to Muncie’s Back To School Teachers Store. She volunteers regularly at the free classroom supply center, so she is acutely aware of the needs of Delaware County teachers.

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Other beneficiaries include A Better Way, America’s Hometown Band, Muncie Symphony Orchestra, Animal Rescue Fund, United Way of Delaware County, Habitat for Humanity andMuncie Civic Theatre — all local non-profits.

Fabric stores? Nah. When people hear about Homegrown Hats, Carlson said they “unload their stash” of fabric they purchased for those jumpers and curtains time never allowed to materialize. After a good washing, chunks of forgotten fabric become statement pieces sold at $10 a pop to men, women and children.

The oldest garment she’s upcylced was a 1960’s box-pleated skirt Carlson wore in high school. The most interesting pattern? Carlson recalls hats she made from costumes worn during Muncie Civic’s rendition of “A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream.”

Why does she do it?

“I have friends or personal experience at the organizations I’ve supported, so I know my gifts are well-utilized,” she said. “Give to places you have a connection to. Give to those charities where you can observe for yourself that most of the money goes to the organization’s mission and not to administration.”

Besides, she likes to make hats.

At a recent Yart Sale in downtown Muncie, I gave Nancy $20, and she gave me a hat. Normally I don’t get anything from $20 interviews, but I’ll make an exception for this beaut. Thank you, Nancy, for all you do for our community!

Each month, I give a friend $20. The catch: They cannot spend it on themselves. I look forward to narrating the impact of these modest but meaningful investments in each other and our community. Read more $20 interviews.

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Salon Sisters: Women in the Workplace

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Editors and writers of Ball State’s student-run magazine, Ball Bearings, at a launch party to celebrate its most recent issue. The all-female editorial board invited a panel of female journalists to speak about challenges in the male-dominated industry (Nov. 2018).

Sam Martin, assistant director of Ball State’s Career Center, inspired the latest Salon Sisters discussion, which centered on issues facing women in the workplace.

Over appetizers and wine, the conversation shifted from professional etiquette and negotiating salary to harassment and transitioning careers.

My greatest take-aways from the discussion include the need for us to:

  • Support each other. Down with comparing ourselves with each other and putting others down to get ahead. We can all be pretty and smart. There is no scarcity of power or good looks. If you see this behavior, step in.
  • Familiarize ourselves with workplace rights, resources processes (re: HR, etc.). Knowledge is power, and being aware of the options available to us is critical to navigating the workplace.
  • Stop apologizing and using phrases like “I was just …” or “sorry to bother you, but.” We are in the room, and if you don’t act like you should be there, you’re just taking up a seat.
  • Confront/address disrespect and mansplaining. I’m still struggling with how to do this in respectful but assertive ways. I often have lots to say after the fact.

I would love to hear any other takeaways and/or new thoughts related to issues women face at work. I came across “Women in the Workplace 2018,” the largest comprehensive study of the state of women in corporate America. It offers a lot of statistics and information for further discussion.

I’ll bring the wine.

How to win at resumes

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Take advice from me … why wouldn’t you?

Recruiters spend an average of six seconds looking at your resume, according to an eye-tracking study by online job-matching service, TheLadders.

Gulp, I know. You spent days, maybe weeks, painstakingly formatting the overview of your background, skills and experience. I can’t change the harsh realities of the application process, but I can offer some tips to make the most of those six seconds and maybe even draw them in for 10.

Each semester, I review about 150 resumes, and I have come to geek out on helping students transform a jumble of passive, unorganized lists into a persuasive document that demonstrates their expertise and connections.

Disclaimer: As with most writing, though, show a resume to five people, and you’ll get five different answers. Take it my suggestions below, sit with them and then DO YOU.

Read the job description, then read it again: Before you write your cover letter and resume, read the job description (or a sample job description for a role you might apply for after graduation) to get a sense of the skills and wording used.

Can you hear that? It’s the crumpling of all the application materials addressed to the wrong person, without the correct job title, and/or not tailor to the desired skills listed on the job description.

Give them what they want, in that order: You are far more than a bullet list, but employers look first for the following: name, education, current title/company (and start/end dates), and previous titles/companies (and start/end dates). Make these aspects of your resume stand out in a logical progression, and don’t forget to list experiences from newest (most relevant) to oldest (lease relevant).

Employers scan for these elements first to spot job hoppers and assess whether you meet minimum educational requirements and show a desired career progression. Don’t make recruiters work for this information with overly designed or oddly ordered resumes; it puts you at a disadvantage.

Name, contact information (address, email, phone and portfolio url) should appear at the top of your resume, followed by headings for various sections (titles vary), but they include your education, work experience, involvement (or activities), honors and skills. If you list any web addresses, you do not need “http://” or “www,” so listing samsmith.com works.

You can add social media icons, but employers will often search for you on those platforms anyway (muhaha, or maybe that’s just me :). Either way, make sure you Google yourself prior to applying for jobs to see what pops up and get a handle on your privacy settings. Oh, don’t include Snapchat, please and thank you.

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Reading about resumes is boring, so I’m adding random photos. This one, from Muncie’s Goodwill. Fail on the name here, folks.

Strike your objective: I have read dozens of resume objective statements, and nearly every time, I walk away thinking, “duh, you want to be a successful public relations professional. That’s why you’re applying for this job.” Some that are longer have a bit more personality and purpose, but to them, I react: “This is great cover letter fodder.” Instead of fluffy or vapid prose about career goal, I’d rather you dedicate that space to more bullets that demonstrate relevant work experience.

Don’t box your skills: I encourage students to indicate skills within bullets below each listed work experience because it gives context to those skills. For instance, listing “InDesign” or “customer service” as skills in a random box doesn’t show me HOW you applied those skills. I’d rather read “Designed weekly newsletters using InDesign” as a bullet below a past job experience. “Microsoft Office” should never be listed as a skill, as everyone who graduates from college should have a command of Word. Also, phrases like, “team player” and such are wonderful, but again, I’d rather you demonstrate that you worked in teams within your bullets, which gives those phrases context.

A trend is to present skills graphically, so “InDesign ++++, Photoshop +++, etc.” in a neat graphic (often with colorful dots) to represent how well you know the platforms. I admit it looks cool, but what does four dots mean? And then I start to wonder, why would you list a skill with one or two bullets? These graphics often leave me with more questions than answers.

Also, don’t list classes. If you’re a photojournalism major, I assume you’ve engaged in various photojournalism courses.

Goodbye, GPA: Unless your college GPA is stellar (3.7 or above), leave it off. If it’s not there, nobody will miss it. If it is there and it’s so-so or poor, then people will notice it and wonder why you put it on there. If it’s low, employers might question your competence.

Pair action verbs with data-driven evidence: Prior to or as you write your resume, open up a web pages dedicated to action verbs. Plug in strong action verbs like develop, guide and produce to kick off each bullet with gusto. Pair those action verbs with data to demonstrate your impact. Enhance the bullet, “Led the sorority’s Kickball for Cancer fundraiser,” with data: “Led the sorority’s Kickball for Cancer fundraiser, which raised more than $50,000 for the American Cancer Society.”

If you managed a company’s Facebook page, instead of writing, “Managed the Facebook page,” you could break that down into several posts: “Developed a comprehensive social media content calendar and increased engagement from 50 likes to 300 likes in three months” (these show a dedication to planning/strategy and data-driven results). If you’re in sales, “increased sales by 30 percent” is more powerful than simply “increased sales.” Get as specific as you can.

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Some Amish life advice. Sure.

Heck yes, list your job at the pizza joint: Many students put off creating resumes because they don’t have industry experience. Or, they don’t list past work experiences like lifeguarding and babysitting (because they think it looks childish), and then their resumes looks empty. Yes, you do need to seek internships and other career experience as soon as possible, but employers are looking for people with transferable skills (teamwork, critical thinking, responsible, eagerness to learn, etc.). I say, list past work experiences and tailor the bullets to be relevant to the job at hand. Working at the same pizza joint through high school demonstrates loyalty, an ability to work in a fast-paced environment, manage money, and work in teams and with the public. Sell those experiences until you can replace them with industry-driven work.

Consistency is key: I review resumes using AP Style, which you can find in an AP Stylebook or easily online. Determining a style and sticking to it ensures you are consistent in wording and punctuation. Regardless of your preferred style, I offer a few suggestions related to consistency:

  • Remove excess years: Shorten August 2017-September 2017 to August-September 2017. Do add both years if the timeframe spans more than a year, so August 2016-September 2018.
  • List job title, company, location and dates of employment followed by bullets. I do this for every listing, even activities, to keep the resume consistent. So, “Philanthropy chair, Delta Sigma Chi, Ball State University, August 2017-present.” For clubs, your “job title” can be “member” or the office you hold.
  • Be consistent with heading sizes, dash sizes/spacing, italics and other formatting and punctuation. One space after a period, please and thank you.
  • Give sections breathing room: If your resume seems crowded, it is.
  • Be mindful of orphans: Don’t leave one word dangling on a second or third line. Find a way to trim the sentence to fit it on the previous line, break the line sooner or mess with the margins to make it fit.
  • Spell out acronyms on first reference: You know what the NCAPCMA is, but we don’t, so please spell it out on first reference. You don’t need to include the acronym in parentheses after the full name, but you can use the acronym, if needed, on subsequent references. It’s clear what you’re referencing.

References: If you have the space, include them, but you can also submit a separate sheet of references. I’ve always done that. Also, please list how you know the person if it’s not obvious. I’ve seen references that list people not associated with the job experience listed on the resume. Keep references to about three people. Four is pushing it, and the employer often specifies the number of references required.

Send it as a PDF, titled with your name: It’s a bummer when you open up a resume (created in Microsoft Word) that looks like a 3-year-old got ahold of the keyboard. You know it’s because your Word setting are different than those of the sender, but the awful formatting makes the resume nearly illegible. Save your resume as a PDF to ensure the employer sees the correct version, and please save it with your name, “NAME_Resume” or something. Recruiters are juggling so many resumes and so many files. Titling it “resume1” makes it easier to get lost or more difficult for them to search for you.

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I love dogs. Are you asleep yet?

Print it in black and white: You may send your resume in color, but some companies print off the resumes for those interviewing you. Colorful resumes might not print so well in black and white, so if you choose to add color and graphics, make sure they are easy to read/not distracting when printed in black and white.

Ditch the glamor shots: I am seeing lots of selfies and head shots on resumes. At best, they are distracting and give off the vibe that you think your appearance is important to the position. At worst, the photos are inappropriate (and I’ve seen the gamut — from low-res, poor photos to racy shots that make me blush).

Question graphics: If you are dead-set on adding a graphic or personal logo, then I would consider hiring a professional to design the mark for you. Graphic designers, you can pull off a self-created logo, but even still, I’d challenge you to let your clips/portfolio demonstrate your skills. If you’re not a designer and you add a self-created mark, it often looks bad (sorry, harsh, I know), but worse, it says to the designers in the room that you might fancy yourself a designer. I have been in interview sessions where a designer sees such a mark and is concerned the person (interviewing for a writing position) will try to insert himself in that process as an employee.

Ask your grandma to read it: You will likely work on multi-generational teams, and thus, you will likely interview with one. Ask your grandma, mom, a friend and a professor to read your resume. Especially if you are adding graphics and photos, it’s valuable to see how those “hip, trendy approaches” play with a range of audiences. The Ball State Career Center also offers one-on-one resume help and other resources.

Lastly, don’t use comic sans of papyrus.

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It’s been fun. Until next time!

With a stamp, we got a story

William poked his thick-framed glasses over the counter of Ball State’s Student Center Post Office. A man sorting envelopes paused to greet us: “Why, hello, young man. How may I help you?”

Rose — who had been drawn in to flashing lights of a nearby vending machine — ran over to join us as I explained that the kids wanted to purchase their first book of stamps. Last year, our family happened upon the Smithsonian National Postal Museum in Washington, D.C., and the beauty, history and tradition of stamps has continued to enter our conversations. I showed the kids my middle school stamp collection, which I kept in a cigar box, as you do.

Eric unlocked a large black box. The kids marveled in silence as he sifted through dozens of file folders labeled with themes featuring first responders, John Lennon, dragons, Scooby-Doo! and the classic American Flag Forever stamp.

He placed several options in front of the children, and William immediately pointed to a colorful sheet of Hot Wheels, a series that raced onto the scene in 2018 to honor the die-cast cars’ 50th year of playroom mayhem.

Rose was more discerning. She spotted “purple heart” scribbled on one of the folders in the box. Eric saw her eyeing the envelope: “Oh, it’s not that kind of purple heart,” he said. But the patient postal worker of 34 years pulled out a sheet and explained the distinction given to those wounded or killed while serving in the military. She appreciated the information but settled on “Love” stamps.

From across the room, post office assistant Robin Evans interjects, “Did you Moe Reeter?” She pulled out a frame of the gentleman to try to jog my memory, but I hadn’t had the pleasure of meeting him. She went on to explain that Miller “Moe” Reeter worked the last 20 of his 36-year postal career as a mail carrier for Ball State until he died in 2010.

Moe had earned a Purple Heart, having served as a sergeant first class in the 38th Infantry Regiment and I Company. According to his obituary, the Illinois native was also received a Korean Service Medal and three Bronze Stars for Valor.

“Moe was a character,” Robin said. “He started delivering mail in Muncie by riding the city bus to parcel lockers throughout town. He’d collect the mail in the locker, walk the streets greeting people and delivering mail, then he’d hop the bus to the next parcel box and do it all again.”

In April 2010, Moe was buried with military rites in the Beech Grove Cemetery, where his headstone — stamped with an outline of golf clubs — can be found next to his high school sweetheart, Mary, who proceeded him in death.

Robin said Moe often wore pink shirts and white hats, sometimes with a feather, and knickers. I started to ask the obvious next question, “um, why?” as William started tugging on my coat, asking to go to the “super cool Burris playground, mom.” As I turned to plead for another minute of adult conversation, I noticed two students walking up to the counter. We gathered our stamps, and I walked away glad:

  • Glad I hadn’t been on my phone or in too much of a rush.
  • Glad my kids are interested in stamps.
  • Glad for stories and random, delightful conversations.
  • Glad people still pause to write and send letters.
  • Glad the post office continues to captures history and art and story in stamps so that, as they are called, we can cherish them “forever.” Check out the virtual exhibits at the Smithsonian National Postal Museum.

The kids got home and promptly shared their stamps with neighbors and wrote “Mamie and Grandad.” I hope they never stop writing letters to each other and pausing to listen to and celebrate stories. Happy Wednesday!

I plan to challenge my students to manage rather than ‘stamp out’ their biases. Thoughts?

Ask me to dinner, and I’ll ask you to decide. My favorite color? All of them, maybe blue. Favorite band? It depends.

I am indecisive at the end of the day because I am “choiced out.”

As a journalist, I am hyper-aware of my choices, knowing each one influences a story’s tone and trajectory. Who should I interview? What should I wear to meet them? How much space should I dedicate to each fact and source? In what order should I present those facts and sources? What language and descriptors should I use? What photos and colors should I choose to illustrate my words? How should we present the piece to readers?

All this, knowing that even before I get my hands on an assignment, choices have been made. Journalists must recognize our role in the larger mechanics of news organizations as gatekeepers that decide what, how and when stories are covered. Even more important can be an awareness of what is not covered, who is not quoted and what sources are not referenced. If we see an overlooked angle, story or source, it’s our responsibility to push for stories that provide truth in context — adding value to our world.

Now, want to decide where to eat? Me neither.

Examples? Sure. For a story about generational poverty, you head to an underprivileged neighborhood on a weekday. You made a choice, and that decision means you’ll likely run into retired people and folks out of work. That is fine (as those perspectives are important), but you should make an effort to gather narratives of those working three jobs.

Sure, rock those high heels and white skinny jeans, but you might not want to wear them to interview Paul the Pig Farmer. He is likely not going to relate with you, resulting in a less-than interview, and he probably won’t take you schlepping through pig pens, which would provide oink-tastic narrative context. Your clothes, hair color and piercings do not influence your abilities as a storyteller, but you must consider how your appearance comes across to sources. If you don’t adapt to the worlds you enter, then be prepared to work around potential obstacles. It’s your choice.

If you cover immigration, and you pick photos of gangs and boarder enforcement, those are choices that leave out the image of Easu Martinez, a clean-cut graduate student at Ball State, who plans to dedicate his life to helping displaced families cobble together lives in new nations.

But aren’t you supposed to be objective?

As I choice through my day, the crusty old editor inside my head shouts “be objective, be unbiased.” The result: a checklist of equal numbers of contrary sources, given the same amount of space, in stories that taste like stale white bread.

I have begun to turn down the volume on my internal press pundit to embrace a new approach: What if journalists acknowledge that bias is embedded in the people, culture, and language on which we report? What if we stop trying to stamp out bias, but rather seek to manage it as a way to provide a narrative texture that makes stories more understandable and relevant?

To make that shift, we must turn our pens and lenses inward. We must consider what experiences, relationships and views have shaped us into who we are, and then write them down, and then paste that list near our computers to remind us to “check ourselves” on the job.

I am exploring my own biases, and I plan to challenge my students to do the same. In J101: Media and Society, we study media literacy (the ability to access, analyze, evaluate and create media), and it seems the perfect forum to start this lifelong conversation with ourselves and each other.

I have a few ideas …

Log your media diet for one day

I already do this one. I ask students to (for one day) detail the media they consume and log which devices/platforms they are on and how often they are on them. Then, they reflect on the meaning of their choices and whether they see any need to adjust their media consumption to (as with food) strive for a well-balanced diet. You can have Oreo cookies (TMZ and BuzzFeed), but to be an active, engaged citizen, we need some fruits and vegetables (The New York Times, CNN). Some students take on the added challenge of going without social media for a day, and the takeaways deeply influence some students’ relationships with Facebook and the like.

Masking your identity

I will bring blank, white masks to class. On one side, I will ask students to draw images and/or write words that illustrate how they believe the world perceives them (and/or how they want to be perceived). On the inside of the mask, they will draw images or write words that reflect their private self. We will debrief this exercise in class, as a way of talking about how no one side of our mask truly represents us. By asking each student to engage in this exercise, my hope is they will be slower to stereotype others based on appearance.

Exploring values, challenging assumptions

Next class, I’ll ask them to list words or phrases of five values they hold dear, then rank them from 1-5, with one being the most valuable. I will invite them to share their lists and rankings in groups, focusing on their reasoning for selecting those values and rankings. During their discussions, I hope they come to understand that everyone holds and ranks values the same, yet they have equally compelling reasons for their lists and rankings. I hope the exercise expands students’ appreciation for what motivates and inspires others.

Being comfortable with being uncomfortable

Continuing to build on self-exploration, we will dive into how we look at the world, specifically the assumptions we have of other places, people and situations. I’ll ask them to create a list of words, phrases or categories of people, places or situations they do not understand (i.e. stay-at-home moms, farming, lesbians, female pastors, slang, Muslims, vegans, children, selling drugs, old people, racists, people with kids at Walmart at 10:30 p.m. on a school night).

I use the phrase “do not understand” because synonyms for “unconscious bias” are words like, bigot, ignorant and senseless. Since we are coming at this exercise from a place of curiosity, I want students to feel open to share their biases as we seek to manage those fears, misunderstandings and lack of awareness. I’ll invite students to share a few items on their lists to discuss why, for instance, someone might rarely wash their clothes or not shake your hand when introduced.

Then, I’ll introduce an assignment that will likely be met with groans. Before the end of the semester, I want them to have a meaningful interaction with three of the people, places or situations they listed. We will spend at least two classes talking through interview best practices and what constitutes a “meaningful” interaction. I will meet with each student to discuss their three items to ensure they feel comfortable and confident (and aren’t putting themselves in harm’s way).

Sound terrifying? Well, that’s the job

As a journalist, you regularly have to enter worlds you know little about and adapt enough so that you can build relationships or engage in experiences that lead to information and quotes you weave into a meaningful narrative. In public relations and marketing, you engage with various target audiences and flit from client to client, managing different industries and organizational cultures and expectations.

Students choose: A personal or industry approach

I’ll let students decide whether they want to approach the assignment on a personal level or as an industry experience. For instance, journalism students can approach the person, place or experience as if they’re writing a story or focus on a personal interaction. Public relations or advertising students can interact with their three people, places or situations as if they are doing research about target audience for a client of their choice, say Ball State (and they could speak with the person about his/her decision to come to Ball State, campus involvement, stressors and any obstacles and opportunities to improve campus culture).

We will pair these assignments with a review of articles and public relations case studies that do a good and a poor job of managing bias to provide narrative context that enriches story. Based on these experiences, we will practice writing articles or creating brand messages that consider our own biases and give context to those assumptions.

By the end of the semester, I hope each student is “choiced out” because it means they are making choices through each stage of the writing process — from idea formation, to sources, to clothing, to when they go where, to editing, to photo and graphic selection and, finally, to presentation.

Thoughtful storytellers and strategists produce powerful, compelling work. By understanding our biases and those that are part of each story, we are more in command of the arrogance, denial and prejudice that can sneak into our prose. The outcome is stories that are more fair, comprehensive and human.

Applebee’s or Olive Garden? I hope each of them can’t always decide.

Want more? Read my teaching philosophy.

My Budding Teaching Philosophy

Among the greatest lessons I’ve learned are from trees: to cultivate a strong foundation, to stand alone and tall but to remain rooted in community; to collaborate with others for better outcomes; to grow around obstacles when you must; to embrace disturbances as part of the climb; and to commit your existence to nurturing a more vibrant, connected world.

I adopted these truisms during my professional career, and they continue to guide my relationship-based approach to equip the next generation of storytellers and strategists with expertise, confidence and connections.

Back to the forest: Imagine if every tree was the same height, every bark the same pattern, and every leaf the same hue, shape and size. A stroll through the woods would be as uninspiring as walking down an aisle of stacked, 8-ounce Tupperware. But, thankfully, each tree is as unique as our students, shaped by internal and external conditions that outfit some with thick, scarred skin and others with the thinnest of exteriors.

Regardless of their divergent trajectories and capacities, students share a common climate during this accelerated period of growth, as they work to establish themselves in a new environment, alongside new companions. Each is eager to foster connections and expand his or her reach, but depending on their variety, condition and placement, students may emerge during our time together or flower long after we nourish their roots.

An affirming, industry-driven environment

I don’t refer to students as oaks or weeping willows (that’s weird), but thinking of them as such encourages me to embrace their wonderfully unique characteristics, just as I would celebrate the diversity of the woods. It reminds me to consider the climates they weathered and previous access to nutrients. It helps me realize that although I may pore myself into them, I may never see them reach their full potential; but I pore anyway, because I know it matters. Because I once benefitted from the shade and support of others, even when I wasn’t ready to sprout.

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My amazing students in NEWS 397: Muncie’s Food Report, which we renamed Harvesting Hope, gave me a tomato plant!! So, not a tree … but still roots and leaves 🙂

I adapt my instruction and assignments to align with various learning styles and interests, and the visual reminds me to sit beside students rather than try to manage their growth. It inspires me to share my journey and convey that I, too, am a one-and-only-ever-me tree, and I am still learning, course-correcting and emerging alongside them. Our industry is as unpredictable as the weather, and I share my scars and triumphs to clear out weeds that threaten to block my students’ success. I push critical thinking and resilience so they learn to grow around or confront challenges, and I encourage humility so they own up to and learn from the mistakes they will make.

The eye of an eagle, the touch of a butterfly

My expectations are high, and I review writing, photography and design with the eye of an eagle, marking drafts with the ferocity of professional standards; but my grading reflects the touch of a butterfly, as I reward honest efforts based on individual progress. Good writing emerges during the editing process, and students must grow comfortable with feedback, rewrites, feedback and more rewrites until all parties are satisfied. As such, I invite students to rework assignments until their writing would be ready for a professional editor or their marketing proposal would be ready to send to leadership — and that is when I assign a grade. Tests and quizzes are open book, because journalism is about one’s ability to find an answer or solution, rather than memorizing and repeating what others deem as truth. I don’t expect any of us to know all the answers, but I do expect us to adopt the critical thinking skills, grit and resources to find and interpret them.

If we were all born into this world as tall, wise oaks, it would be a stuffy, boring existence, indeed. When I find myself saying things like, “kids these days,” I push even harder to listen to, be present with and open to students’ energy and passions. They are hybrids of previous generations, built stronger and wired to solve tomorrow’s challenges through emerging technologies and trends. Educators who minimize students’ knowledge and perspective miss out.

‘You get out of it what you put into it’

I strive to encourage students to become more active in their learning and to consider education as the act of saying “yes,” again and again, to enriching experiences that fashion them into “the most interesting and impactful person you can be.” Trees that stand immovable when new construction crowds out their sunlight wither as much as professionals who resist change, fear creative risk or do not want to put in the time.

I pair industry curriculum with assignments that encourage self-reflection and new experiences. On day one, students’ sign the syllabus (to acknowledge they have read and understand it) before they write a letter, draw a picture (or however they want to express themselves) to visualize a successful class and semester. At the end of our time together, I pass their work back to them to reflect and assess.

Before the semester’s final break, I ask them to take a picture that illustrates where they are and/or where they want to be. The assignment provokes students to end the semester strong, but it also challenges them to consider visual storytelling, rather than relying only on words. I create assignments to tackle all aspects of the creative process (research, writing, design, layout and photography) so that they appreciate each step in the process.

During break, they also engage in an “unternship,” which requires students to get out and do something they’ve never done before (anything from rock climbing or volunteering at a soup kitchen to going to a museum or driving home without the radio). They return to share lessons they can apply to their personal and professional lives. The outcomes are powerful, and they grow as much (or more) from theses assignments as they do from grammar worksheets and headline writing exercises.

Embrace new interpretations of the field

For years, I felt the profession required me to check my humanity at the office door. No more. I now jump at most any opportunity to practice “community or justice journalism” because in all that journalism is and can be, I believe there is space for a participatory variety that transforms writers and photographers from observers into storytellers, driven to recapture the hearts of their communities.

Rather than trying to stamp out bias, I acknowledge that preferences are embedded in the people, culture and language on which we report. I strive for fairness instead of “objectivity” and manage bias as narrative texture that presents more relevant, compelling stories. A Journalist’s work can inspire empathy, understanding and action, but journalists do not need to stop there. They can also take action — working alongside neighbors to engage in productive conversations and work toward solutions.

I share these and other interpretations of the field as well as my varied career from newsrooms to marketing departments and back again, which is a path some professors told me would corrupt my spotless journalistic reputation. This jagged path has strengthened my work and made me more marketable and resourceful, and I remind students of their limitless options.

In this together, I share their frustrations and joys

I continue to freelance, as a magazine journalist and marketing consultant, so that I can weave those experiences into my classroom and remain connected with the pressure of deadlines, stimulus of feedback, and sting of the internal critic. I enter every assignment with hope and curiosity, and I enter each classroom with the same.

I hope my students struggle because writing and creating isn’t easy, frustration when stories fall through and overwhelmed by the complexities of complicated stories. I hope these agitations ignite a gritty determination to tell stories that matter, and I hope they know I will always be there to commiserate with and encourage them in the brightest and darkest of days.

Classroom Practices to Motivate, Engage and Inspire

On the first day of all of my classes, I start by sharing a few motivational thoughts in addition to all the typical syllabus and class expectations information. I also give out my cell phone on the syllabus and tell them that they can call me if they are ever in an emergency. Nobody has ever taken me up on it, but I think they appreciate feeling like I am there for them, even outside the classroom. I also talk through campus resources often not mentioned, including the campus food pantry, and discuss fun things to do in Muncie to encourage them to get out and explore the city.

I remind them that:

  • You are here because you are smart, capable, and ready for greatness.
  • I am here for you, and I want you to succeed.
  • SAY YES to new experiences/be the most interesting person you can be!
  • Lean in to challenging conversations and feelings.
  • Love where you live.
  • HS was about tests. Now, apply classroom knowledge to advance our world
  • I embrace feedback.

Letter to Self

Their first assignment is to sign the syllabus, acknowledging that they have read and understand it (it’s the last page of the syllabus). Then, I ask them to write a letter or draw a picture (or however they want to express themselves) on the back of that syllabus acknowledgement. The letter is a self-reflection about how they want the semester to look (they can look beyond the semester, but it’s a nice pause before we dive into the semester). At the end of our time together, I pass their work back to them to (again) reflect.

Professional engagement

Building relationships with professionals is critical to understanding the field and making connections that can help students get that first internship or job, then advance in the field. I don’t grade this “assignment” because I don’t want to push this on any of them, if they’re not ready/willing. But, I outline how to connect with professionals and then ask them to interact with that person at least five times throughout the semester. I guide them through the experience, and several students have gone onto get jobs or create lasting professional connections/friendships because of the assignment.

Our Next Chapter

Please take a photo of something that represents your life now or where you want your life to be. I’d love for you to write a word or phrase on a note card that speaks to where you want to go/where you’re at. If that won’t work, feel free to write over the photo with a font that aligns with the image/concept (in post-production, so PhotoShop, for instance). Have fun being creative and thinking about how you’ll take on the rest of the semester!!! Attached is an example. Have fun with this creative exercise!

Unternship

Golin PR company pays interns to go out and do something they’ve never done before for three months, then they give unterns a job. Unterns must come back and apply their experiences/take-aways to their work. So, I ask you to take Spring Break to do something you’ve NEVER done before, and I mean NEVER. Then, I want you to reflect on how you might apply XXX experience to your personal and professional lives. No set word count, and it doesn’t need to be epic and you don’t need to have some major revelation. Sometimes the act of doing something new, talking to someone different, etc. opens doors we might not realize or adds value that we don’t experience/realize until much later. Thanks!!!! I look forward to your reflections.

Related: Read about my efforts to help students to manage rather than “stamp out” bias.

My Conversation with Michelle Obama

Last Tuesday, I talked with Michelle Obama.

There happened to be 12,000 other people there—at Bankers Life Fieldhouse—but it felt as though the former first lady talked directly to me. Her words ignited my spirit, which has, admittedly, wilted by feelings of hopelessness amid the expanse of senseless acts and impotent discourse.

A former student and her parents treated me to tickets to “A Moderated Conversation with Former First Lady Michelle Obama,” hosted by Women’s Fund, which invested the $1 million in ticket sales to advance the lives of women and girls in Central Indiana.

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From left: Me, Grace, and Mary Jo, the former student and mama who treated me to tickets to “A Conversation with Former First Lady Michelle Obama” on Tuesday, Feb. 13, at Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis.

It wasn’t so much what Mrs. Obama said, but the way she said it—mirroring the grace and honesty of her public service. As she spoke (one day after the National Portrait Gallery unveiled her portrait), I pictured that triangular dress portraying her as a mountain—reaching up and inspiring others with an easy, no-nonsense beauty and strength.

Here are a few lessons I scribbled in my notebook, which I converted into a PowerPoint, which I made my students sit through and discuss.

Role models are sitting across from you, stirring your mac and cheese

“Find a mentor,” she urged us. “But the greatest role models and mentors aren’t only ‘out there, speaking at podiums,’ they are often in your daily life. Michelle said she always has and continues to rely on family for guidance and support. Don’t dismiss the people closest to you.

Observe and appreciate your family and teachers, who work hard to support you, she added. You can take the greatest life lessons from the single moms and the quiet grandmas of the world.

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Mrs. Obama brought her mom “kicking and screaming” to the White House. Michelle talked about the importance of family in outfitting her with a solid foundation she has built on throughout her life.

It’s not about stuff

To those potential mentors and role models, she reminded them, “Kids don’t need a lot of stuff. I didn’t have a lot of stuff. I just want parents to know it’s the time in. It’s not the stuff.”

Life in the White House taught her how to establish and maintain boundaries. She fiercely guarded time with family. Her girls, she said, “traveled all over the world, but what they cared about most was whether or not Barak and I were there for them, whether we made time to listen and be present in their lives.”

She grew up in a community of moms who didn’t interrogate their daughters, but when Michelle and her friends were playing, “they were in the next room, listening like hawks.” The mamas knew when to jump in and when to let life play out.

Luck is when preparation meets opportunity

“There are very mediocre people who run things, because no one is telling them they can’t,” she said. “You are just as capable, but you can’t be at the table if you’re not prepared.”

Make yourself the most interesting you, saying “yes” to new experiences and challenging yourself to explore other worlds, ideas, etc.

She encouraged the young to “do the work now to figure out who you are, what you stand for,” so that when life gets busier and people or experiences try to shake you, you will stand firm. “Nobody can take that knowledge and confidence of self away from you,” she added.

Be the one and only ever you. Most everything has been done before, so don’t let that little detail stop you. Nobody has ever said, written or done that thing in the distinct way you would say or do it.

Be OK with the fact you don’t know everything, but use that understanding to drive you to learn and grow every day.

Inform yourself and take action

We need good people in office, and everyone—on all sides of the aisle—should vote. An engaged, informed electorate leads to a progressive, productive society.

“If you don’t vote,” she said, “you are allowing your grandma—who you wouldn’t let pick your outfit—choose the direction of our nation.”

On how she confront’s poverty: “There’s only so much you can say to folks when you know their opportunities are at zero. You can’t tell someone to ‘pull themselves up by their bootstraps if they don’t have any boots.” The better use of our time, she said, is to apply ourselves to fixing the problems that those in need are facing.

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Be persistent and assertive

Push through your inner drumbeat of doubt. Michelle talked about growing up knowing that “because she was brown” people were scared of her. “That kid you’re afraid of,” she said. “That’s me, I’m that kid, and look at what I’m about, what I dedicated my life to.” Think of how much potential we are squashing by making kids feel this way, casting aside opportunities and hope before even trying.

Similarly, push through people’s low expectations of you. Michelle knew there were haters out there, but she didn’t think on them. She kept putting herself out there, making herself relevant, using her voice, and learning from failures.

Know that people who love you most might be holding you back. Her elders grew up in a time when the world was scary for black people, particularly black women. They sometimes cautioned Michelle against experiences or campaigns because they “were afraid for me, wanted to keep me safe.” Be aware of those tendencies and follow your gut, but the answer is often—push on, do it.

Don’t wait for others to GIVE you ideas or ASK you to do. Come up with solutions to problems others cast aside as insurmountable or haven’t seen coming. Ask for a new opportunity (then rock it), and speak up when something doesn’t make sense. Those who raise their hands and do the work, get noticed.

Don’t waste a seat at the table

Once you’re asked to join a table, use your voice. If you use your voice, and you’re kicked off the table, it wasn’t a table you should need to be on anyway.

If you don’t use your voice at the table (because you’re fearful of being kicked off the table, for instance), you are wasting a seat. Jump in and make yourself relevant. The people who asked you to the table likely asked you because they don’t want to hear more of the same, they want to hear YOU.

Michelle gave an example during her time as a lawyer: “I was the only black woman at the firm, so I joined the recruitment team, with the goal of ensuring we diversify our pool of candidates.” She asked to be at that table, and they gladly added her to the team (and she made a lasting impact on the firm’s culture).

Fashion should work for you, not the other way around

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Look professional, and dress for the job you want, but be appropriate for the situation. If you’re going to a farm to interview a farmer, dress like you’re going to a farm to interview a farmer. If not, you’ll get those heels muddy and will likely create a barrier between you and the source, resulting in a less productive, meaningful conversation.

Dress to succeed at the task at hand. Michelle said, “I’d tell my staff, ‘if you want to make me happy, get me on the grand with some babies.'” On those days, she didn’t wear an A-line skirt and gaping blouse, she wore slacks and a collared shirt, for instance—still professional, but she wasn’t fussing with her clothes (looking awkward, less confident). She was giving her heart to those babies, and the photographers (who were ever present) captured that authenticity and confidence.

You’re only as comfortable with others as you are with yourself. Observe trends and try to work them in, but don’t be a slave to fashion. Stick to what looks good on your body.

Show up. Be on time. Focus on relationships.

She emphasized the basics of social skills and politeness, summing it up with: “Act with decency and with some compassion and with an open heart and nobody can take that away from you.” Listen like you want to be heard.

I added a few here:

  • Don’t pass in front of others (like between art at a museum and someone viewing it).
  • Hold the door open for others (and if someone does it for you, say ‘thank you.’
  • Remove sunglasses, hats and earbuds.
  • Let people exit an elevator first before walking in.
  • Don’t get too personal with questions (yep, I don’t follow this. I struggle with small talk).
  • Say please, thank you and you’re welcome.
  • Firm handshake.
  • Be on time, or even a bit early (working on this one).
  • Look people in the eye when talking to them.
  • Keep your fingernails clean (so many more to add re: personal hygiene and meal etiquette).

I felt closer to Michelle Obama than any other first lady, but our nation still emphasized her domesticity and failed to play up her impressive personal and professional background long before she met Barak. Read more about the Princeton and Harvard graduate at Biography.com.

I wasn’t fully aware of the scope of her reach while in the White House, either. She guided these initiatives: Let’s Move!, to address childhood obesity; Joining Forces, to support veterans, service members and their families; Reach Higher, to inspire young people to seek higher education; and Let Girls Learn, to help adolescent girls around the world go to school.

For more information about the Women’s Fund and to donate, go to WomensFund.org.