From the Executive Director: Making the human connection

From the Executive Director: Making the human connectionMarsha Herman-Betzen2004-03-0110Boardroomfalse

I can only think of one other time I was so moved by a book I was reading for pleasure that I used it as the basis for my Bulletin column. This anomaly occurred in the January issue of the 2000 Bulletin. I had just finished devoting my last six executive director columns to the topic of change management, more specifically the Association's reinvention. I was so tired and bored with anything that had to do with organizational theory that I found myself daydreaming about the perfect escape. My prerequisites were simple; the book had to be fiction, romantic, and sensuously set in a breathtaking location far away from higher education and Bloomington, Ind. Reading "Under the Tuscan Sun" immediately catapulted me from my mundane reality to Tuscany through a beautifully written memoir about living in Italy, loving a house, and the pleasures of food.

It didn't take me long to realize that my perceived escape was more than an armchair travel book. While I have been known to try to assign meaning to random experiences, "Under the Tuscan Sun" offered uncanny similarities to basic change management theory. So much for escaping, I thought.

Four short years later I find myself in the same situation, longing for escape from the day-to-day problems of life, yet finding significant relevance to my chosen field of work in a book of fiction. Reading "The Five People You Meet in Heaven," by Mitch Albom, produced an unprecedented visceral response (although some who know me would argue I often have that same kind of emotional reaction watching a Hallmark television commercial). What happened next was something that I have never experienced before. The minute I finished reading the book, I read it again. Only his time I affixed colored self-adhesive flags to pages I hoped to remember and highlighted specific poignant passages that with any kind of luck I could later quote.

Albom's parable is the story of Eddie, who, in his mind, has lived an unimportant life. His job is fixing carnival rides at the seaside amusement park, Ruby Pier. The one thing Eddie has prided himself on is keeping the rides in good working condition, free of any major accidents. On his 83rd birthday, a tragic mishap kills him as he tries to save a young girl from a plummeting cable car caused by a gear chain that has broken. Eddie awakens in the afterlife, where he learns that heaven is not a destination. Rather, it is a place where your life is explained to you by five people, similar to Charles Dickens' "A Christmas Carol." One by one, five people revisit their connections to Eddie on earth, illuminating the mysteries of his life, and revealing the haunting secret and never-ending question: "Why was I here?"

Each spirit has a story to tell, a secret to disclose, and a message to share. These people may have been acquaintances, loved ones, or distant strangers. Albom suggests that each person and all religions have their own idea of heaven which should be respected. "The Five People You Meet in Heaven" serves as a guess, maybe even an expose of wishful thinking as it explores the unexpected connections during our lives that cause people who feel unimportant on earth to finally realize how much they mattered.

As I read Albom's hopeful fantasy, I found myself marveling at how many chances we each have to touch the lives of those around us. In fact, working in a college union and student activities environment provides us with countless opportunities for significant interaction each day that are so easy to take for granted.

In 1990, the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching published "Campus Life: In Search of Community," outlining six principles that provide an effective formula for day-to-day decision making on the campus and, taken together, define the kind of community every college and university should strive to be. The fifth principle, describes a caring community as "a place where the well-being of each member is sensitively supported and where service to others is encouraged" (p. 47). According to the Carnegie Commission for the Advancement of Teaching, as impossible as this goal may seem, a university should be a place where every individual feels affirmed and where every activity of the community is humane.

College unions and student activities have a unique opportunity to help facilitate a caring community through helping students make a connection between what they learn and how they live. The union building, and all that occurs therein, is a great facilitator—a matchless opportunity for students to come together and make good things happen, and for good things to happen to them. As a result of our jobs and the extent to which we advise, employ, and interact with students, we impart by action and example; we are not autonomous individuals, but members of a larger community to which we must be accountable. At a time when social bonds are tenuous at best, it is essential we emphasize the reality of dependence on each other. We must understand and teach what it means to share. We must understand and teach what it means to give. We must understand and teach that a community must be built.

Albom's character Eddie viewed his life with regret and loneliness and was consumed by the dull routine of what he perceived as his uninspiring work. What he failed to realize was that he profoundly touched the lives of many unsuspecting individuals in extraordinary ways:

We are all connected [and] you can no more separate one life from another than you can separate a breeze from the wind … It is because the human spirit knows, deep down, that all lives intersect. (Albom, 2003, p. 48)

Richard Blackburn (1980), executive director of ACUI from 1981 to 1991, said in a regional conference keynote address:

The ingredients of what we offer toward the educational process in college—the professors, the library, the museum, the college union—with its profusion of facilities and activities—these remain only the scenery behind education until a real human contact occurs. The best union program in the country, like the most highly trained faculty, will not drive learning home until some personal connection is made with each student in some individual way.

At the heart of the college union purpose should be our contribution to the education and personal development of students. That union board meeting may include a student leader who is about to fail a course that is necessary for graduation, or a student who has just been called into active duty and will soon be sent to Iraq. In that last payroll printout from the union business office is a young man whose college education is being threatened by the reduction of his work hours in the bookstore, or the young woman at the information desk who passes out because of an eating disorder. How have our random acts or intentional interactions touched each of these individuals?

Roger E. Herman (1991), in his book "Keeping Good People," makes the case for this same kind of human development with employees. Herman sums it up this way:

When you direct your energies to helping others, to building character, you become much more powerful than if you are just helping yourself. Self-esteem is considerably higher when we concentrate on serving others instead of serving ourselves. We feel better about what we are doing. We feel better about the organization we do it with. We bond with that organization because of the compatibility of our character. (pp. 285–286)

Higher education is most successful when there is the establishment of subtle and enduring connections between students and people who can do something important with them. A college union, through its committee structure and staff members, greatly multiplies the chances for the vital connection to be made. Without a doubt, the college union has the potential to create that crucial bond between ordinary people with extraordinary results.

There was a pier filled with thousands of people, men and women, fathers and mothers and children—so many children. They were there because of the simple, mundane things Eddie had done in his life, the accidents he had prevented, the rides he had kept safe, the unnoticed turns he had affected every day. And while their lips did not move, Eddie heard their voices, more voices than he could have imagined, and a peace came upon him that he had never known before. (Albom, 2003, p. 193)

Our goal should be to make sure a day does not go by without trying to make that indirect or direct human connection. This is in the great tradition of the college union heritage. It does not matter in what area of the union you work. That connection is vital if we are to continue to be a significant force in higher education.

Albom, M. (2003). The five people you meet in heaven. New York, NY: Hyperion.
Blackburn, R.D. (1980). Address at the ACUI Region 5 conference at the University of Kentucky.
The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. (1990). Campus life: In search of community. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, Inc.
Herman, R.E. (1991). Keeping good people. Akron, Ohio: Oakhill Press.
Updated Nov. 9, 2012