Work in THE HOPPER


Super psyched to announce my essay “Burn It, Bury It, Send it Downriver,” is in the inaugural issue of The Hopper from Green Writers Press out of Brattleboro, VT.

Order your own copy here or here.

The mag is beautiful in structure and design. The writing is good, the voices fresh, and the press is worthy of your support.
Working with editors Jenna Gersie and Rose Alexandre-Leach reminded me that I love having an editor. When I wrote professionally for 5 years I had an editor and daily feedback from my in-house clients. I want my writing to connect with the audience, and no one gets it there faster than a good editor. Rose asked me to chop off the opening 3 paragraphs off this essay. Then she told me why. I thought about it for a few hours, reread the piece, and knew she was right.


This essay is another connection back to Barrelhouse’s conference in D.C. in April 2015. I attended a non-linear essay session led by Mike Ingram. I had a few scenes/thoughts sketched out regarding the weird things people do with their trash in rural PA where waste removal isn’t a given. Ingram’s talk and exercises led me to the central narrative of this essay. Like, I had the “oh yeah, that’s what it’s about” moment while considering my idea during his session. Outlined the narrative right then and there. When I started fleshing it out in my next writing session, it just felt good.

On the American myth of affirmative action in college admissions

  I’m pretty popular at parties. Sometimes it’s because I’m fun, but usually it’s because I worked in college admissions for a decade. It is a secretive world with much to hide. Schools benefit from being opaque.

Everyone knows a kid conducting the college search. “What’s the secret to getting in?” they ask. I sensibly advise ways a student can figure out who she is, what she wants out of college, how to search for schools that will grow her, blah blah blah. Not sexy. People want a series of concise steps that will give them an edge. I can’t give them those steps because those steps do not exist.

Disappointed, they enlighten me, “It’s easy to get in if you’re black. Everyone knows it.” There’s a dismissive hand wave as they add, “affirmative action.” They tell me this because they are certain of it. They tell me this because I am white and they are always white.

In my early 20’s, I answered, “that’s not really what I’ve seen.” They never believed me. They’d educate me, because goddamnit they knew a kid who didn’t make it into the college of their dreams while some black kid at the same high school got to go there. “It just wasn’t fair. It’s not right.”

The 18-month-long college recruitment process is unwieldy and nuanced. It’s not the stuff for drunken bar-b-que conversations. A few times (i.e. when I was drunk) I tried out my comedic skills. “The biggest affirmative action program I’ve seen is for dumb white boys and it’s called the football team.” This never amused anyone but me.

***

The white American myth of meritocracy drives the narrative of our public and political discourse. We earn what we have. If you have nothing, the fault is all yours. College admissions benefits from this myth. Visit any university’s website and you’ll be regaled with fantastic stories of rich alumni, lists of choice employers where the college “places” graduates, and selective stats on alumni salaries.

If we actually believe America is a meritocracy, then why are we so panicked about attending the right college?

We’ve decided a small number of schools are the best, and we apply to them in droves. While some of these schools are the oldest in the country, pioneers of the American system of higher education, most of them were picked for us by for-profit magazines with a business model built on exploiting our anxiety about success in an unequal system.

Our education system often replictes the economic and social inequalities as they already exist. We know this because George W. Bush attended Yale and Harvard. Because we’ve probably all seen The Skulls and hopefully at least some of us watched The Good Shephard. Because one of the few bragging rights the USA has left is that people come from all around the world to attend our universities.

There are exceptions to every rule, but at least we’re all honest enough with ourselves to understand it was more than hard work that made Bill Gates and Steve Jobs. We know only the extraordinary can drop out or skip college and have a decent chance of being successful. So we look to an inheritently unfair system and expect it to judge and reward us based solely on merit?

When we don’t make it into that college of our dreams, we fear we’re destined to failure no matter how hard we work. We lash out, looking for someone to blame although the myth of meritocracy says we should blame ourselves.

Plenty of white people absolve themselves of blame by citing an unfairness they call “affirmative action.” They do not use these words to describe an actual policy, but rather to codify the following assumptions:
–   admissions to college is based purely on academic merit;
–   academic merit is a quality measurable with absolute certainty;
–   students can be ranked from best to worst and only the best should be allowed in, starting from spot #1 and moving down in order;
–   people of color can not be as qualified as white students;
–   and while any college admits thousands of students, it had to have been just the students of color who took the spot they, the white student, deserved.

When a white person complains they didn’t make it into their choice college because of affirmative action, they are making the issue one of race, not merit. It is a sick and irresponsible attempt to avoid facing their own failure.

Scholar David F. Labaree points out that failure is built into our education system. We ask for it. Not the plural “we” of society which asks our education system to produce competent citizens prepared to be active in the economy, but “we” as in individuals who use the system to get ahead of our peers, earn more, and own more. In this set-up, somebody has to fail in order for others to succeed.

***

Want to know how you get into college? Apply.

I’m serious.

Most schools are not statistically competitive for admissions. There are thousands of institutions of higher education, and the vast majority work hard to fill their seats.

A school’s selectiveness is not defined by the percentage of applicants they choose to admit as you might assume. It is judged by the academic “profile” of admitted students, meaning the average GPA and SAT or ACT scores.

GPAs are calculated on scales that seem to differ at every high school. 3.0, 4.0, even 5.0 scales exist, along with schools who still hands out grades based on one’s earned percentage from 1-100. Most universities employ a chart that allows them to translate a student’s GPA to a 4.0 scale. If you’re from one of those obnoxious schools that gives extra GPA points and graduates kids with a 4.5 on a 4.0 scale, we know you’re playing us. You don’t get extra points on the conversion chart. Not to worry though, because we know you received those extra points for taking an above-average curriculum. We have a way to credit you for that too. We just won’t tell you what it is.

Test scores provide a more even bar by which to judge students, although the flaws inherent in them have long been proven by better minds then mine. Test scores reported in the profile are the 50% range, meaning 25% of admitted students score above and below those numbers. You don’t have to have that exact score to be admitted, but being above or below helps you gauge your chances.

Once you’ve squeezed the entirity of your personhood into a few numbers, you can judge yourself according to the average GPA and test scores across the country. College guidebooks gladly help with this. They look at a school’s profile and label its selectivity based on how it stacks up to the averages. But of those thousands of colleges in our country, less than 80 have a selectivity rate below 30%. Less than 80. Out of thousands. It is those schools where we tend to focus our energies and attention. They rank at the top of every list and see their applicant pool grow year after year despite the astronimical odds that any applicant will gain admission.
“A 40 or 50 percent accept rate is the sweet spot,” a Dean of Admissions from one of the country’s most selective schools told me over drinks as a conference. “You can accept everyone who deserves to get in and maintain the ability to say no to the ones who probably shouldn’t be there. I had that at my previous institution. I really miss it.” We were talking about my move from one of those top, most selective schools to one that appears selective but is not.

Prestige trickles down from the top; many schools benefit by association. The school I had just moved to presented all the trappings of the most selective; small, private, liberal arts, gorgeous campus, large sticker price, academic profile higher than the national averages. But the students who apply there are a self-selective bunch. While the “merits” of attendees look good, the admissions office was accepting 80% of its applicants. What’s more, only 82% of applications were ever complete and able to be reviewed. So a 2nd tier, nationally-ranked college deemed very selective was still admitting almost everyone who applied.

That brings us back to the most selective, that small set where not everyone gets in. It’s called “shaping” a class. With an overabundance of qualified applicants, the administration gets to hand-pick their population. Everyone who gets in deserves to be there, but not everyone who deserves to be there will get in.

The first school I worked for only admitted 26% of their applicants. Let me tell you how that worked.

Short version: you get admitted for many reasons, never just one.

It’s easiest to take what I saw and show it through an imagined school, Confluence College.

Confluence needs 600 freshmen. 585 won’t bring in enough tuition dollars. There aren’t enough beds for 615. All projections for budgets, class schedules, room accomodations, staffing needs, etc… are calculated on an entering class of 600.

Recruitment of those 600 is a process known as the funnel. The funnel starts with 125,000 names. These names are purchased for $0.35 a piece (the going price when I left the professon in 2013) from the College Board, a nonprofit organization that charges students over $100 to take the SAT. Criteria used in the name buy varies from school to school. Confluence focuses on geographic regions where they are traditionally strong competitiors as well as new markets they hope to open up. They narrow the search according to a student’s intended area of study. They cannot search directly for certain demographic traits, like family income, but private consultants are available for hire who claim they can do just that, despite rules in place at the College Board.

Traditionally names are purchased in January of a students’ junior year, after they’ve taken the SAT for the first time in the fall. Confluence makes contact with these names via a direct mail campaign with an accompanying email component; it is knows as “the search.” If a student responds to the search, they stay in the funnel.

All colleges want you to respond. They want more information about you than the College Board collects. Armed with this infomation, they can market themselves to you more effectively. The level of sophisticaion to this marketing corresponds to how much sales experience the admissions director had prior to joining the field, what the marketing consultants are suggesting, or how big the admissions office budget is that year. It does not, and should not, be equated to the academic quality of a school.

Students can inject themselves into a school’s funnel by filling out an online inquiry form, meeting with a representative at a college fair, or visiting campus for a tour. But mostly names are shed from the funnel until it narrows into an applicant pool.

Producing an applicant pool is costly. The process is often kept secret, especially from faculty, who would be livid at the excess of money spent. But college admissions is a business, and the people in charge have bosses to answer to.

Confluence receives 9,000 applications. While they only need 600 of those applications to convert to freshman, not everyone offered admission will choose to attend. The students who accept the offer of admission are know as the “yield.” Confluence historically yields at 30%, so they will need to admit 2,000 of the 9,000 applicants. They’re acceptance rate will be 22%, but 80% of the applicant pool falls within the academic profile. Deciding which qualified students to offer admission is achieved through predictive modeling. Confluence will use the history of previous years’ applicants to gauge the actions of the current pool.
Remember, we’re talking about American teenagers, notorious for their predictability.

Before an application is reviewed, its “hooks” are identified. Confluence has the right and luxury to shape a class to advance the institution’s goals. If Confluence wants to expand their population of students from the Left Coast, or the number of students who will not need financial aid, or they really need some more brass players in the orchestra, then students who can provide those things have a hook in the admissions process. The hook is noted in the database in a “special interest” column, or on a physical application as the color-coded swish of a highlighter or a sticker placed in a designated area.

Applicants are reviewed by major. At Confluence, already considered among the best colleges in the country, some majors are pereceived as stronger than others and therefore yield at a much higher rate. Students who apply to the business major or the pre-med program have steeper competition than applicants to journalism. The engineering school is the most competitive for admissions, and it offers several emphases, all of which yield at different rates. Mechanical engineers are more likely to accept their admission then chemical engineers who were more likely to accept their admission then civil engineers. Also, did I mention that engineering is a male dominated field? Educators know that homogenous groups are less productive then diverse groups, plus Confluence boasts about their high rate of female engineers in all its marketing, so they have to ensure at least a third of the freshman engineers are women. Plus women engineers yield at higher rates than the average admitted engineer because women don’t want to be all alone in a program. Don’t forget these engineers are part of the entire incoming class in which there are goals for having 18% identify as a race other than Caucasian, 10% as a nationality or country of origin other than the good ‘ol USA, and 20% from a state of residence west of the Mississippi River. There are sports teams to fill or else coaches get mad. When coaches get mad they tell their alumni they can’t win because admissions won’t get them the players they need. And there’s an alumnus who is VP for the East Asian division of his company and always provides internships in China for Confluence students and his daughter wants to come to Confluence. And by the way, a member of the Board of Trustees who has donated millions of dollars has an orthopedic surgeon with a kid who wants to major in business and he kind of has the grades and moderately okay test scores but his dad did replace the trustee’s knee so there’s that.

Every student at the most selective schools has hooks and very few are visible.

Once a mother called me and she was pissed as hell. Her daughter had been wait-listed, that pergatory of admissions decisions where we keep you on hold in case we over-predicted our yield. “I can’t believe you won’t accept my daughter but you accepted that chink who goes to her school.”
Before the secretary transferred Angry White Mom to me, she gave me the daughter’s name. A summary of her high school’s applicant history was on my laptop screen by the time I said “hello.” Dear daughter was one of five students who applied from her school. Three of those students had been admitted! Hooray for them! They all had better test scores than her daughter, and a higher GPA in a curriculum judged to be more demanding. They also applied to less competitive majors then she did. And yes, one of those kids identified as Asian-American, but a coach had also designated him as one of his top three recruits for the year. He had also applied Early Decision which put him on a silver platter because his yield was guaranteed.

Mom didn’t know any of this. I couldn’t tell her any of this. But oh by God did I want to. I let her talk for a while, staying silent while she ran her train of thought to the end of the tracks. When she paused, asking if I was still there, I said “Ma’am, all I can say is that your daughter is an excellent student and will do very well at whatever college she chooses to attend.” While I truly believed that, there was so much more I wanted to say.

***

We’re pretty obnoxious, us white people. We have a long history of asking brown and black people to bear the weight of burdens that have nothing to do with them. Burdens we create in a system meant to keep us as far from them as possible.

We see slavery and segregation and opposition to the Civil Rights movement as sins of a past now absolved by the baptismal waters of color-blindeness and tolerance and Obama’s election. White people ask “why bring up the past?” while keeping this oppressive past alive and relevent when it serves our bruised egos.

We must stop this. The damage is obvious. It’s in the tears of students told they are nothing but an affirmative action admit. It’s in the fear of students who feel they will never be seen as capable by white peers, a feeling that will follow them for the whole of their lives. It’s in the hearts turned hard in white students who find it necessary to think and say such a things.

The long struggle for freedom and opportunity—literal freedom and often elusive opportunity—is very real for people who do not look like me. My fellow white people, we can respect this by not undermining that struggle just because we didn’t get something we wanted. 50 years ago most colleges wouldn’t admit students of color. 50 years ago most colleges didn’t admit white women. What a privelege it is for us to so easily forget. What brats we are for using hard-won advancements as our punching bags.

Here’s what I want you, dear white reader, to do when you don’t get into that school you most want to attend;
–  Accept that everyone who was admitted to your dream school deserves to be there.
–  Congratulate the students you know who did get in. They deserve it!
–  Shut up about it already and move on. No one wants to hear your sour– pants complaints about where you didn’t get in.
–  If you hear someone else complain, redirect their focus to schools that did accept them.
–  If someone says they know for certain they were more qualified than another kid, don’t believe them. They don’t know what another student’s application looks like, and they’re probably exaggerating their own credentials anyway.
–  Celebrate where you did get in!
–  Attend a school that wants you!
–  Work hard because you’ll find the success you earn, right?

Book review for EMBER DAYS now live

My review of Nick Ripatrazone‘s EMBER DAYS, a novella and collection of short stories, is now live at Necessary Fiction. EMBER DAYS is available from Braddock Avenue Books, a Pittsburgh-based indie publisher that’s got some pretty awesome titles in their catalog.

Spoiler Alert: I recommend the book and suggest you just go ahead and buy it.

I really dug writing this review. Book reviewing was another one of those solid suggestions I received at Barrelhouses’s Conversations and Connections conference in D.C. (April 2015). When Nick posted to Twitter that Necessary Fiction was looking for a reviewer, I reached out to them and offered my services.

I did my undergrad in writing with Nick at Susquehanna University, so I’ve followed his work as he published books and became a staff writer for The Millions. I knew there was a good chance I’d be into the book and able to find things to say about it. I reviewed a number of other reviews on Necessary Fiction’s site, and felt the format was easy enough to follow. It flowed pretty easily when I sat down for that first draft. Felt good.

So what I’m saying is, I’m open to doing more and will continue to look for more reviewing opportunities.

Publication News!

I’m pleased to announce my flash fiction piece, “Boulder, Rock, Score,” is in the fall 2015 issue of StreetLight Magazine. SL is an online literary magazine based out of Charlottesville, VA.

“Boulder, Rock, Score,” was inspired by the story of Sharon Budd, a middle school language arts teacher and breast cancer survivor who was struck in the head by a 4.7 lb rock thrown from an overpass as her daughter drove them to a weekend in New York City. The incident occurred in the summer of 2014 on Interstate 80, just north of where I live. While the story made international headlines, it was the compassionate and caring coverage from Evamarie Socha of the local newspaper, The Daily Item, that brought this horrific incident down to earth for me. I was gripped for months.

In September of 2014, I sat in a workshop with Sarah Combs at the Kentucky Womens Writers Conference and details from this story began to pour out. I took the narrative POV of the teenage daughter driving the car. The story I crafted would leave the world of the Budd family, but was still rooted in it.

By April 2015, I had a 1,000 word piece of fiction. I contemplated expanding the piece, but just felt that moment of impact was too powerful to stray from. I took the piece to Barrelhouse’s Conversations and Connections conference in Washington, D.C. I sat down with Travis Kurowski, editor of Story, for “speed dating with an editor” and asked him to read the piece. He really honed in on what I was doing, advising me to make it even shorter. He asked if I had much exposure to flash fiction, and I didn’t really but was still trying my hand at it because it’s was the subject matter seemed to need. I took his specific feedback, spent some time reading flash fiction around the web, and pared the piece down to 490 words.

And that piece, those 490 words, amount to my first literary publication credit. Seriously, you guys, my first. I’ve had so much professional work in marketing and freelancing published, yet none of those pieces over the years has made me as excited as these 490 words. 

When things bark at you

OMG somebody better take charge of these cows before things get out of hand.

OMG somebody better take charge of these cows before things get out of hand.

There is a dog on my runs who doesn’t like me. He lives on an Amish farm one and a quarter miles from my house. I take Bake Oven Hill Road to Middlecreek Road and can get in a moderately challenging run out and back as long as I’m staying under six miles. It is gorgeous and pleasant and has a mild hill and runs along the creek for a while. But that dog though. He’s the worst.

The road splits his farm in two, like so often is the case around here in rural Pennsylvania, with the house and barn on one side and the pasture on the other. He lays in the barn yard, a beautiful white shepherd with black patches, eyes closed, head held up in reverence to the sun, acting as if I don’t exist. Then I cross the line between the neighbor’s modern house and his property. He’s up, running onto the shoulder of the road, barking and pulling back his lips to show me his teeth. It’s jarring.
The very first time it happened, I was literally smiling at him, admiring what a peaceful view he was as he enjoyed himself settled in the grass and all. Then BAM! he was up and at me. I ran across the road, speeding up. I’m pretty sure I even swore at him. Damn dog.

I take my long runs on Sunday afternoons, so I only encountered this dog once a week. I realized the second or third time around that he didn’t lift his tail or really leave his yard. That’s dog language for “I’m all bark and no bite.” We settled into a rhythm. I’d approach, take the earbud out of my ear towards him and yell “Here I come, puppy boy,” and he’d throw me some shade. After a few weeks he’d stand up and come to the road but wouldn’t bark. Sometimes he wouldn’t stand up, but just barked instead and I’d say “yeah yeah, I know, bark bark bark.” We were all good.

Very rarely did I ever drive on the dog’s road. It didn’t really go anyplace I’d want to get to. But then things changed in my life, as they often do, and it turns out to be a short cut to someplace I need to be twice a week.

Don’t you know that damn dog doesn’t care when a car passes through. He stays in the grass, soaking up that sun, eyes closed the whole time.

I’ve noticed every now and then that he will be standing by the time my car comes to pass, pacing back and forth as he squints across the road. What the hell is that about? Then I figured out what it’s about; he’s herding the cows across the road! He’s keeping an eye on them, moving around to signal where they need to go, his uncontrollable herding instincts kicking in. What an ass! What kind of a dog herds cows in a fenced-in pasture? From across the road?!?!

Kind of reminds me of a sister-in-law I have. And one mother in a playgroup I’ve joined. And my dad to some extent. We all have a lot of people in our life who are like this dog. People who use various means to control others from afar in very ineffective ways. Maybe it’s Facebook or out-of-the-blue texts or snide remarks to the side or gossiping with people you know will report back to intended target. The medium doesn’t really matter because the results are always the same. Must be maddening to set yourself up for failure so obviously.

It always takes you a while to realize that’s what’s happening. At first, and often for a long time, you just see the angry dog barking at you, threatening you in an immediate and crazy way. You can’t make sense of it. But if you try to look at what they’re doing from some other vantage point, you literally see it differently. It is this simple act, this compassion to look again at someone, to see them fresh, that’s a gift to them.

It is gifts like this that we must remind ourselves to give. Give them generously, give them silently, and get on with your own life already.

Conversations & Connections, a writers conference by lit mag Barrelhouse

Barrelhouse's Conversations & Connections April 2015 conference at JHU's International Studies school on Embassy Row.

Barrelhouse’s Conversations & Connections April 2015 conference at JHU’s International Studies school on Embassy Row.

I attended the April 2015 Conversations & Connections: Practical Advice on Writing in Washington, D.C. It was a one-day conference organized by D.C.-based lit mag Barrelhouse. They have these C&C conferences twice a year and rotate locations.

I’m not sure how they pull these off because I feel like I received more from them than I what paid for. The reg fee was only $70. In return, I got a book, a year’s subscription to one of the participating lit mags, access to editors, and honest-to-God one-on-one time with editors (first time was free, each additional time was $5).

Quick hits:

  • Attendance was capped at 125.
  • Attendees were from a wide age range.
  • Many of us were either flying solo or there with one acquaintance.
  • If you, like me, like to mix & mingle, there was plenty of in-between time to pull a panelist aside and introduce yourself, ask a question, make a joke with, etc…
  • If you are petrified of unstructured meet and greet time, no worries. Many folks around me made introductions while waiting for a session to start, standing in line to speed date an editor, standing in line to use the one bathroom, etc…
  • Speed dating an editor was awesome. They were just as nervous as I was!
  • I attended a craft lecture, an editors’ panel, and an advice panel on the art of the hustle. All were valuable uses of my time.

Bonus! I learned about a hilarious podcast two Barrelhouse editors put out every Monday. Book Fight! I highly recommend it. Good times!

Hamid Karzai's prestigious photo located next to the potty.

JHU’s International Studies building on Embassy Row features photos of world leaders who have spoken to students. Hamid Karzai’s prestigious photo…located next to the potty.

Moving Past the “Crusader”

Hooray for our colors!

Hooray for our colors!

UPDATE: On Monday, Oct. 26, 2015, Susquehanna’s Board of Trustees voted to discontinue use of the nickname “Crusader.” *and there was much rejoicing* The vote occurred after several months of seeking input from the greater Susquehanna community. I heard from fellow alumni that my original letter/post was passed around again; one person even quoted excerpts from it when providing feedback to the university. I am proud to have played a role in this change by articulating a position others had but did not know how to express.

ORIGINAL POST: Excerpts from an open letter I submitted to my alma mater, Susquehanna University, upon the announcement that the mascot would move from a tiger to a squirrel but the nickname would remain “Crusader” despite complaints from faculty, staff, students and alumni.

“I support this move to a new mascot.

I love Susquehanna. I’d love to embrace all the symbols chosen to represent it. I’ve got lots of orange and maroon in my closet, and I wear that rare and eye-catching combo proudly. But I’ve never felt a connection to our mascot or its nickname. I consider this to be a loss, a missed opportunity for the school to garner some goodwill and generate affinity.

As a freshman in the fall of 2000, I remember the last time we changed to a new mascot. We were getting a tiger. He’d wear a cape, and this would officially make him the Caped Crusader which we all knew as the nickname for Batman. An old reference even at that time, this led to the rumor that the university paid money to D.C. Comics for permission to use the name. I never heard if this was true or not, but it still seems like a bad way to go.

That the tiger missed the mark is not surprising. It was always a band-aid anyway. In the late 1990’s the appropriateness of the Crusader mascot was raised with the Board of Trustees and senior administrators. At that time the iron cross was removed from the university’s flag because the many groups that used it include those who embarked on the Crusades. It also graced the flags of the Third Reich. And the Crusader mascot, commonly referred to as “the knight” by alumni I’ve met from the 1960’s and 70’s, was nixed. But the nickname, Crusader, remained. So we had a mascot and a nickname that didn’t match unless you shoe-horned Batman in there somehow.

What is a Crusader? We all have an image in our head that was most probably born of some movie or painting we’ve seen. I tend to think immediately of the movie Robin Hood (sadly the Costner version and not the Brooks’ cult favorite), or footage from those Knights Templar “documentaries” on the History channel during the DaVinci code craze. No matter where your image comes from, we all understand that a Crusader is a Christian who fought in a religiously sanctioned military campaign to reclaim the Holy Land for Christendom. The Crusades went on for hundreds of years. Ever since then the word has been used in the name of military operations by predominantly Christian nations in Northern Africa and the Middle East. Coalition forces used it as recently as 2004.

A Crusader is a symbol of Christian conquest. It is several hundred years worth of violence and arrogance wrapped into one word.

"Love thy neighbor...unless they're not just like you. Then you can kill 'em!!"

“Love thy neighbor…unless they’re not just like you. Then you can kill ’em!!”

You don’t have to be a practicing Christian like me, active in my Lutheran church, to understand the Crusades are not a proud era in Christian history. When Eastern Nazarene College dropped the Crusader mascot in 2009, their president said “Crusader no longer represented the positive message of Christian love we aim to share with the world.” I understand that the connotation for the word has changed. I mean its never had a positive meaning for many groups of people, but the majority population in America seems to have thought it was all good for a long time. I get that. I’m not mad at those people. I don’t wish to change our past or pretend that it never happened. And seeing as how I was born in 1981 and didn’t join the Susquehanna community until 2000, I don’t wish to apologize for them either. I just want to move on. We’re better than this. We know better. To pretend it’s okay to call ourselves Crusaders is quite sad.

I know there’s this story about a journalist giving us the nickname Little Crusaders in the 1920’s. I hope you understand that doesn’t make it okay. To call someone a Crusader is to imply that they are full of zeal in the same way that the original Crusaders were. Just because Susquehanna’s Crusade-like campaign was for a good cause doesn’t mean the historical weight is lifted when we use the word. We wouldn’t call ourselves the Susquehanna Inquisition and say “oh but its not that Inquisition, it’s a reference to how smart and inquisitive our students are when talking with professors.” We’re not fooling anyone. When someone reads or hears that we’re Crusaders, they are going to instantly think of the historical Crusader and our little story, if it happens to reach them, isn’t likely to change their mind. The main reason we tell that story now is to assuage ourselves of the guilt we feel because we know continuing to use the word is wrong.

Where can this word take us? The world of college recruitment is competitive, and just getting your foot in the door is a challenge. There isn’t time to say “we’re the Crusaders, but wait, we’re not that kind of Crusader. We earned this nickname almost a century ago…” How sloppy and out of date does that make us seem?

My passion for phasing out the Crusader isn’t motivated by the need to bring new students into our community. I care about Susquehanna’s continued survival, but I care even more about those already in our community who are hurt by our nickname. We’re a school committed to diversity, and our population has grown more and more diverse in the past decade. I was on campus every day for seven of those years and I saw it happen. There are alumni and students who recognize the Crusader as a threat to their culture, their religion, their homeland, their families and themselves. Then there are the alumni, like myself, who are part of the majority population but understand the shame of the word. Our excellent Susquehanna education prepared us to know better. We want to be better than a Crusader.

I know there are people who think the push to drop the Crusader nickname is just about political correctness. Understand that when someone says this they are choosing to ignore the valid concerns of their fellow community members and they are saying “I don’t care what my fellow alumni have to say because I like things the way they are.” Privilege means you think something isn’t a problem because it isn’t a problem to you personally. Calling ourselves Crusaders is a privilege we can no longer afford.

I want my alma mater to move forward and away from this distraction. I want them to either put the Crusader nickname aside, or issue a formal statement explaining why the Board of Trustees and the senior administration think its okay to honor a disgraceful chapter in Christianity’s history.

If you agree with me, I have some advice for you. Send your thoughts on the Crusader nickname to the alumni office at alumni@susqu.edu. Write your own statement, copy something from this letter, attach a funny meme, etc… whatever works best for you.

Why? Let me explain. As an employee who worked with marketing materials, I sat through conversations about our mascot and nickname. They usually ended with someone voicing the largely held belief that the university would never tackle the issue because it was too messy, controversial and dangerous. I think the undertone to this idea is a fear that alumni who graduated before 2000 will be angry and stop working with Susquehanna if the Crusader goes away. Its a valid fear. If the school loses the resources and connections that Crusader-supporting alumni provide, then students lose out on much needed opportunities. So we need to make it known that there is a sizable group of alumni, staff, faculty, parents and friends who support a change in nickname. Tell them you care and you want it to change. You are important and the school cares about you.

I know some of you just think the “Crusader” symbolizes all the ways in which you didn’t connect with the institution at large. You have a few professors and friends you loved at Susquehanna, but you never felt like you fit in. You never caught the Susquehanna spirit. That missed connection will be a deficit for our alma mater for decades to come. And the strength of our college serves as the foundation for your resume, so it behooves you to keep Susquehanna strong. So take a chance and tell them what you think. Let’s move forward together.

peace – Jenny Ruth (Hawbaker ‘04) Partica”

Kentucky Women Writers Conference

Attend this conference. Really. If you’ve seen an ad or read their site and are considering it, just go.

Writers love a good tote!

Writers love a good tote!

I attended the 2014 Kentucky Women Writers Conference. Here’s what I found.

  • I flew in from PA, wondering if that would make me weird. It did not. I met women from Virginia, Michigan, California, Hawaii…HAWAII!! Of course there’s a local contingency there from the surrounding academic communities, but they seemed super excited to have us all visiting.
  • The size was perfect. I’m guessing less than 200 people registered, and about 75 or so showed for most events. That’s enough to feel like a crowd, but still intimate enough to mix and mingle and recognize people from day to day.
  • Networking/friendmaking/accountabilitypartnering were all in full swing because most of us were flying solo. We came to this event to connect. I mean who chooses to attend a small literary conference other than serious writers? Everyone I met was working on a seriously cool project (or 3 or 7) and was sincerely excited to learn about what everyone else was doing. It seems we all feel alone, living our little lives in places where no one else is doing what we do. So while the conference is open to anyone who wishes to register, it’s a pretty self-selecting group.
  • Focus. This conference knew what it was all about and it was all about craft. So many conferences can focus on selling or pitching a “finished” project, but this one was more about working on/enhancing/exploring current work. (There was a very well received presentation by a literary agent, Liza Dawson, but there were no pitching sessions or anything like that). Most sessions were authors talking about craft or reading their work and then talking about craft.
  • THE AUTHORS! I signed up because Jill McCorkle was going to be there and I’ve loved her work for years. I researched the others in the months that elapsed between registration and attending, and felt like I hit the jackpot. Leslie Jameson, Rebecca Makkai, Joy Castro, Margaret Wrinkle, Tracy K. Smith, Tina Chang, and Asha Bandele. Asha Bandele, people. She was one of those writers you read and are mad at everyone you’ve ever known because no one’s ever told you about her before!!
  •   Access. All those authors I just mentioned? I got to meet them.
  • Side Note: I chose an optional workshop and did fiction with Sarah Combs. I was a little apprehensive because it had been a decade since my last workshop…and I had been an undergrad. But Sarah ran a wonderful workshop that made me sit and listen and play along. I’ve continued to develop everything I started during her exercises!

If I had the Godly authority to hand out stars, I’d give plenty to this conference. Do go, and do enjoy!

-JR