Beyond Room 119

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An unintended retreat

Not a soul knows where I am right now. There’s a certain beauty in that.

I’ve always loved stories of man going into nature. Thoreau, Chris McCandless, Cheryl Strayed – heck, you can even add Jesus to that list. I love reading why these people choose such a drastic mode of retreat, what happens during it, and inevitably, how they change in ways unexpected. When I look at these stories from a rational point of view, I can always understand the why, but I’ve never been able to empathize with them.

Today, I do.

It happened accidentally, really. I was planning to go on a short hike just to be outside for a bit and then get cozy with some schoolwork. Well, soon enough, that short hike became more than a wee bit longer and school was tossed into the warm wind. I hadn’t realized it when I began my day, but I needed this. A break from the world. Here, stretched out on a rock like a lizard, basking in the sun and listening to the rushing river – here is where I stumbled onto my retreat.

A few days ago, I was thinking about how my identity as a runner has been intertwined with the rest of my identity for years. I love that, and assuming my body cooperates, I hope it’ll be like this for decades to come. But unfortunately, injury is an inevitable part of the athlete’s deck. Which isn’t the end of the world by any means, but when that part of you is integral to who you are, it makes those periods a bit tougher. You’ve not only lost your favorite way to exercise – no, that’s the easiest part to handle. You also lose your best method to cope, your favorite way to explore the world, the most peaceful way to think, your most valued mode of escape, and so much more.

It’s been tough being sidelined these past few weeks. Tougher than I’ve let on to anyone. But, in its own way, this time off helped me to create another lens through which to view the world.

Hang with me here for a bit of an extended metaphor. If we personify the way that I want to see the world as a Thoroughbred, running used to be the equivalent of me hopping onto its back with one fluid, graceful, Legolas-like movement. That’s not an option right now. I’m on the ground, and Secretariat is standing before me, beautiful, majestic, and currently unattainable.

When you fall off the horse, you’re faced with a few options. Quitters walk away. Extremists (or stubborn people) hop back on again the exact same way, even if they know they’re going to fall right back off. Neither one of these quite appeal to me. I’m going to find a different way to get back on him, whether that means scaling a tree and jumping on from above, climbing a fence first, or something else entirely.

This retreat, this unintended bliss where I’m in a tank top and regretting that I left my sunglasses in the car – today, this is me getting on that horse a different way. It may not be my preferred method of mounting, but it’s beautiful in its own way and helps me get to where I want to be. Who I want to be.

I have no desire to go explore the Alaskan wilderness, the Pacific Crest Trail, or live in the woods for a few years, but today, I can see why someone might. It’s a gift to get away into nature. To be away from everything and everyone. To bask in the sun’s rays. To go off the path for no reason other than because it looks intriguing. To simply be. 

Thoreau said, “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately.” We go away so that we can look within. Only after doing so are we able to harness our inner strength. And at the end of the day, that strength is going to ensure that if we want it badly enough and if it truly matters to us, we’re not only going to get on that horse, we’re going to gallop across the finish line of the Derby, the Preakness, and the Belmont Stakes. All it takes is that strength, determination, and a little bit of nature.


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Why the org chart matters

At any type of institution, it’s impossible to avoid politics. When different administrators and directors oversee specialized areas, goals and visions will often clash and commonalities can seem difficult to find. Learning more about the divisions and partnerships between academic areas and student affairs through this week’s class readings has come at a perfect time for me. I’ve reached the point in the semester where I’ve soaked in as much as I could about a number of different functional areas, I’ve explored different institutions and interests, and I’ve identified a few specific areas that I would like to learn more about and gain some experience in. One of those areas of interest is the first year experience and student retention. I’ve spent time over the past few weeks researching specific departments at my institution related to retention efforts and identified individuals with whom I would like to connect. I was planning to begin reaching out to these individuals in the next month or two.

How does this plan of mine relate to institutional structures? Well, at my current institution, there are two offices that I would like to reach out to: Undergraduate Retention and the Center for Student Success. While my undergraduate institution had similar offices to these two, they were part of the Division of Student Affairs. These offices at my current institution, however, are part of the College of Arts and Sciences and are under the academic dean. A month ago, I would have ignored the individual at the top of the org chart and proceeded without a second thought. I have since realized that universities organize themselves in very particular ways, and the way in which an institution does so can speak volumes about its framework, vision, and goals. The fact that a debate exists surrounding the effectiveness and usefulness of partnerships between academic and student affairs is testament to this.

Recognizing this will help me as I reach out to individuals in these departments. One of my goals is to hold informational interviews with some of the individuals in these offices, and perhaps in time, develop more of a mentoring relationship if I choose to focus on this area. By understanding the framework from which these offices operate, I will be better suited to enter into conversations with these individuals. Furthermore, as I widen my search and network to other institutions, I will be able to compare how offices with a similar goal (i.e. undergraduate retention) may come from different perspectives and have different pathways to achieving that goal. The foundation of higher education is relationships, and strong relationships develop from mutual understanding. As I approach these offices, I will have a more informed understanding of their values and possible goals.

“Now what?” That’s the big question – always, but in this particular instance as well. As Whitt said in the Schuh et al. reading, partnerships are a good idea only when they reflect and respect their contexts. This advice was meant for partnerships across divisions, but I think it also applies to individual partnerships and relationships. At this point, I have a more thorough understanding of the theory behind partnerships within the institution. I have a lens from which to approach these dialogues. I’ve identified individuals who are advanced in their careers, mid-level, and recently out of graduate school. Now is the time to leave the educational realm and put it into practice. It’s time to go make some connections, learn from those in the field, and integrate it into my own life. It’s time for the next chapter to begin.

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A different type of drug

“Words are, of course, the most powerful drug used by mankind.”

-Rudyard Kipling

The past few days have been a bit off. After I figured out why, my next step was to discover a cure. And so I turned back to writing. As far as drugs go, it’s not the worst one to use.

She wished she knew exactly how many times her feet had hit the ground in that easy, reassuring way. The soft pounding was more familiar to her than even the sound of her own voice. It was more of a part of her than her voice.

With each new run, the steps meant something different. Sometimes it was peace, other times discovery. Still other times it was a coping mechanism, usually there was a challenge, and almost always it was for pure enjoyment.

This time was for something different. Today was a desperate attempt at freedom.

She fought for that freedom, but with each step another piece of the memory rushed back. Phrases cycled through her mind on repeat as images flooded her brain.

She stopped suddenly, beaten by its force. By habit, she paused her watch, even as she realized that her control ended there. Life doesn’t have the same pause button, or a reset. What it has instead is either a timer or a stopwatch. Seconds ticking away or time unbounded. Which one is present depends on the choices of the individual.

She thought again about the scene from earlier that afternoon. Replayed it one more time. Felt another layer of pain stack on top of the too-recent wounds.

And then. She picked up her feet again, started moving, and fell back into pace.

She hit her watch again, and chose to let the seconds build into minutes, minutes form hours, and hours create the rest of her life.