Denmark’s America

As I sat in the Studenterhuset (the Danish student center) on January 20th, watching the inauguration of Donald Trump, it was silent. While I heard conversations in english here and there, the crowd was mostly Danish. All around me they stared straight ahead as the commentators spoke, hanging on to every detail. I had been in Denmark for only a week, but it was already clear that I was no further from U.S. politics than I was back in Massachusetts. It all seemed so close and yet foreign at the same time.

A few weeks later, after dinner with a Danish family, I got the question I had been warned was coming. “So, what do you think about the new president?” We sat with our coffee and discussed the ins and outs of the American election system, the political climate, and the future of the U.S. After an hour, I sheepishly asked, “So, how do elections work in Denmark?” While these two Danes had been talking about the most complex details of the entire American political system, I hadn’t the slight idea about how any of that worked in Denmark. More recently, I spoke with some of the Danes I live with in my kollegium (Danish student housing). They spoke with the all the confidence of informed citizens, but also with a understanding that it was a one way street. What happened in the U.S. had a large effect on their lives, but there was little they could do to affect it.

It feels like a strange time to study abroad. When I wake up each morning, I see a list of news notifications on my phone about what happened in Washington while I was sleeping. I too start to feel like the Danes. I read the news and listen to the radio but then I walk outside and it all seems so foreign. I get an email that says “Call your senator” at least once a day but I shake it off, thinking, “I can’t call, I don’t have an international plan” or, “Postage to the States is real expensive.” Even so, what happens in the U.S. is impossible to ignore. I have never watched a Danish prime minister inauguration. Even while living here, I have heard little discussion of Danish politics. And yet, every day the front page of the Danish newspaper is something to do with the U.S.

Last weekend I went to the Science March in Copenhagen. I couldn’t help but find it strange that this march, inspired by marches being held around the U.S., was happening so far away from where it’s impact was suppose to be felt. Countless people held signs and listened to speeches as if they were on the mall in DC. I flew across an ocean and, even here, there were people who were committed to American politics that didn’t even have a say. More committed, I’m ashamed to admit, than I have been at times.

Studying abroad at a time like this has been strange and even frustrating at times. But living in outside the U.S. has given me a new view of American politics. What happens in the U.S. does not stay in the U.S. People all around the world are watching and waiting. If a Dane can make a sign and march in the cold to send the U.S. a message from across the Atlantic, as someone that has actual power to make change, I better do a heck of alot more than just call my senator.

Engineer in Social Benefit

Caroline Condon graduated from Olin College of Engineering in 2013. She took ADE for her Capstone and joined Engineers without Borders Canada after graduation. They connected her with Voto Mobile in Ghana. For the last two years she has lived and worked in Bamako, the capital of Mali, at a company called MyAgro. I interviewed her over video chat, where she used her office Wifi on a quiet weekday.

What do you work on?

The company that I work for sells seeds and fertilizer to smallholder farmers.

I work on agricultural tools. Our core products are seeds and fertilizer, but we’re also developing a tools portfolio, that I run.

What’s an example of a tool in your portfolio?

One of the tools is a planting machine, it’s called a “semoir”, which means “thing that plants” in French.

It’s got a slanted disc that scoops up the seeds and drops them out one at a time. And then, it has fertilizer that’s stored in a separate box. It puts a little bit of fertilizer next to every single seed (“microdosing”). It’s a lot more effective than spreading fertilizer all over the field.

How does the pricing work for a social benefit product?

We’re selling them at cost, at about $300 USD, to a population whose income is $1–1.50 per day. I would say that this product’s customer is the richer set of our clients– who are still, on a global scale, poor.

It’s by far the most expensive of our products. We’re focusing on reducing our manufacturing cost now, to make it accessible to everyone.

The demand is high at this price. But even if we filled the demand, there would still be a large chunk of farmers not using a semoir and microdosing . Our ultimate goal is to sell our semoir at the same price as non-microdosing planters.

Farmers work hard. they deserve good tools. It’s my privilege to be able to try to build those.

What’s an interesting project you worked on?

They sent me on a trip to China, to do the quality control visit at the factory. Our goal was to get a better idea of what parts are expensive, so that we could design them out.

They knew we had concerns about the cost. But sometimes they’d come back with suggestions that would make zero sense if you’d seen the machine in action. For example, they asked if we could make the holes bigger in the seed scoop. Then they could use a cheaper drill. But if they’re bigger, more seeds will fall into them. Their fundamental property is how large they are. They didn’t get it.

We found a plot near their building, and planted some soybeans with one of the tests, so they could see it in action.

A lot of why I went to China was relationship building. I brought a bunch of pictures of our farmers using it, which made them excited. That’s something I should have realized ahead of time– we had never sent them any video or anything.

They didn’t realize who was buying these machines from us. They thought we were selling them to the UN or something, who was giving them away for free. They hadn’t realized, oh, you’re selling them to farmers? No wonder you care so much about price!

How did you start working in social benefit?

Right after graduation, I moved to Ghana with the Canadian Engineers Without Borders.

In the development world, there’s been a lot of movement in the last couple of years to use phones. Voto Mobile’s first partner was a maternal health organization in northern Ghana. When women came into the clinic for prenatal care, they could sign up for text messages of health advice.

But they did a bunch of interviews, and they found out that 80% of the women couldn’t read the messages. The local language in this area is hard to write; you can’t get the right characters on a phone. So the texts were in English. Some women were having their kids read them when they got home from school.

Voto started by creating a platform for voice recordings rather than texts.

Why did you move to Mali?

I was not doing technical work, because I have no computer background. I decided I didn’t want to be away from engineering for so long. I was looking online, on Idealist.

MyAgro, where I work now, had this shipment of semoirs coming in on a boat from China. They had no one to put them together. So I came to do that. I had no connection with them, didn’t know any thing about Mali, didn’t speak any French. But I ended up staying.

Can you tell me about living in Mali?

Living here feels ordinary, at this point.

Bamaco is the safest city I’ve ever lived in, anywhere in the world. It’s very laid back, petty crime is very uncommon. Walking through the markets, no one has ever tried to pickpocket me.

People sit out on the streets until very, very late at night. That’s where a lot of common life takes place. They play checkers, and they make tea. So I could walk home at midnight from a bar, and pass all my neighbors.

Mali is great. It’s been a real privilege to me to be able to move around and live in different places. I’d highly recommend it to anyone who has the chance.

 

SERV Activity Updates

The Daily Table: Emily Yeh

Daily Table is a nonprofit organization that makes affordable and healthy food available to people with low incomes. A group from Olin volunteers at Daily Table every Saturday (time TBD). If you’re interested, keep an eye out for an email to Carpe with more information!

 

Big Brothers Big Sisters College Campus Program: Justin Kunimune

Big Brothers Big Sisters has continued with its biweekly outings. As we approach the end of the semester, we prepare to say goodbye for our Littles for the summer.

 

Charles River Center: Emma Price

The Charles River Center is a non-profit organization based in Needham that works to improve the lives of people with developmental disabilities and help support their families. They have a variety of different programs for people of all ages, all with really fun activities (like zumba and yoga)!!

 

E-Disco: Micaela Chiang, Daniel Daughterly, Lauren Pudvan, Nicole Schubert

We have continued our monthly lessons at Schofield Elementary school. We hosted the 6th graders from Dana Hall and had them design for mythical creatures. We will be having students in the area come to Olin on April 29th to build and launch Bottle Rockets.

 

IgniteCS: Casey Alvarado, Emily Lepert, Brenna Manning, Vicky McDermott, Sophia Nielsen, Andrew Pan

We are hosting computer science workshops on Saturdays at nearby middle schools. Last semester we hosted two workshops at Dedham Middle School and Monsignor Haddad Middle School. This semester we hosted one at Pollard Middle School in Needham and will be returning to the Dedham Middle School. We are always looking for volunteers to help out at our workshops and for new members to join our curriculum design team!

 

The Food Project: Aaron Greiner, Gaby Clarke

The Food Project engages youth and works on food justice issues through running 70 acres of farm in the Greater Boston area and the North Shore. They work on advocacy, youth development, and much more. Their farms, which are largely run by youth and volunteers, produce food that is sold at affordable prices at places like farmers markets. They have volunteer opportunities at all of their farms throughout the week.

 

Massachusetts Correctional Institution (MCI) Framingham: Ashley Funk

MCI Framingham is the Massachusetts Department of Correction’s institution for incarcerated women. They have a number of opportunities for volunteers, though getting approved as a volunteer takes persistence and patience (lots of background checks and paperwork). Currently, I am volunteering in the greenhouses and providing support for the gardening program where the women grow plants to sell to the prison staff.

Free Soapboxes Here

Here at Olin, we intentionally and deliberately teach students how to express their ideas. Every first year takes one writing course and two courses with design reviews to showcase and justify their progress. We give students lots of venues for presentations, public whiteboards to gauge public interest, and well, there’s also this piece of paper that you’re reading.

A few weeks ago, as part of a project for Six Books That Changed The World, Logan Davis put up three presentation boards around campus, each bearing seven black and white posters. The posters carried political statements like “Neo-Nazis Have Bad Ideas,” “The Press Should Be Free,” “Government Can Be Inefficient,” and “Islam Is Not Terrorism.”

“What was the goal of this?” you might ask.

According to Logan, he wanted to push a button. More specifically, his goal was a weeklong experiment that, on its surface, was very political. But if you stopped for a second and thought about the words that you were reading, the statements could suddenly be read as rather banal.

But even though we know that government can be inefficient, and that Islam is not terrorism, and that literally everyone has bad ideas, a number of community members were made very uncomfortable by the statements..

The first morning of the project, the three poster boards vanished after the administration requested their removal to clean up for a tour group. Later that afternoon (and following a hunt for who and why and how to get them back), the boards were back up.

Phase 1 of the project, Listening, was off to a roaring start.

Despite the fact that no one uses QR codes (Logan’s chosen method for contact), he was able to receive feedback through both his coded form and the Therapy mailing list. Logan said that he, “was trying to put these things out in a very public way and see what people did… and people did interesting things.”

Complaints about the project ranged from the statements being too inflammatory to not being creative enough. Granted, some of the statements were solicited from other sources, such as “self-identifying conservative / right of center” Oliners: Logan says that “Everyone Has A Right To Life”, “Government Can Be Inefficient”, “Corruption Is Not Good”, “Reporters Have Responsibilities”, and “People Needed Coal Jobs” were inspired by conversations with such students.

None of these statements, not the right nor left nor the center-leaning ones, were meant to be attacks. “If any of them were attacks [on an Oliner’s identity], I kind of failed. I didn’t want them to be controversial.”

Regardless of whether or not they felt attacked, Oliners gave feedback, and those that chose to do it anonymously allowed Phase 2 to happen. Logan took a thick red marker and scrawled the anonymous comments about each statement over its respective poster.

Many of us saw this artist-executed graffiti. Many of us stopped to notice what had changed about the posters that had been in our peripheral vision for the past week. How many of us thought about the vitriol behind the red words? And how many of us would have spoken up for or against these statements if they had been said to our faces?

To round off his project for Six Books That Changed The World, here are Logan’s Six Mechanisms of Silence:

 

  1. Obfuscation and Administration – there is no formal process for putting up signs like this, but the activation energy required to first ask a professor and then go through facilities and StAR and then go find the means of actually displaying posters is a wild goose chase that acts as a rather powerful deterrent.
  2. Literal Physical Removal by the Administration – signs getting taken down from public space, presumably or explicitly by the administration.
  3. Literal Physical Removal by Students – signs getting taken down from student spaces, presumably by students.
  4. Anonymous Directed Feedback – e.g. emails and feedback forms that went to Logan. It’s not a dialogue/conversation if your target can’t respond. It’s bullying.
  5. Anonymous Public Feedback – e.g. the Therapy email thread, because people want to speak their minds but they don’t want to be judged by others for what they say.
  6. The Myth of Olin – the myth being that Olin is apolitical. We don’t show politics on tours. Our students don’t talk about politics, for fear of ostracism and for fear of being the ostracizers. “Being apolitical is just an endorsement of the way things are.”.

So why do we have such an aversion to putting our names on our opinions? And do we actually want silence, or to make it safe for our voices while drowning other opinions out?

Mental Health at Olin

Eighteen months ago, I was diagnosed with attention deficit disorder (ADD), anxiety, and depression.

Let’s back up. I am six weeks away from graduating. I have accepted a full time job at a company I am excited to work for. I have a solid core group of friends and a happy family. I spend time with my suitemates and friends, love to read, and breezed through high school with all A’s. But this is all on the surface.

What people couldn’t see, even my best friend from home, even my parents, was the me who struggled to stay focused on one homework subject for more than thirty minutes. Whenever I started working on one assignment, I would suddenly remember something else that I desperately needed to do. I couldn’t go back to the first thing I was working on until I added the just remembered task to my To Do list. This went on and on until it was hours later, I had a million Chrome tabs open, and my To Do list filled up the front and back of a piece of paper.

I want to use my personal experiences as a catalyst to start the conversation about mental health, especially as it relates to engineering. I felt so alone with my problems for such a long time. But after I got the help that I needed, I started to open up to my friends, and even to strangers, about my struggles with ADD, anxiety, and depression.

What I found out surprised me. So many of the people that I talked with had also had been dealing with similar problems. Some of them had just started their journeys. Others had been handling them for years. I was stunned. Many of my friends and peers were struggling with the same problems that I was, and yet, I had no idea.

Talking with other people about mental health challenges is something that I go out of my way to do. Sometimes all it takes is one conversation to realize that you have more in common with someone than you thought.

My goal is to break down the barriers that surround talking about mental health. To allow those who are struggling or those who are watching someone else struggle to not be afraid to speak up and speak out regarding their experiences and their feelings. I want people to know that it’s okay to ask for help.

I think that my personal struggles were perpetuated by the demanding environment of an engineering education and the ambition of the culture and people around me. At Olin, we all try to do everything, from school work to clubs to having a social life. But the truth is, you can’t do it all. There are only so many hours in a day and when you take time out to sleep, because yes, even engineering students need sleep, you will find that you HAVE to give some things up. Maybe you don’t need to get an A in every class. Maybe it’s okay if you are just a member of the club and not the president. You get more out of everything you do when you focus on a few activities and don’t spread yourself too thin.

People take on too many things, there are too many meetings, and we all have too much work. Engineering students, as well as many other STEM students, seem to have a culture of perfectionism built into them. Students will compare their busy schedules; whoever got the least amount of sleep wins. No one ever talks about their problems. To do so would be a gross sign of weakness.

It took me a long time to reach out and get the help I needed. Too long. I spent almost every night during my sophomore year curled up in my boyfriend’s bed, sobbing uncontrollably. Nothing he said or did could make my tears stop, but his presence made me feel better. I had enough experience with these nights to know that when the sun came up, these feelings would go away. At least, until the next night.

I went on feeling this way, barely scraping by, for an entire year. I got a C- and a D in the two classes I was taking in my major. I knew that something was wrong. I knew that Olin students had access to mental health resources and therapists. But I was scared. I was terrified of what these experts would see when they talked with me. What they would say.

I did finally take the steps to make that first appointment, but it was not something that I did on my own. It took support and urging from my friends, who could tell that I wasn’t feeling or acting my best. It took me going to StAR, sitting in someone’s office while they put the phone on speaker and left that first message on Colony Care’s answering machine on my behalf.

I started weekly therapy sessions. Less than a month later, I met with a psychiatrist who diagnosed me with ADD, anxiety, and depression. To hear her pronounce all three of these diagnoses was terrifying. After my appointment, I sat in the car and sobbed for about 15 minutes. I thought about my reaction and realized that these weren’t tears of sadness. They were tears of relief. Someone else had finally been able to see inside me, and now, I was going to get the help that I needed. This was the last moment that I had to feel alone, hopeless and helpless, surrounded by my problems.

I think a big part of going to therapy is knowing what you are there for. You want to be clear about how you are feeling and what you want to walk out of your sessions with. I had thought that I was struggling with depression — that was why I had gone to therapy in the first place — but to have another person, a doctor, spend less than half an hour with me and pronounce these diagnoses was both terrifying and liberating.

I thought I didn’t have time to invest every week into my mental health. I mean, I was barely able to finish my homework on time! But looking back, I realize that I was wasting more time by not getting the help that I needed. Every tearful night spent struggling through or ignoring my homework was time that I should have redirected to caring for myself, to feeling better.

My father once sent me an email that said: “With engineering, as in life, some things will come naturally to you and others will be more of a struggle.” My mental health problems have caused many daily tasks to be more of a struggle for me.

I am still learning to cope with my mental health problems. The best strategy I have found for myself is making sure to clear out some personal time in my schedule. This means I set myself a “meeting curfew” at 10pm and block off the time on my calendar. This means every week I see my therapist and I also make sure to get out of the bubble and spend time off campus. Having this time to myself is very important. I look forward to it and I crave it.

The semester after I started therapy and medication, I got three A’s and one B, a huge improvement over almost failing one of my courses the semester before. I’ve gotten better at recognizing my feelings and knowing my triggers, and I have come up with personal coping techniques to help. Over the past year, I have been able to feel myself returning to the person I used to be.

I know my journey isn’t over yet. And it likely won’t ever be. Mental health issues are known for sticking around. I have continued to see my therapist weekly and meet monthly with my psychiatrist to check on my medication. But I still have bad nights sometimes, and there are still some days where I can’t convince myself to get out of bed. With the help and support of my therapist, friends, and family, I know that these bad times are only temporary. One bad day doesn’t undo all the progress I have made. My mental health issues do not define me.

Want to know how my experiences compare to other Oliners? Ask them! I encourage each one of you to help break down the stigmas surrounding mental health. Open up a dialogue on campus. Talk to your friends, your family, your classmates, your coworkers. Ask someone how they are feeling, and then really listen to their response.

In February, I sent out a survey asking how students wanted to engage in the discussion about mental health. Fifty-seven of you responded. Here’s a small bit of what you said:

  • 33 (63.5%) wanted to hear others’ experiences
  • 21 (40.4%) wanted to have an open discussion
  • 20 (38.5%) wanted to read a Frankly Speaking article (Here you go!)
  • 15 (28.8%) wanted to share your own experiences
  • 12 (23.1%) wanted to write about your own experiences

What I want everyone to take away from this article is that it’s okay to ask for help. Moving forward, let’s talk (and listen!) to each other. Join me this Wednesday at SLAC for an open discussion about mental health from 7pm-9pm. Feel free to find me on campus or email me, anonymously if you want, at meg@students.olin.edu.

<< This article is edited from a speech I wrote for an event called ‘Square WomEng Hear + Now: College Edition’ which took place on August 11, 2016 in in San Francisco, California. Read more about that event here: https://squarewomenghearnowcollegeedit.splashthat.com/ >>

Back Pain Included*

Mel Chua ‘07 would have chosen to link her brain to her computer and forgo her body completely. Her fingers couldn’t type fast enough to keep up with what her brain was creating. But there’s a part of this rote engineer mindset that needs consideration: how do we take care of ourselves?

About a year after graduation (I had been a computer geek for many years at that point, and had spent lots of time hunched over laptop keyboards and tinkering with horrible ergonomics), I had a horrible bout of Repetitive Strain Injury (RSI).

When you misuse your body in the same way for prolonged periods of time, the muscles start seizing up in weird ways and you stop being able to have mobility. I couldn’t move some of my fingers, and when I did, nerve pain would shoot up my arm. It was really bad; I wasn’t sleeping, I had to stop working for a couple months because I couldn’t touch a keyboard without occasionally crying.

So I decided, ‘I never want this to happen again, what do I need to learn?’ That’s what spurred my interest in anatomy and movement and muscle care. In grad school, I accidentally stumbled into the dance department when they were offering Modern Dance 1. That ended up with me being immersed in dance classes for the rest of grad school and learning that it’s really hard to start ballet when you’re 25.

One of the things I noticed in industry when I talked with my older colleagues was they said, ‘Yeah, that. That’s normal. It’s completely normal to have crippling pain that’s work related by the time you’re 25, if you’re really serious about this.’ That’s awful, why would we think that this is ok?

We talk about beautiful soldering, boards that have been very well put together, or the path that a tool takes as it cuts through material. So we have those notions for talking about good mechanics of inanimate things interacting with inanimate things and we value them and we value good craft. But if you’re soldering some through holes and the tip of the soldering iron is moving beautifully and the rest of you is scrunched over, why aren’t we changing this system too?

One thing I wish could happen on campus is if it were more ok to move and sit and stand in classrooms or meetings, like explicitly ok. You can sit on the floor, you can lean against the fall, and if you need to fiddle or go get water, if you want to take your shoes off and walk around in socks, that’s fine. Sometimes not being able to do those things can be more distracting.

Whatever lets you be present in this room, do it.

Notes on Your Capstone

What is the Olin Senior Design Capstone? Officially, it is a two semester project class that is a culmination of the skills that students have learned over their Olin career. The Design Capstone focuses on design, effective communication, and teamwork; skills that, in other college capstone projects, are also taught alongside the capstone itself.

It should be noted that “Capstone” here actually refers to two different paths, not just SCOPE (Senior Capstone Project in Engineering ((this is one of the only times the “O” does not stand for “Olin”))). The two paths that the Design Capstone encompasses are SCOPE and ADE (Affordable Design and Entrepreneurship).

These two Design Capstone directors also coordinate with and inform each other. Benjamin Linder (ADE) and Alisha Sarang-Sieminski (SCOPE) work very closely to provide experiences for students that will meet a broad spectrum of needs, from job preparation to international engagement.

So now, a few facts and dispelled myths about the Design Capstone:

Money

A lot of students think that SCOPE is really rich and ADE is really poor. Actually, both programs have roughly the same amount of funding per student. They just spend it differently.

 

Recognition

SCOPE has a big celebratory event at the end of the year. ADE doesn’t. That is in part due to the fact that SCOPE has a beginning and an end, while ADE is designed to keep going for many semesters, trading out students as they graduate.

The other reason for this is that, in Ben’s words, “[it would be] very difficult for [ADE partners] to attend, and they don’t have the resources to do it.  When you do work in poverty, it’s not appropriate to have celebrations where resources could have gone to this specific context.”

 

Travel

This was a personal query, but it’s still a valid fact: you don’t have to travel in order to take ADE (or SCOPE). For example, I would possibly be in physical danger were I to travel to Uganda (they’re very anti-LGBTQ+). Now, I can obviously choose a different team. But let’s assume that I wanted to be on the Mississippi Delta team that I’ve been working with for another class. I don’t feel particularly safe in the deep South either, but I could still be on that team. I wouldn’t travel, and while my experience would be different, it wouldn’t be significantly diminished for not having personally interacted with stakeholders.

 

Thoughtful Sponsors

Some people say they don’t choose SCOPE is because of the military aspect of it. Currently, the only SCOPE sponsor that has military ties is Raytheon, although they are not solely a defense contractor and do important work in supporting STEM education. SCOPE is aware of students values when it comes to choosing project sponsors.

No, you’re not selling your soul to the Defense Department if you choose SCOPE. And you can choose to not work with a sponsor with defense ties. Bottom line: if SCOPE is a compelling option for you, there are plenty of great sponsors to choose from.

 

Getting Technical

Once upon a time, there was actually an ADE project that had to be discontinued because no one at Olin had the technical skill to move the project along. “At one point, I sent an email to the entire student body of one semester, saying ‘we are dying for technical expertise here,’ and I listed all the technical challenges that we needed help with.”

Conversely, SCOPE is not purely technical. The Mitsubishi Team is doing a very experience-heavy, UOCD-esque project that isn’t really geared toward a technical solution. That said, if you want a technical role, it can be found in almost any project. If you want a more user-centered role, it can be found in almost any project.

 

Your Design Capstone will ultimately be what you make of it.

 

To help you make an informed decision, Alisha and Ben will be holding an info session this Wednesday at lunch (12:30-1:30) in the Crescent Room. Bring your lunch and your questions. You do not need to be a Rising Senior to attend.

Moments of Jon’s Life

Please read in the voice of YOU.

Meet Jon Adler. Jon was a public school theater kid from Newton, MA, who acted in high school plays alongside Anne Dudek and B.J. Novak. His senior year, he was involved in six of the thirteen productions his school put on that year, directing one of them.

After high school, Jon went to Bates College, thinking that he would study English or History because he really liked stories. After taking a class called “Representations of Mental Illness in Literature,” he found that it was really the characters that fascinated him. So he majored in psychology.

Jon knew that he wanted wanted to get clinical training as a therapist. Unsure as to whether or not he would want to do therapy full time, he began looking into graduate programs that would allow him to research personality and do clinical work. Through a serendipitous meeting with a current grad student at Northwestern University, Jon found his future graduate mentor, Dan McAdams (who had developed the theory of Narrative Identity as a major player in Personality Psychology).

Looking back, Jon now sees that he mostly put his own personal development on hold during undergrad, in favor of his intellectual development, a strategy he now wishes he could go back and undo. Towards the end of college and the years that followed, he worked hard on his identity and also came out as gay. At the beginning of grad school, he met his future husband. They were married six years later, in Massachusetts in 2008, back when it was the only state in the country to recognize same-sex marriage.

As they were not residents of Massachusetts at the time, Jon and his fiancé were told that it would up to the individual city clerk whether or not they could be legally married. Trying Provincetown as the “safest bet,” the clerks were very excited to fill out their marriage paperwork.

True to the teacher he would become, the marriage was as much a teaching moment as it was a celebration: instead of a traditional rehearsal dinner, they had a “catered conversation,” complete with readings, homework, and flip charts.  They led the guests in a discussion about the history and nature of marriage.

Back in Chicago for the last year of his PhD in Personality and Clinical Psychology, Jon needed to do a year-long residency, which occurred for him at a VA hospital in inner-city Chicago. He worked primarily with veterans coming back from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, a very intense position that was not the right fit, but still gave Jon a very good breadth in addition to his previous years of clinical training.

After his residency, Jon knew that he wanted a faculty job. He and his husband also knew that they wanted to have kids, ideally close to Jon’s parents in Newton, so location did factor into his job search, though he applied all over the Northeast and in Chicago.

He was mostly applying to narrowly-scoped positions in psych departments at small liberal arts colleges, until he saw the listing for an Assistant Professor of Arts, Humanities, and Social Sciences at Olin. Having lived in the area, Jon knew of its existence, and thinking that the job and school sounded exciting, he sent in his application.

He came into his faculty “Candidates’ Weekend” excited and he left really excited.

Eight years later, the rest is history.

At Olin, Jon (now an Associate Professor) is the only psychologist on the faculty and there are no psych majors to speak of. That means, “I get to teach the things that I think our students most need to know. I’m not preparing them for a major, so it really is about psychological concepts that are going to be useful to you in life, and not because the concepts are going to be useful to you in the 300-level of your major or because they are going to get you into grad school. So I’ve been able to organize my teaching entirely in around psychological concepts that I think are going to be useful to our students as people.”

Jon also does a lot of research into Narrative Identity, or making sense of the stories people tell about their lives. He collects stories, examines the themes (among other things), and then relates those findings back to mental health. He’s interested in identifying the most productive (for mental health) ways people make meaning of difficult experiences. He also makes the distinction between historical truth and narrative truth. One is the series of events as they objectively, verifiably happened, the other is the series of events as the narrator comes to make meaning of them.  It’s the narrative truth that serves as the foundation of our identity. Jon is also an editor at the Journal of Personality and he’s spoken with the media a lot about his research (this article in The Atlantic gives a nice overview of his field).

When he’s not being a teacher or a researcher, Jon returns to theater, although he personally enjoys directing more than acting. This semester he’s co-teaching a new course called Constructing and Performing the Self (the final deliverable, a fully-staged series of personal monologues written by students, will be April 20 and 21).

Back in 2011, FWOP had a free weekend at Babson’s Sorenson Theater where they weren’t planning on using the space, so they asked Jon if he wanted to direct something. He chose Our Town.

The play was written by Thornton Wilder in the 1930’s, set in the small, fictional town of Grover’s Corners, New Hampshire, where everyone knows everyone. To Jon, Grover’s Corners was Olin. So he set out to direct the play with two goals in mind: to reflect our community (he got students, faculty (Mark Somerville!  Brian Storey!), staff (Sharon Breitbart!), and even faculty’s kids to act in the play); and to be an example at Olin of how out-of-the-box thinking can be applied to the performing arts.

At the beginning of the show, the audience was actually brought up onto the mostly-bare stage and they never returned to their seats.  They became the townspeople, wandering around the stage as a scene popped up here or there.

Jon will tell you what happened next:

“In the third act, the main character, Emily (played by Claire Barnes ‘15), has died and the action takes place in the town cemetery. We had the actors playing the dead walk out onto the stage with these white picture frames and lie down on the ground. That brought a chill to the audience; all of a sudden, you couldn’t just run around the stage because you don’t want to step on someone. So people sort of stood still and looked down the way you do in a cemetery.  

“And when the narrator of the play invites Emily to go back and visit her life, what happens in the play is she picks her tenth birthday. She goes back to her tenth birthday and she can only stand to be there for a few minutes because she realizes how little people appreciate all the details of their daily lives while they’re living.

“So the narrator takes her up out of her grave and walks to the upstage curtain, which I assume the audience thought was just the back wall of the theater, but in fact it opens to a very elaborate 1901 kitchen set. The Olin students built us a cast iron stove and there was Emily’s Mom (Kate Dramstad ‘13), in period dress with early morning stage lighting, cooking bacon, and you could hear it sizzling in the pan and you could smell it as soon as the theater curtains opened. She pours coffee that you can smell, and each of us in the audience has this experience that Emily is having. They’ve been in this imaginative space in their heads and all of a sudden, real smells and real sounds are hitting them, and it’s intense. So they’re having the experience Emily has and she can only stand it for a few minutes. Then the curtain closes and we’re back to the cemetery for the last thirty seconds of the play.”

The play was a wonderful community experience, one Jon would like to create again someday. But, for now, he plans to hold off anything big like Our Town until his kids get a little bit older and he has more time to devote to it (they’re 2 and 4, so sadly we may have to wait a while).

While we’re waiting, Jon thinks we could all benefit from working on our own personal narratives.  His field of research suggests that in adolescence we start to become the author of our own lives, rather than being a character in a story told by someone else (often our parents).  The first steps in self-authorship ask us to simply parse the flow of our lives into the key moments that make us who we are.  These “self-event connections” are the building blocks of Narrative Identity.  If you want to write it, great, but this is the kind of thinking we should all be doing as we start to live our own stories.