Takeaways from the Academic Life Retreat

For three days after Commencement last May, 60 staff members, faculty, and students spent over 20 hours bonding, talking about problems they see in Olin, ideating, and testing out ways to work towards a better Olin and a better world – and most importantly, talking about what “better” means. We called this the Academic Life Retreat.

Throughout the retreat, I was on teams with staff, faculty, and fellow students. My teammates included deans, design professors, SCOPE leaders, engineering professors, marketing professionals, family and alumni relations team members, and a provost.
I participated in a few conversations with particularly interesting people/topic combinations. Below are a few including what we talked about, what I learned, and how their insight has impacted my behavior.

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I spoke with Olin’s Director of Marketing Alyson Goodrow about the tense divide in viewpoints between the student body and the Marketing & Communications (MarCom) team.

I learned that the MarCom team is self-aware. Student jokes do not go unheard – but if it’s not actionable feedback, it’s hard to know what exactly to change. MarCom is willing and excited to share their approach with anyone who asks, and they want feedback from us!

Next time I find myself confused or frustrated with how Olin is being communicated to the world, instead of making tired MarCom jokes to my friends, I’m going to try knocking on Alyson’s door (Milas 229) to get informed about the decision and then offer feedback if I have any.

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I spoke with professors, staff and students about how the stories we tell about Olin don’t always reflect what the people here are most proud of (i.e. differing definitions of success between students, Admissions, PGP, Marketing, etc.). This included professors of all disciplines initiating discussions about the pressures students face to get high-paying software jobs, and leaders of SCOPE who are excited to make social good a greater focus of SCOPE projects and to enable organizations who can’t afford SCOPE’s current price tag to get projects anyway.

I learned that the perspective, “It makes me uncomfortable/angry/sad that it feels like we’re defining success as a six-figure software job,” is shared certainly beyond students, and also beyond Design and AHS faculty. Engineering faculty and staff members in all departments think about it just as much.

I’m going to try to initiate more conversations with people who aren’t students, especially about important topics like this. By talking with a more diverse set of people, I hope to continue expanding my own personal definition of success and affect how we present our definition as a community, while also remembering that each of us has a right to our own.

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I spoke with many people in diverse roles about the student culture of spreading experiences and opinions to those who have not had those experiences or the chance to form their own opinions yet.

I was reminded that in this community, we hear a lot about each other’s experiences and often become biased before we get the chance to form our own opinions based on firsthand experience. This can be pretty dangerous in that it prevents new voices from developing, and it’s a concern that worries people beyond the student body.

I’m going to try to make a conscious effort to talk less and listen more, especially to people in younger classes. A lot of my grievances are outdated (e.g., that class we found irrelevant has been redesigned, that person I didn’t like has graduated). I want my words and actions to illustrate that learning about and supporting new progress, even if it’s too late for me to directly benefit from it, is more important to me than reliving the glory (or gory) days.

I’m also going to try to make a conscious effort to approach people, classes, members of the administration, etc. under the assumption that they have good intentions towards me and Olin. If I give people a chance and treat everyone at Olin as a partner on my team by default, I believe our team will be that much stronger.

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Most of these lessons center on differing perspectives within this community. To be clear, I don’t think differing perspectives are a problem. I do think it can be problematic when we don’t discuss them with the people who are different from us – in respectful ways that focus on understanding each other and continuing to work together.

Please stop me in the halls or reach out with thoughts, concerns, questions, etc. – and also talk to each other, including people who aren’t students. I have so much faith in this community and our ability to grow.

Special thanks to Jessica Townsend, Jason Woodard, and Emily Roper-Doten for spearheading the retreat, to all who contributed content and led activities, to the participants for opening up to these conversations with me, and to you for reading!

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