MCC Daily Tribune

President's Wednesday Message

At the beginning of this academic year, I challenged every member of our community with connecting across our traditional divisions and silos. Taking the lead, my husband and I pledged to hold monthly dinners at our home, which we called “Making our College a Community” dinners. After accounting for weather- and illness-related cancellations and intervening holidays, we held five dinners that welcomed a total of 40 faculty and staff. In addition, we hosted a reception for MCC’s international students, another for United Way donors, and are planning a summer event for first- and second-year faculty. Add to that the monthly employee birthday lunches I host and the lunches I have each semester with student leaders, and over the past year, I’ve had the chance to share a meal with about 300 students, faculty, and staff. More importantly, faculty and staff have made connections with colleagues they knew only by email address or not at all; students have made connections with individuals they knew only by names on a piece of paper. These connections build and strengthen community.

Throughout the year, over barbecue I have listened and learned—a lot. Some key messages have persisted across every conversation:

  1. It’s easy to create a routine of anonymity: Whether from student or faculty, administrator or staff, I heard over and over that our increasing reliance on technology; the pace of our work; and MCC’s size and multiple locations make it very easy to be anonymous and invisible. We tend to keep to our routines, which means we likely see and talk with the same people each day. We probably even walk the same path each day to our offices or classrooms. Without even realizing it, we start to disconnect from the larger community. I was struck by how often people told me that they were challenging themselves and pushing themselves outside of their comfort zones by coming to a dinner or reception.
  2. It’s incredibly important to say “hello” and to be welcoming: The number one answer I received to the question, “Why did you say ‘yes’ to the dinner invitation?” was “Because you asked.” Simple and striking. At their reception, our international students stressed how important it was to feel welcomed, to have people smile and say “hello” in the hallways. That sense of invitation into community is critical. Though they didn’t know each other before coming to one of my dinners, several of the groups have stayed in touch, gone out to the movies, even made a point of visiting each others’ offices. They’ve connected.
  3. It doesn’t take long to find common ground: If you’ve been to a birthday lunch or one of the dinners, you know that I come prepared with an “ice breaker” question, and you also know that the question is never necessary. A roomful of strangers can become a conversational community very quickly, even around difficult topics. In his Profiles in Courage acceptance speech, President Obama called on all of us to have “the courage to listen to one another and seek common ground.” This shouldn’t really be a courageous act, but at a time when we readily turn to social media to criticize and condemn, it can seem an act of courage to have a genuine, face-to-face conversation. At dinner, we’ve talked about weather, music, movies, and television, but we’ve also talked—with civility and care—about the opioid crisis, foster parenting, cultural conflict, diversity, life lessons, the sandwich generation, and more.
  4. It matters where conversations occur: Food has always been central to building community. One of my favorite ice breaker questions is “What’s your favorite meal?” The answer to that one question reveals so much without ever being anxiety-producing; after all, we all eat. Sitting around a table or clustering around a buffet sharing a meal reframes the conversation. Inviting people into our home—away from MCC—also takes us all away from work and breaks down barriers. We’re all more relaxed away from the rush of the day and the pressures of our offices. When you’re at dinner at our house, I’m more worried about whether you need another slice of pie than about how to respond to the latest SUNY memo; you’re less focused on my role at the College than on the dinner roll on your plate. As Franz Kafka, himself a man of many worries, once wrote: “So long as you have food in your mouth, you have solved all questions for the time being.”

So, after this year of truly wonderful conversations and connections, it seems time to expand the invitation list. Next year, Ned and I will host quarterly birthday receptions at our home for faculty and staff (June/July/August in August and so on), turn the first ever International student reception into an annual event, and add other student and faculty receptions, too. As always, we’ll make sure the food is good and plentiful. We hope you’ll join us! Our College is as strong as the community we build together.

How are you seeing community build across the College? Share your thoughts on the blog.

 

Kress, Anne
Office of the President
05/10/2017