In Praise of Maintenance

The greatest thing about listening to podcasts on a smartphone with earbuds in is that I can walk my dog on a fall Sunday evening on campus and geek out with no one being any the wiser.  A few nights ago I was listening to a Freakanomics episode called, “In Praise of Maintenance.”

The basic premise of the episode asks, “Has our culture’s obsession with innovation led us to neglect the fact that things also need to be taken care of?”  One just needs to look at our country’s roads, bridges, airports, and other infrastructure for evidence that the answer is “Yep, pretty much.”

For all of the glory we give new programs and initiatives, it seems to me might also be well served if we remembered to praise those that keep those new things running; those that make sure the metaphorical zerks are greased, the batteries are charged, and the arteries stay clear. Maintenance here at Michigan Tech comes in all sorts of forms.  It preserves what has been built, whether that be programming, processes, office culture, or websites.

So in this season of thanks, I want to say thank you to those who maintain and keep our new things sustainable.  In particular I’m thinking of the departmental coordinators, front line staff, anyone working with financial aid or immigration compliance, those great folks in the mailroom and print shop, and the SAIS warriors.  These are the people who are focused on taking care of the world we’ve already built here at Tech.  While others are zeroed-in (rightfully) on the new and nifty little thing, the maintainers are the people with the patience, the care, and the compassion for the institution (and for the innovators) who ensure that yesterday’s new and nifty thing stays new and nifty.

I visited with my four year old nephew a few weeks ago and we watched a They Might Be Giants show called Here Comes Science.  They’ve got this song about how important blood cells are to the human body.  The song tells how blood cells bring the oxygen, nutrients, and antibodies to every part of our body and how they even keep our insides clean by helping to haul out the trash.  Blood cells are our body’s maintainers.  And those who help us maintain here at Tech are our life-blood.  They are a life-giving force.  Thank you to those who perform those roles.  We need to give you all more praise and credit.

Brand Versus Campaign

Brand Versus Campaign

All too often marketing professionals blur the lines between brand and campaigns. It’s easy to do. Buzzwords like “brand campaign” muddy the waters even more. It is important to note that a brand and a campaign are different. Understanding this concept is key to successful brand management.

A campaign is for a targeted cause or initiative. Brand is enduring.

Campaigns should align with the brand, and target a specific goal. Sometimes a business or institution will have several campaigns concurrently, and that’s okay. However the one enduring theme that unites multiple campaigns together is brand.

I’ve seen businesses operate without a brand. These businesses churn out campaign after campaign–sometimes successfully. This approach certainly gets attention. However, this model is not sustainable. Usually the goal of a business is to be around for many years to come. This means succeeding in business objectives (campaigns serve as support), while solidifying and nurturing the relationship a company has with its intended audience (branding is pivotal). Campaigns can build on one another via the brand, and use the success of the previous campaign to help launch and empower the next one. This builds equity. And over time, equity is a business’s greatest asset for future growth.

Spilling Water is a Missed Opportunity
Imagine a brand as being like a potted plant. And every drop of water is a campaign. With every drop the plant receives, the plant grows. The more water, the more growth. When a drop misses the plant, it isn’t helping the plant grow. Continually misfire the water droplets and the plant dies.

A brand needs strong campaigns to strengthen it. This means the campaigns must align with the brand. Of course campaigns can be successful without brand alignment, but they will not help your business or institution grow.

Re-potting the Plant
When a plant grows too big for its pot, it’s time to replant. This kind of growth doesn’t happen overnight; it takes time. Doing it too early can disrupt the plant’s roots–doing it too often, prevents the roots from establishing themselves.

The same logic applies to branding. One shouldn’t meddle all too often. Of course if the target audience changes, or the business’s mission changes, then it makes sense. The biggest mistake one can make is changing a brand too frequently. It takes time to build a relationship with a brand. When changes to the brand are being considered, one must first question whether or not the change should be within the current campaign (or campaigns) instead. A general rule of thumb is that brand adjustments should be considered every 5-10 years, while campaign adjustments can happen yearly.

At Michigan Tech, it is important understand how brand and campaigns connect. This relationship positively affects the success of the short- and long-term goals of our University. So the next time a campaign is being discussed, ask yourself this question: “Are we spilling water?”

Mentors – Look Up, Look Down, Look Left, Look Right

October is Careers in Student Affairs month, a time in which we make efforts to explain our field of work and why we do it to those students who we feel may be interested or have potential.  One of the pieces we constantly emphasize is the value of mentors.  While there are many explanations of the term “mentor,” a quick Google search returns the result of “an experienced and trusted adviser.”

I realized that sometimes, when we say to “find a mentor,” students treated this like another task or homework assignment.  In fact, it’s quite the opposite from some sort of elaborate scavenger hunt.  It’s likely that all of us have mentors in our lives already, but perhaps we just haven’t assigned them that label and taken full advantage of them.

While I have served as a mentor for many of our students, I find myself reflecting on my own journey with mentors and how they have helped shape me into the professional and leader that I am today.


Since coming to Michigan Tech in 2009, I have had four different supervisors.  (Yes, that’s four supervisors in just over 7 years.)  Each of these supervisors has been very different and they have each given me things that I’ve absorbed along my professional journey.  During my time working for each, I’ve been asked difficult questions, been challenged more than I’ve probably liked, been rewarded for my accomplishments, and have been given the tools, trust, and encouragement needed to get the job done.  Most importantly, they’ve given me opportunities.  Opportunities to succeed, opportunities to fail, and opportunities to advance.  So while some people cringe at the notion of four supervisors in such a short amount of time, I take pride in this.  These folks, my mentors, saw potential, and through the challenges and scaffolding they provided, I was able to find other new and excited ways to move up in my professional journey while also still serving Michigan Tech.


It is often said that Abraham Lincoln surrounded himself with advisers who were better educated and more experienced than him in certain matters.  This thought may make some of us uncomfortable if you consider the traditional supervisor/employee roles, but it really shouldn’t.  While I can’t say it was intentional at the time, I’ve found myself surrounded at times with some extremely challenging folks in some of my past roles.  At times, it was frustrating.  In fact, I’d walk away from meetings wondering why certain individuals were being so difficult.  Why weren’t they thinking like me?!  But then, I had a chance for them to evaluate my performance and I also had some of my other supervisors/mentors challenge me.  “Try another angle,” they said.  And I did.  How productive it was to not fight the current anymore, and instead, to have meaningful and healthy dialogue and disagreements.  I was often wrong.  And I’m comfortable with that.  Some of my peers and those who I have supervised have become some of my most meaningful mentors.  I trust them, and in turn, they trust me.  They taught me to be a better supervisor, and they helped form such a powerful and motivated team that had a true focus on the students. 


Students…  18, 19, 20, 21 year olds.  How can they be mentors?  I’m sure they don’t see themselves as such, but I can say after working in this field for more than 10 years that they have been some of my most impactful mentors.  Each meeting with a student is something entirely different, and their words and experiences can often leave you speechless.  I often reflect on students I’ve worked with and advised, and I hope that I’ve served them as best as I possibly could have.  Many students have come to trust me, and I take pride in having earned that.  But why not flip this around?  For those students who have chosen to trust me, I’ve found much value in giving them my trust.  Even more importantly, I have found value in asking for their feedback and advice.  By doing this, not only are we giving students the voice they should have anyways, but we’re also receiving the best possible information and opinion, from the source.  This is the meaning of an adviser.  This is the meaning of a mentor.

“Vulnerability is the birthplace of innovation, creativity, and change.”

-Dr. Brene Brown

Learning happens at every moment, and everyone has something to offer.  Dr. Brene Brown is credited with the quote, “vulnerability is the birthplace of innovation, creativity, and change.”  In the end, never underestimate the ability to listen and learn from everyone around us, no matter who they are.  By being vulnerable and truly listening and trusting, you may just find not only some great advice, but also a significant mentor.

The Critical Space Called “Pre-College Outreach”

Victorian era philosopher Herbert Spencer once penned, “The great aim of education is not knowledge, but action.” As the workforce demands of the knowledge-based economy continue to require adept students with a burgeoning skill set, the timeline for developing this knowledge and crafting the foundation from which these abilities can be formed should arguably begin prior to enrollment in postsecondary education. Yet so often middle and high school educators find themselves consigned to a system rooted in measuring the surmised knowledge of students through graded assignments, quizzes, and other standardized tests, that they’re left unable to surround them with hands-on experiences to put that knowledge into practice and tangibly support critical learning through trial, error, and curiosity. Likewise, the validity of manifested outcomes inherent with knowledge refined through applied action is often devalued or dismissed when compared to those honed in the traditional classroom environment. This is a problem.  One solution is called “pre-college outreach.”

Here at Michigan Tech, we recognize the value and critical need for pre-college outreach and its impact on youth, and the belief in action-based learning is woven into the very fabric that defines our institutional mission. The scope and range of our outreach engagement is vast: from faculty-led activities funded through the National Science Foundation, to educational programming hosted by the Center for Science and Environmental Outreach, to APS Mobile Lab, to Summer Youth Programs and Mind Trekkers driven by the Center for Pre-College Outreach, just to name a few. Annually, Michigan Tech pre-college outreach events, programming and activities reach audiences averaging over 75,000 local, domestic, and international students. We do it by catalyzing partnerships with industry and foundations, mobilizing faculty/staff/student volunteers, and connecting opportunities with results. And we do it because we can.

To effectively cultivate the robust talent society needs to thrust forward, the talent that will be polished through postsecondary education, positively influencing and exciting youth with educational experiences that immerse their senses cannot be overlooked–especially when they’re not able to access these experiences anywhere else. Investment in this immersive process of authentic learning through earnest exploration has propelled affinity for outreach in departments across campus, bucking the precedent at many institutions wherein the case for outreach falls far secondary to most traditional functions of university, such as teaching, and research. Through unconventional programming and deployment of nontraditional learning spaces, Michigan Tech has doubled-down on facilitating multiple platforms of action-based educational experiences for volumes of youth that are catalyzing excitement and enthusiasm for learning across the country.







Impact of Summer Internships and Jobs on Michigan Tech Students

Each summer college students take part in a pilgrimage to summer employment destinations. These positions provide students funds to use toward their education and allow them to take their acquired knowledge for a test drive, helping them develop new skills and discover career aptitudes along the way.

Michigan Tech students taking part in employment opportunities in the summer of 2016 were polled to discover what they enjoyed most about their experience. Students noted their number one pleasure was working in a professional and collegial working environment. A student working at the Oshkosh Corporation in Wisconsin noted the “people first culture, making a global company have a small town feel.” Others appreciated the diverse workforce they got to work with, “to live and work with over 100 interns around the world and country.”

The hands-on use of their newly acquired knowledge ranked second among respondents. One student’s observation “I enjoyed learning how the same physical aspects of Civil Engineering intertwined with the technical aspects. How civil materials were tested in the lab for most practical and efficient use in the field.” Others were involved in challenges ranging from writing new training manuals for new and existing equipment to designing and approving all art work and designs for a business.

In the end, students enjoyed contributing to the teams and organizations they worked for, feeling that their contributions were valued. They noted being treated like full-time employees. This respect manifested itself in the responsibilities they were given such as: in charge of purchasing $50K+ of supplies, collected and analyzed component pricing globally then proposed next steps to help create a uniform pricing strategy, and supervising professional crews to complete multiple projects. Students left these positions with the confidence that they can successfully apply the knowledge they are acquiring. They also found themselves acquiring new skills involved in the careers they are pursuing ranging from leading teams to building web apps to monument preservation.

Summer jobs and internships play a vital role in the personal and professional growth of each student. The value of knowledge and acquisition of skills increase in value only when they are put to use productively. The value of summer break lies in more than just time off from school!

Building Your Dream Team

This summer, I find myself in the blissful position of having a full staff. After a recent hire, a colleague at a competitor institution commented, “You’re so lucky…you have the admissions dream team in the state.” As the director of admissions, I never set out to create a dream team. But I know I have one. They are an amazing staff of dedicated and passionate professionals. Dream team is right, but luck had nothing to do with it.

Know what you want – For years, we thought we needed young alumni to serve as ambassadors for the University. After all, they have enthusiasm for the institution and can talk the talk of current students. While there is value in that, what I’ve found is that experience and passion for the profession is more valuable. Out of a staff of 8 regionally-based admissions managers, they all have two things in common. First, not one is a Tech grad. Second, they all had previous professional experience in admissions or higher education before joining our team. They love what they do and have come to love Michigan Tech in the process. So much so, that you’d never know they aren’t alumni.

Involve your current staff – When you find yourself having to post a position, ask your staff if they know others who would be a good fit for the team. After all, people generally like to work with people who have similar values and drive. Include staff in the interview process and ask for feedback. On our team, our staff not only work well together, they genuinely like each other! The synergy that comes from this is more powerful than a month of training (the wrong person).

Don’t settle – Make a pledge to yourself that you will not hire someone simply to fill a position. Go on. Find a viewbook for your left hand, raise your right, and do it. I’ll wait. Good for you! Several years ago, we made a decision to no longer settle. We would find the right person or we wouldn’t hire anyone. Even if that meant changing our business practice and redistributing the workload in the interim. I’ve also learned to trust my instincts—if there’s a red flag or an “I don’t know…” feeling about a candidate, think long and hard about why. Ask yourself if that person truly is the right fit for the team. If not, move on. Wait. Repost. The right person will come along and you’ll know who it is when you meet them.

I’ve learned through 18-years of work in admissions that others take notice of who serves as the face of Michigan Tech. For good and bad. I’m privileged to have leadership that supports my views and encourages the right hire. Our president is a strong proponent of Jim Collins’ view to get the right people on the right seats in the bus. Or in my case, the right driver for an SUV loaded with recruitment publications.

Systems Controls Helps Co-ops/Interns Develop Career Competencies

The National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE) has identified key competencies the young graduates must have to successfully begin their careers. Employers have identified critical thinking/problem solving and teamwork/collaboration from this list as critical areas in which young college graduates are still lacking. Systems Controls of Iron Mountain, Michigan has structured their co-op/internship program to help develop these sought after skills.

Alec is a 3rd year mechanical engineering student at Michigan Tech interning at Systems Control for the summer. Alec was charged with making new adaptable wall sections for the buildings that house a complex set of relay systems. What makes these building so important? Without them you would be living in a house with no power. They are part of the glue that keeps the power transmission grid together in the United States and across the globe.

When an intern begins their co-op/internship at Systems Control they are first trained in safety processes, the foundation of success when dealing with the manufacturing of these high-power diverters. Next, they learn about all the Subject Matter Experts (SME’s) that populate the facility. This talented intellectual group will serve as key resources for his project teams. During their experiential learning opportunity, co-ops/interns will be given projects and a mentor to guide them. Meeting with them formally at the beginning and end of each week, these mentors help co-ops/interns identify SME’s that will be part of their team to complete each project while also guiding their progress. These mentors are available 24/7, the ultimate index to SME’s and project success.

Alec describes his experience at Systems Control using words like empowering, exciting, productive, and fulfilling. He describes the organization culture as welcoming, supportive, and like family. Students are part of a team that embraces sharing of knowledge, transparency of problems and opportunities, and the celebration of solutions.

Systems Controls recognizes that they can’t develop these future SME’s alone. They work with a combination of higher education partners including Michigan Technological University, Northeast Wisconsin Technological College, Bay College, and even local high schools to foster and develop the talent pipeline in their rural community. As the education system in the U.S. races to meet the challenge of producing career-ready graduates, Systems Control is providing a model of the vital role industry plays in this process.

Three Storytelling Strategies for Michigan Tech’s Brand

A lifestyle brand does not push a product. It does not have a single focus. A lifestyle brand must be as multifaceted as the people it serves. At Michigan Tech, like all universities, we have a diverse audience of people connected to our University in a variety of ways. If Michigan Tech is a lifestyle brand (and I believe we are) here are three simple storytelling tips that can help strengthen our brand and further connect us to the people we represent.

1. Engage in unexpected topics that our audience has an interest in
We love our location and so do our students and alumni. We have water access for boats, kayaks, and canoes. We have amazing skiing opportunities, and great trail systems for hiking and biking. Rather than simply boasting about our locations attributes, why not dig deeper? Let’s talk about the latest in mountain bike technology or the best kayak for the big lake? Why not mention trends in Lake Superior fishing, or the latest advances in skiing and snowboarding product development? Get specific. Talk shop, and show an interest in what activities/topics your audience loves.

2. Allow our audience to share the Michigan Tech Experience
Gone are the days of a controlled marketing message. Messages that a lifestyle brand conveys should also come directly from the people they represent. For social media that means sharing content produced by others. For University marketing material that means allowing students, faculty, and alumni to also be primary vehicles for our message. Word-of-mouth is vital in today’s message-cluttered world, and by encouraging our audience to share their “Michigan Tech Experience,” we are improving our chances of being heard.

3. Speak to your audience like you would a friend
Marketing-speak can be sniffed-out instantly. This means anything of value delivered in this manner is ignored. Lifestyle brands talk to their audience like they would a friend. This doesn’t mean it has to be casual, but it does have to be relatable. Don’t camouflage your message with too many words when a short sentence will do. Don’t speak in generalities when you can be specific to Michigan Tech. When you’re not specific, you’re not being honest.


Student Debt and the $16 Muffin

Dental surgeons must have never had it so good. Given the number of teeth gnashed over college student debt levels in today’s news media, one only hopes today’s top newspaper journalists have decent dental plans. “The college debt crisis is even worse than you think” read the Boston Globe last week. Student loan debt has been type-cast as “bonkers”, a “time-bomb”, a “nightmare”. At the same time it’s blamed for both crippling and gouging college students. It’s even akin to indentured servitude. It ain’t easy being student debt these days. These articles hone in on what is not an insignificant issue. College debt is climbing and there are a healthy number of students who truly are in over their heads. But not everyone. Not even a majority.

About five years ago the country collectively gasped in horror over numerous media reports citing a Justice Department report that apparently uncovered the federal government spending a whopping $16 a piece on breakfast muffins. The body politic seethed with rage. Senator Chuck Grassley called for heads to “roll.” Bill O’Reilly was predictably terror stricken with the news. But after all the muffin crumbles settled, including a formal 151 page investigative report from the Inspector General, it turned out that the $16 wasn’t for just muffins but rather included “other food and beverage items, such as coffee, tea, and fruit, were included in the charged amount.” (Stephen Colbert smartly noted that those 151 pages detailing the exhaustive governmental efforts to review all of this “proved that the federal government wasted no money on those muffins.”)

Student debt has become the muffin-gate of higher education and this sensationalism needs to be tempered with a strong shot of reality. What’s that reality? We can start with a wonderfully named piece from the Hamilton Place Strategies group entitled, “The Plural Of Anecdote Is Data (Except For Student Debt)” Here, this firm writes, “A closer look at some of the particulars around college financing reveals more nuance than overall media coverage has indicated. While tuition has consistently gone up, the net price actually paid has been much flatter as universities offer more tuition assistance and discounts to entice attendance. And while the average amount of debt incurred has been increasing over time, the increase in monthly payments is typically manageable.”

Some are even suggesting that the levels of student debt are actually dragging down the nation’s economy as students with debt are unable to afford to buy homes and automobiles. Susan Dynarski, a faculty member at the University of Michigan and widely recognized as one of the leading experts in higher education financing, college costs, and access issues writes for the Brookings Institution that this simply is not the case. Multiple other studies have supported this finding.  It’s worth noting a few of the major newspaper willing to dig into the nuances of the issue. The Wall Street Journal recently cited a federal reserve bank of Cleveland report which found that the typical student borrower between the ages 20 and 30 pays $203 a month toward student debt. And seventy five percent of borrowers pay no more than $400 a month.

At Michigan Technological University, where I work, last year’s average debt of those graduating with a bachelor’s degree was $36,041. The national average was about $35,000 (note the snarky headline for this article where I found this average). And while Michigan Tech is a bit over the national average, the ability of its graduates to pay down that debt far exceeds the national average. found that a typical Michigan Tech graduates expends 3.5% of their earnings on college debt repayment. That’s ranked in the top three percent in the country for lowest ratio of debt payment to earnings. What more, that is one percentage point less than the state of Michigan income tax rate of 4.75%. Michigan Tech graduates working in Michigan are paying a larger proportion of their income to the state (who doesn’t exactly have the best track record in providing its support to help students earn their degrees) than they do to pay back their student debt.

Those stories go mostly untold. The media needs to make money. And what bleeds leads. Perhaps the most damning evidence of sensationalism is this finding, again from the Hamilton Place Strategies. After reviewing 100 articles on college debt for 2012 graduates over a three month period, HPS found that the average level of student debt reported in news coverage was $85,400. What was the actual national average for student level debt in 2012? $29,400.

blog-june 2016

And then there is the $1.2 trillion dollars in student debt. The biggest muffin in all the land. It’s the collective sum of all student debt in the country. But scratch just a millimeter beneath the surface of this ubiquitously reported stat and one begins to see a different picture. Forty percent of that 1.2 trillion dollar sum goes towards graduate degrees for people pursuing, for instance, a medical or law degrees. And props to the NYT’s and again, Susan Dynarski, who found that, “The huge run-up in loans and the subsequent spike in defaults have not been driven by $100,000 debts incurred by students at expensive private colleges like N.Y.U. They are driven by $8,000 loans at for-profit colleges and, to a lesser extent, community colleges.”

If we are going to collectively address issues of access, student success, and college financing, we need to start from a place of truth and accuracy. Demonizing higher education using points of fact that are, in fact, without fact muddy the waters and will hold students, who might otherwise benefit from a college education, back from pursuing that education. In today’s knowledge-based economy, we simply can’t afford to have students who would like to pursue an education, decide not to based on incomplete and incorrect assumptions about higher education financing.

Jason Delisle sums it up best when he remarked, “When somebody says student debt is killing the economy, replace ‘student debt’ with ‘higher education’ and see if the sentence still makes sense.”  If there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth, let it be over research questions and lab reports in route to a college degree and high paying job, not over undue $16 muffin scented panic regarding student debt.

Career Competencies Maximize a Student’s Value

It is estimated that the Class of 2016 will graduate with an average of $37,172 in student loans. Over 43 million Americans own student loan debt. The key to securing a good paying job after graduation to pay off this debt is to effectively communicate the value you can provide a company. But what values are companies looking for?

The National Association of Colleges and Employers have identified the seven key career competencies that employers are seeking in their top candidates. The competencies include:

  1. Critical Thinking/Problem Solving
  2. Oral/Written Communications
  3. Teamwork/Collaboration
  4. Information Technology
  5. Leadership
  6. Professional/Work Ethic
  7. Career Management

Colleges and universities across America have created Career Services departments to help students identify their talents that relate to what employers are seeking. These professionals then help students communicate this unique set of skills through resumes, e-portfolios, and personal interviews. Recruiters will tell you it takes six seconds for them to scan a resume and decide if they want to interview the candidate. Your resume has six seconds to communicate your many unique talents. It is vital that resumes are structured to tell your story in a concise, engaging, and comprehensive professional fashion.

Research suggests that those entering the workforce now will end up changing jobs every 4 to 6 years. It will not be uncommon for graduates to experience a minimum of 5 different careers in their lifetime. The career skills they use to secure their first job will be used multiple times throughout their careers and will be the determining factor on the level of compensation they receive. As students begin their collegiate experience they must engage with their career services offices on campus as soon as they arrive on campus. The skills they acquire from these professionals will serve them for a lifetime by maximizing the value of their education and the unique talents they acquire.