The Little Things

Some days, it hurts just to get dressed. Every joint feels like it’s on fire. But Stephanie Ibemere forges on, taking her ritual of painkillers, steroids and immuno-suppressants to stem the debilitating effects of the lupus that rages through her body.

Then she goes to class.

Ibemere, a senior pre-med major, was diagnosed seven years ago with lupus, an autoimmune disease that mimics arthritis. Though it’s a daily struggle, she puts up with the demands of her medical condition because she has a goal, a dream, and completing her degree at Xavier is a big part of it. But it hasn’t been easy. Because of the lupus, and because of money.

A couple of times, in fact, Ibemere thought she was going to have to drop out and give up her dream because she was out of money. The thought shook her to the core. Without her education, she couldn’t fulfill her dream—becoming a pediatric rheumatologist and treating children who are also stricken with lupus.

In the fall of her freshman year, Ibemere came to Xavier owing $4,000 in tuition after her financial aid awards were applied. She was living at home to save money, and her parents helped pay down part of the fall tuition bill. By the end of the semester, however, she still owed $500.

The registrar’s office put a hold on her account, which meant she couldn’t register for the spring semester. “When I walked into Xavier I didn’t know what I was going to do,” Ibemere says. “I didn’t have a plan to pay for it. I was freaking out.”

Then she remembered meeting Adrian Schiess during orientation. He told all of the first-year students they could come to him if there was ever a time they needed help staying in school. This, she decided, was one of those times.

Schiess runs the Office of Student Success and Retention. Its purpose is to do what it takes to keep kids in school. When Ibemere came to him, she had already exhausted all possible additional financial aid at Xavier.

Her parents, who had moved to Texas, were paying her medical bills and had nothing left for tuition. Schiess took a look at her grades, talked with her about her goals and her medical situation—and gave her $500.

Her bill was paid.

Ibemere thanked Schiess. But she also thanked, in writing, the man who made the $500 gift possible: George Albrecht. Albrecht is a retired Army officer who has helped many Xavier students through a special fund that is set up to benefit student retention. His donations aren’t huge—usually about $1,500 a year—but they’ve been matched by his employers. And they’re impactful. More than $15,000 has been given to more than 50 students since he started giving 10 years ago, usually in small chunks of $200, $500 and one in 2005 for $30.30. Never more than $1,000.

And Albrecht isn’t alone. Several similar funds set up by grateful parents or alumni designated to benefit student retention—and bridge that last gap between a student paying the bill or withdrawing from school. The amounts may be small, but for these students, $500 might as well be $5 million.

Ibemere sums it up: “I wouldn’t be in school right now if I didn’t have this money.”

Such donations to a University may pale in comparison to what it costs to name a new building to fully endow an academic scholarship. But as Xavier enters the final three years of its $200 million capital campaign, To See Great Wonders: The Campaign for Xavier, the University is aware of the importance of smaller contributions to its mission—and values them no less than the larger ones.

“One-hundred dollars may not seem like a lot, but the cumulative power of those gifts together can make an enormous difference on whether we can provide the financial packages to allow a student to come to Xavier,” says Norah Mock, senior associate director for the Annual Fund. “Chances are some of these students we help today could become very successful, and our hope is they remember this assistance and do the same for future students.”

With the campaign already accumulating $175 million in actual and pledged dollars, and with construction of the new James E. Hoff, S.J., Academic Quad underway, campaign managers are beginning to organize a new phase to the fundraising, emphasizing smaller gifts that add up and wrap up the last 25 percent of a campaign.

All of these smaller donations are given to the University’s Annual Fund, which places the gifts into restricted funds as directed by the donor—such as the funds Schiess uses to help student retention—or into unrestricted funds that go into Xavier’s general operating budget to pay for everything from electric bills to additional money for financial aid. The latter, says Mock, is becoming increasingly critical. Each year the University awards roughly $31 million in financial aid. And with the uncertain economy, the ability to use more and more of the gifts given to the Annual Fund—which brings in roughly $6 million a year in these small gifts—to provide additional financial aid to help students enroll at Xavier is even greater.

“As a university, our ultimate goal is to educate students,” says Mock, “and we are all committed to providing the support that allows us to meet our enrollment goals. Gifts to the Annual Fund and endowment—no matter what the size—are critical to the overall success of the University achieving its mission and vision.”

Eighteen years ago, the University opened the Office of Freshman Programs to help freshman students adjust to college. It was the first such program in the country focused solely on retaining students, and Schiess, a retired Army officer and the professor of Military Science, was handed the job.

It turned out to be a good move. Since 1990, retention rates at Xavier have shot up from 75 percent to 87 percent this year—the highest rate for similar universities in the Midwest. It even hit 90 percent recently until the economy soured.

Renamed the Office of Student Success and Retention, it has an open-door policy that lets students drop in unannounced. About 10,000 have done so over the years.

Located in the main hallway of Alter Hall, its nondescript space belies the drama that often unfolds inside. Behind Schiess’ closed door, students fess up to him the kinds of personal things they’d never tell their parents or best friends, issues impeding their ability to stay at Xavier: their parents’ divorce, their roommate’s behavior, their father’s lost income, their own social maladjustment to college. Their empty bank accounts.

Schiess hands out tissues and talks to them. He knows which ones are in academic trouble—professors inform him who’s struggling. He narrows down the source of their troubles and seeks solutions. For some, it’s a change of roommates. For others, it’s a trip to the health center or help talking with a professor or simply getting a parent on the phone.

But for most, it’s about money. Currently, the University has six funds specifically restricted to aiding student retention. In addition to Albrecht’s, similar funds have been set up by William Roby, Dr. Eric Anderson, William Schrott and the late Jack McAfee.

The stories and the gifts come in all shapes and sizes: $600 to replace stolen books, $500 each to pay three sisters’ tuition after their mother fell ill. About 98 percent of the students who have received this aid have finished school and graduated, Schiess says. Albrecht, whose son attended Xavier, has no plans to stop making yearly contributions. For him, the letters from grateful students mean everything. He still has Ibemere’s letter. “The satisfaction is hearing from these kids,” he says. “You know what you’re doing actually helps somebody.”

Three years ago Emily Huebener was desperate. Her mother recently died, her father was back home in Louisville, Ky., struggling with his own medical issues and—on top of trying to pay her own tuition—she was working to pay for her sister’s Catholic high school education. Roby, a former Army officer who graduated with Schiess in 1969, heard of her plight and got his old friend on the phone.

“I said, ‘How can I help her?’ ” says Roby, also of Louisville. “He looked at her transcript, saw she had a 3.85 GPA and said she’s a good kid. He said what she needs this semester is $2,000. And so every semester, he’d call me and say, ‘Can you send a check for $2,000?’ We did this for three years.”

Roby donated more than $8,000 toward Huebener’s education. She graduated cum laude in 2008 with a degree in nursing and is now working at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital in pediatrics. Between gifts from Roby, Huebener would visit him and his wife, Mary Jane. She’d take them to lunch, show them her grades and tell them how grateful she was.

“When she graduated, she sent us this lengthy letter thanking us and how excited she was to be working at Children’s Hospital and that had been her dream and that had now been fulfilled,” Roby says.

It was the perfect tonic for Roby. “I love the smaller gifts where you can see what it’s doing for kids,” Roby says. “To just send a check someplace doesn’t move my needle, but to see what the checks do for people, and they say thank you and you see their smiles—that’s the reward.”

One of the newest student retention funds was set up by the family of Brian McCormick, a member of the Class of 1997 who died in April 2008. His brother, Matt McCormick, who graduated in 1992, said the family felt a fund in Brian’s memory that made small contributions to individual students would be more rewarding than making one large contribution to the University. Already, with contributions from family members and friends of Brian, the fund is topping $10,000.

“If they don’t get this shot, they may never graduate,” McCormick says. “That makes a great impact because these are kids who don’t have anywhere else to turn.”

Schiess couldn’t agree more. As he stocks his office with Kleenex and juggles the students’ need for the aid his office provides, he thinks of students like Ibemere. She faces a stem cell transplant next summer to get the lupus under control, and then she expects to graduate in December. For dedicated students like her, the money is a pure gift.

“I had a girl in here a few minutes ago whose benefactor is out of money because of the economy,” Schiess says. “She’s a junior in Montessori education with 3.7 GPA, so we’re working on it right now. The bottom line is these funds come to the rescue to ensure it happens. I’m not going to let a student not register because they owe the University $750.”

The Art of Faith

Forty years pass quickly. But the memories that matter never seem to dim. Professor of art Suzanne Chouteau can clearly recall the moment when, as a Catholic grade-schooler, she connected personal expression with faith, prayer and seeking God.

“I used to have a hard time praying—saying the prayers at church,” Chouteau recalls. “I talked to my mother frankly. I said ‘Mom I don’t feel anything when I’m saying my prayers.’  She said, ‘When do you feel God?’ I said, ‘When I sing.’ She said, ‘Well then, sing. If that connects you, sing.’”

Chouteau took her mother’s advice. “I thought that was so great. It was OK that you find the sacred and the divine when you sing. And that’s what happened when I started making art, too.”

Chouteau’s most recent work—two series in juxtaposition: the destructive series she calls “Genocide of the Conscience” and the constructive series she calls “Generation”—is true to her roots in both the Catholic emphasis on social justice and her parents’ activism in the Civil Rights Movement. Together, the two series combine efforts to raise the public’s awareness of issues of peace and justice with the belief that heightened awareness will lead to a more responsible, conscientious humanity.

“‘Genocide of the Conscience’ explores what I see as the root of contemporary ruin on the planet,” she says. “The prints address historic and contemporary events in which creatures and humans are subjected to actions that undermine their survival. Through bad actions we teach our children to live without conscience or obligation to anyone or anything—a recipe for producing mass violence, unhealthy lifestyles, wanton greed, pollution of the environment and a devaluation of nature. Of course, the alternative to a genocidal conscience is a generative one, hence the ‘Generation’ counterpoint in my work.”

“Generation” is an ongoing series that includes six etchings—a process in which the acid is used to etch lines in zinc printing plates. The works—“Sequoia (Praise for the Father),” “Foxtail Pine (Mother and Child on High),” “Joshua Tree (Brother Peace),” “Gowen Cypress (Sister Grace),” “Redwoods (Love Your Siblings)” and “Bristlecone Pine (Respect Your Elders)”—capture the inherent, majestic strength and environmental fragility of some of the world’s oldest, rarest trees species, which happen to be found in California. Chouteau began the series after a trip that found her hiking to remote locales to pay homage to these most ancient of living things.

“With global warming, these trees are endangered,” she says. “I realize there is a fine line between the generative beauty embodied in these trees and the genocidal aspect, should these trees perish at our hands. The hope embodied in these etchings then is the hope of living conscientiously for the beauty and wellbeing of all creatures.”

Begun four years ago, “Genocide of the Conscience” includes nine woodcuts thus far. “Rwanda, 1994,” the first print of the series, outlines man’s inhumanity against God’s creatures in two ways: via the slaughter of 800,000 people in Rwanda and death of a generation of Chinook salmon cased by the diversion of the Klamath River in Northern California and Southern Oregon in 2004. “Darfur, Sudan, 2007,” depicts a group of young children asleep in a safe house, while army-instigated fires threaten their distant village.

“Wounded Knee, 1890,” captures both the Native American ghost dancers and the Cavalry that gunned them down. “Armenia, 1915,” recalls the killing and forced expatriation of Armenians at the hands of the Ottoman Turks. “American Bison”; “Wounded Knee”; “Yellowstone 2007”; “Gray Wolf”; and “Polar Bear” are reminders of species at risk on our planet.

Though the subject matter in the latter series may seem dark, the completed works also contain an ambiguity that holds out the promise of peace and justice in the face of overwhelming odds. For example, close inspection reveals that the ghost dancers in “Wounded Knee, 1890,” are actually modern figures—Chouteau says the ghost dance is still practiced—signifying a triumph of the human spirit over attempted annihilation. Often, her works include children and hold out hope for their future.

Likewise, in “Armenia, 1915,” Chouteau intentionally left the top section of the image vague—there are figures with their worldly belongings packed, but does it depict Armenians fleeing their homeland or returning? This particular piece has another significance for Chouteau. The main image is taken from a photograph belonging to her colleague in the Department of Art, professor Marsha Karagheusian-Murphy. The image depicts Karagheusian-Murphy’s grandmother and great-grandmother in traditional clothing. Chouteau recreated the image with one important change.

“I made the great grandmother Marsha,” she says. Although she hasn’t visited all of the areas that form the backdrops for her images, Chouteau’s life experiences give her a unique understanding of each facet of her work. Growing up in the Vietnam era, she saw her brother get his draft card and many young men in the neighborhood march off to war. In college at St. Ambrose University, a Catholic school in Davenport, Iowa, she took core classes that emphasized peace and justice. She volunteered at a women’s shelter, got involved with the college’s Dorothy Day House and became an activist, protesting the Rock Island Arsenal and nuclear proliferation.

The developing artist balanced these activities by working for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers as a park aide on the Mississippi River, and writing and illustrating the Junior Ranger Newsletter, which exposed her to environmental issues. She also went to Nicaragua as a brigadista, helping to harvest coffee and serve as a witness to the Contra War there. These experiences solidified Chouteau’s convictions, and during graduate school she produced an abstract series titled “Childhood Memories of Nuclear War,” inspired in part by her memories of grade-school Civil Defense drills. Chouteau returned to Nicaragua following her first year at Xavier, and while the trips left her with a more immediate, visceral understanding of events, the experiences also taught her something else. “Making art is nothing like going there, but I still think it’s valid to make images,” she says. “I don’t have to be there to know that this is unjust and wrong. I do think it’s important to let people know this is still happening. That’s what art does.

“I’m not an expert in all of this. I’m a human being, and I do know what that means, and I do know what that feels like, and I do know that any one of these things happening to me would be terrible.”

The strength of Chouteau’s commitment to touch the sacred through her work finds expression not only in finished pieces, but in the process of creation as well. For her, the process of making art is both prayer and meditation.

“I read somewhere that prayer is just the act of serious contemplation—complete concentration and focus,” she says. “When I’m making my work, I’m in another place.” She points to the Darfur print: “I’m in this place. I was in Darfur. I was in that room. I was in that place. I was wanting those children to have an untroubled sleep.”

To say Chouteau’s woodcuts are laboriously constructed is an understatement. The process of drawing, cutting and printing layers of colors takes months (see sidebar). It isn’t an approach that offers immediate gratification, but the physicality and risk involved do underscore the importance of the subject matter. And there’s no shortage of subject matter. Chouteau is already planning the next work in the series—a piece commemorating the Trail of Tears, the forced march of Native Americans from the East to Oklahoma around 1830.

Of course, when the cutting is done and the last color in place, it’s the message that counts. By choosing events from a variety of eras, Chouteau taps into a kind of timelessness: The stories remain relevant, whether events took place 40 years ago or 140 years ago. She believes in both the relevance of those stories and in the power of art to make a difference in the way people live. Her reasoning is as simple as it is inarguable.

“I know that art has done that to me,” she says. “Works throughout history, human works, have changed the way I’ve lived, have made me think the way I think. I hope I’m part of that continuum. I hope I’m part of that legacy.”

Business Boot Camp

Sgts. Kenny Devers and Chad Essert stand in front of a group of nervous, half-awake and befuddled men and women. The pair are dressed in camouflage fatigues, straight-brimmed hats and have looks straight out of central casting—crew cut, piercing eyes, scowl. Devers is tall, rail-straight and thin. He stands in front of the group yelling instructions while Essert, who’s smaller, speedier and wound like a tightly coiled spring, walks quickly among the ranks yelling in unison and looking for imperfections.

“This is how you stand at attention,” says Devers. “Put your heels together and your feet at a 45 degree angle.”
“Heels together,” screams Essert as he speeds by. “Heels together. PUT YOUR HEELS TOGETHER.”
“Now make a fist,” says Devers, “and put your thumbs in a straight line down the seam of your pants.”
“Make a fist,” Essert echoes. “MAKE A FIST. Thumbs straight.”
“Do you understand?” asks Devers.
The group answers in an uncoordinated mumble.
“When I ask you a question, you answer in one of three ways,” Devers yells. “Yes sir. No sir. Or aye sir. ‘Yes sir’ means you understand. ‘No sir’ means you don’t understand. ‘Aye sir’ means you’re going to follow my command. Do you understand?”
“Yes sir.”
“I Can’t Hear You.”
“Yes Sir.”
“LOUDER.”
“YES SIR.”
“Now you’ve got 50 seconds to get outside and get lined up. Do you understand?”
“YES SIR.”
“So what are you waiting for? You’re wasting time. Forty-eight. Forty-seven. Forty-six.”
The group scrambles outside into a remarkably symbolic early morning fog. Water drips from the trees as they line up, stumbling to figure out exactly what they’re supposed to do and how they’re supposed to do it. The group members are hardly hardcore military types but rather businesspeople—lawyers, investment brokers, nurses, doctors—who aren’t used to starting their day with unhappy drill instructors screaming at them about how to walk and talk.

For the good of the country, though, their enlistment into military life is both voluntary and temporary. The members are taking part in a leadership boot camp offered by the Xavier Leadership Center (XLC), a three-day immersion experience that is meant to be a small taste of Officer Candidate School, the Marines’ infamous 12-week indoctrination that weeds out all but the few and the proud.

Realizing the Marines have a strong tradition in developing leaders, Xavier enlisted David Keszei, a retired Marine major, to drum up a few former drill instructors and put together a program that weaves together the Marine philosophy of leadership training with the needs of today’s business world.

And while a select few universities—the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania and the Goizueta Business School at Emory University, for example—actually send their students to the Marine headquarters in Quantico, Va., for this kind of training, Xavier is the only university in the country to reverse the scenario and bring the Corps to its clients.

The shock and awe continues as the group is ordered to begin marching a half mile into the woods toward its destination. The path is still muddy from the night’s rain, which only lends itself to more drilling by the sergeants.

“Don’t walk AROUND the puddles,” Essert screams as he jogs alongside the group. “Walk THROUGH the puddles. Wet shoes are about to become the least of your worries. We’re going to get that ugly civilian out of you by the end of the day.”

For 20 years, Keszei was a Marine fighter pilot—Top Gun graduate, two tours in Iraq, more than 350 carrier landings. As the DIs push the members of the boot camp through their paces, he stands to the side, watching, the gold leaves of a major decorating the collar of his fatigues.

“We’re not trying to make Marines out of these people,” he says. “The stuff we do here really has no military value. Climbing a wall may be the only thing we do with any real tactical significance. What this is really about is how you plan, how you execute. Why do you do what you do? What we are trying to do is expose them to the methods and techniques that produce leaders so they can leave here and impart them on their people. It’s not rocket science, but it’s tough to teach in a classroom. It’s amazing how different something becomes when you actually have to do it. You experience the subtle, little things. And when you go through it over and over again, a series of small behavior changes start to show up. When all of them are added up, it results in a different person.”

The Marines, he says, spend the first 12 weeks of officer candidate school teaching nothing but leadership. Not management. Not technical skills. Not warfare. Because combat is so chaotic, he says, the Corps’ thinking is that every officer must first know how to lead. Once the bullets start flying, the typical vertical chain of command that defines the military—where orders roll downhill—gets destroyed. Squads may get split up, people may become isolated, but if every officer is trained to lead, the problem solves itself.

“If you are trained as leaders, you’re able to adapt and overcome almost any issue,” he says. “It’s true in the Marines, and it’s true in business.”

Four hours into the day the sun finally comes out and starts burning off the fog. The group pulls up to a shelter built into a clearing in the woods for lunch. Pete Beccaccio sits down on a picnic table, eyes the lunch offerings on a nearby table and offers a perspective on the first half of the day. “I think this is the longest I’ve gone without checking my e-mail since I got my Blackberry three years ago,” he says.

The morning has left no time for any business except the business at hand. The tasks haven’t been dangerous or difficult—getting a group of 10 to stand on a log that hangs by wire between two trees, lifting people one by one through a tire strung three feet off the ground—but have rather focused extensively on the participation of all members and the process of planning the task, executing it and then debriefing.

The learning is experiential, and exactly what Len Brzozowski is looking for. Brzozowski came to Xavier a year ago to remold what was then the Xavier Consulting Group. As executive director, his first decision was to scale back on the consulting programs and focus on teaching leadership. “Most of what we did was open enrollment programs that make no impact,” he says. “I call those kinds of programs ‘edu-tainment.’ All you really do is produce folders and documents that end up sitting on the shelf in someone’s office. The mission of the University is to make a difference in the world. Were we doing that with consulting? My answer would be no. I felt we could do better.”

What XLC primarily focuses on, he says, is creating facilitated learning experiences in which the staff designs a curriculum that specifically targets the chosen needs of a business. The XLC faculty then assigns a task to the business’ personnel, and then coaches and educates them over the course of an entire year, blending the theoretical with the practical while at the same time providing solutions to real problems.

The Marine boot camp is a scaled-down version of the facilitated learning methodology—just three days long but still focusing on enhancing speed, responsiveness and flexibility of decision-making. And, most importantly, training the one element that all businesses must have to survive in the 21st century: skilled people, particularly whose values align with the company’s mission and create what Keszei calls a “thick culture.”

The Marines have a very thick culture, which they create by intentionally trying to screen out those they know wouldn’t fit in. Through its marketing efforts, it weeds out roughly 85 percent of the people, says Keszei. Those who then make it through boot camp are all strongly aligned with the Marine Corps values of honor, courage and commitment, as well as its behaviors of integrity, decisiveness, courage, bearing and compassion.

“Break them down,” says Keszei. “Honor: If they don’t believe in it, they won’t buy into it. Courage: How can you teach people to run toward gunfire? They’re afraid of letting the team down. Commitment: We teach them to always strive to be better—not for themselves but for the team. You can do the same thing in business. The simplest thing may be the way you choose your team. Do they exhibit the same behaviors you deem are important? What we’re trying to do is show how these people can go about creating that kind of environment in their own businesses.”

As members of the group start eating, the drill instructors stand quietly in a group nearby. Keszei points them out. They stand when everyone else sits and eat when everyone else is finished. It’s a subtle leadership lesson, he says. The people they are leading always come first.

Sitting in a classroom at Xavier’s MBA campus in Deerfield Township the next morning, Keszei again brings up the DIs behavior. They go just as far and just as fast as everyone else, he says. They carry the same load, but on top of all that they use a lot of energy instructing. They set the bar so incredibly high for themselves that no one can question them, and they see success as the team’s and failure as their own.

Like all of the activities at the boot camp, the program is broken down into three components—a briefing, completing the task and then a debriefing. The group gathered two days earlier to go over what they were going to do in the camp and are gathered again to recap and learn.

Brzozowski stands in front of the class and helps makes the connection between what the group went through the day before in the woods and how that’s applicable to their business. He shows a video clip of Quicken, where the company culture is so important the CEO teaches a class about it to new hires. He shows another about Zappos.com, where the president of the company offers trainees $2,000 to quit, figuring that if they take it they’re only interested in the job for the money and he doesn’t want that kind of employee. He talks about Toyota, where their culture is so important that they don’t let new employees touch a car part until they’ve been there six months.

“The Marines are the same way,” he says. “We’re not saying the values of the Marine Corps are the right ones for your organization, but it’s important to see how they go about enforcing their environment. Think of what would happen if a business got only a piece of that. If all of its employees shared the same values and behaviors the way they do in the Marines. That company would have a substantial competitive advantage.”

Truman Scholar

Brett Simmons, an honors student majoring in theology and economics, was named a 2008 Truman Scholar by the Harry S. Truman Scholarship Foundation. Simmons is one of just 65 Truman Scholars selected from 595 candidates from 283 universities. He is considering using the award, which is for up to $30,000 for graduate study, to enter a doctoral program in urban sociology at  Princeton, Harvard, Penn or UCLA. He hasn’t finalized that yet, because a few days after learning of the award he left for a month in Tanzania where he worked on microfinance lending with a commercial bank in Dar Es Salaam and then went to Northern Tanzania where he worked on rural finance with a nonprofit organization as part of his Brueggeman Fellowship.

TEACH-er Grants

Xavier is one of just 24 Ohio schools chosen to offer Teacher Education Assistance for College and Higher Education (TEACH) grants that provide federal grants of up to $4,000 per year to students who pledge to teach in a public or private elementary or secondary school serving students from low-income families. In return, recipients agree to serve as full-time teachers in a high-need field—bilingual education and English language acquisition, foreign language, mathematics, reading specialist, science and special education—for at least four academic years within the first eight years of graduation. If they do not complete the requirement, the grants are converted to a loan and must be repaid.

Politics and Public Life

This fall, the University created the Institute for Politics and Public Life, an academic initiative designed to provide students with the knowledge and leadership tools necessary to contribute to all levels of public life. Among its goals is to become a research center on matters of public policy and governance, and to create an “American Dream Project” that examines in depth the concept of the American Dream—what is it, how has it changed, is it still attainable? Michael Ford, a 1970 graduate who has spent the last 37 years in politics, government and business—including senior staff and advisory positions in nine presidential campaigns—is its director. One of his first efforts was a panel discussion with nationally known political speakers—Donna Brazile, Mike Murphy, Joe Trippi and John Kasich—on the election.

Ho Ho Ho!

Late in the afternoon on a chilly December day, a big man with a deep voice holds out his arms as lithesome young helpers pull a bright red jacket around his ample middle, fastening the buttons and the big shiny black belt. They help him pull on tall black boots, apply a white beard and set a floppy red-and-white cap on his head.     

Practicing booming ho-ho-hos, Luther Smith is transformed from dean of students into Santa Claus. And he’s ready to take on the world—or at least the 100 or so children who anxiously await his arrival as part of A Xavier Christmas, a student-run event that has grown from a tree-lighting ceremony into an outreach program that brings underprivileged children to the University to celebrate the holiday.

Smith patiently listens as wide-eyed children sit on his lap and talk of their wishes. “I ask them if they’ve been good during the year,” he says. “I’ll say, ‘Tell me a time you were especially good,’ and they talk about doing well in school or helping their parents.”

“It’s important to show youngsters what college is,” says Allyson Berlon, a senior and co-chair of the event. “And, it’s important to show the community that Xavier cares and we’re interested in getting involved with the children in the area around Xavier.”

For the event, some 200 underprivileged kindergarten, first-grade and second-grade students from eight nearby elementary schools are brought to campus for a four-hour holiday celebration. Each child partners with a “Xavier buddy” and partakes in myriad events. They play holiday musical chairs and participate in crafts activities, making bags and decorating them with seasonal images. The children eat pizza at the Cintas Center, receive colorful scarves that Xavier students cut out of fleece and savor hot chocolate and cookies.

As the gospel choir sings holiday favorites, University President Michael J. Graham, S.J., and Santa Claus pull a big master switch to light the campus Christmas tree. The children have their photographs taken with Santa, and a few days after the event, their Xavier buddies send Christmas cards and photos of the kids.

The event, which is sponsored by the Student Government Association, is only three years old, but it has been expanded each year and figures to prosper as an annual tradition. “I love to see it continue,” says Berlon. “It started off as such a small event with just a tree-lighting ceremony. To see us grow it every year is a neat thing to see happen.”

The children aren’t the only ones to get a kick out of the event. “The Xavier buddies love it,” says Berlon. “They say it makes them feel like a kid again, being able to interact with these children. I think that by the time students get to the college level they often forget about how special Christmastime can be. And, of course, the children love it. And their teachers are impressed that things run so smoothly.”

Kimberlie Goldsberry, executive director of student involvement, says the event also fits perfectly with the University’s mission of helping others. “We want to provide a meaningful Christmas experience for the children,” she says. “We also want to stimulate a joint volunteer effort of Xavier students and the various offices of the University. But it’s mostly for the children. The event creates an opportunity for the children to experience Christmas with some college students and to get comfortable being on a college campus.”

That also resonates with Santa, uh, Smith, even though having 200 kids plop down on your lap can take its toll on the knees.

“I want them to know each child matters, so I try to focus on that child during that 30 seconds,” he says. “It’s not about the season at that moment, it’s about them. I believe we are everything we have been, and all these experiences help to shape and form us as people. Some of these children are very disadvantaged, and these are moments we allow them the experience of joy that may have an impact on how they turn out as adults.”

Fullbright, Outgoing

Rachel Chrastil, an assistant professor of history, received a Fulbright-Alsace Regional Council Award from the J. William Fulbright Scholarship Board. Chrastil is using the highly prestigious award to conduct research in Strasbourg, France, during the Spring 2009 semester for her book Civilians Under Siege: Strasbourg and European Civilization during the Franco-Prussian War. She will be affiliated with the Faculty of Arts at the Université Marc Bloch. In recent years, an average of just one historian per year has been selected for the award for research in France.

Fullbright, Incoming

Xavier is one of just eight universities in the nation chosen to participate in a Fulbright scholar-in-residence program, a highly prestigious initiative that involves an internationally recognized Fulbright scholar working on campus. Xavier’s Fulbright scholar-in-residence is Akhtarul Wasey, who’s head of the department of Islamic studies and director for the Zakir Husain Institute of Islamic Studies at Jamia Millia Islamia, the national Islamic university in New Delhi, India. He is part of the Fulbright Program’s Interfaith Community Engagement Initiative and is working with Xavier’s Brueggeman Center for Dialogue and the Office of Interfaith Community Engagement.

Elite Company

The Department of Physics is celebrating its first inductee into the Alpha Phi Alpha intercollegiate fraternity for outstanding African-American students. Its membership includes the likes of W.E.B. DuBois, Frederick Douglass and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Now it includes Jimmy Stringer. The physics major, who also is completing minors in math and natural science, joins several other inductees from Xavier, including Black Student Association president Alex Allen-Tunsil, who was inducted with Stringer in March, and students Anthony Brown and Aaron Marble.

The fraternity was founded in 1906 at Cornell University as a support group and haven for African-American college students. Today its values of excellence in leadership, scholarship and integrity live on in its inductees. Stringer, who graduates in May and is applying to graduate school to study medical physics, is president of the Black Greek Council, co-chair of the Black Student Association cultural committee, and, since his induction, is treasurer of the fraternity’s Sigma Gamma chapter at Xavier.

“We’re very community-service oriented and we do social things like voting drives,” Stringer says. “We went to a local high school to mentor them and show them that black men are capable of going to college. People are really excited to see us because this image of black men is not what the media portrays. It really gives them courage. They start thinking, now that’s a possibility.”