School of Life

by | Jan 27, 2016 | 0 comments

In one of my several journeys to Northern Ireland with students from Madison College, we attended a presentation by Billy Dixon, an image consultant for the British Broadcast Corporation (BBC). He recounted stories of how to portray confidence, even when your knees are shaking. One of his leadership lessons is to “take yourself off the stage and put the spotlight on other people.” It’s a mantra that struck a familiar chord for me, as it is always how I have lived and led.

So, to be asked to write about my own life is a daunting task. Ask me to write about anything else, anyone else, and the words come easily. But, me? Would anyone want to read my story? In my 50 years I have never held political office or marched in a parade or done anything worthy of being interviewed by Robin Roberts on Good Morning America. Upon reflection, though, I have lived an interesting, adventurous and blessed life.

I have traveled the globe, experienced the love of friends and family and celebrated the thrill of victory and accomplishment. In equal measure, I have been humbled by losses and reminded that serving others is more rewarding than serving yourself. I have the good fortune of being loved and in love with my partner and best friend of 25 years, Marcia Christiansen, and of having fun while tiptoeing on the brink of excess, and—except for bad knees—enjoying the providence of good health. I’ve lived relatively quietly, seeking to be a positive role model for change and inclusion, rather than an outspoken advocate.

In his novel, One, author Richard Bach explores the mythical metaphor of a pattern representing the paths we have taken and the choices we have made throughout our entire life. He intersects that pattern with every other possible path we could have taken to show how our infinite choices, even those which seem most mundane, are woven together to take us to the very point we are in at the current moment.

In short, our choices are infinite and lead to the experiences that shape the person we are today. As I look back on the pattern of my choices, choices that have gained me wisdom, friends, experiences and character, I am proud and blessed to be at this very point in my life. So, at the gracious invitation of Our Lives, I humbly share that journey with you.

Community Beginnings  

I was born in Fargo-Moorhead and lived my pre-college life in Minnesota. Much to the dismay of my Viking fan relatives, I now say I am from Madison, and yes, I am a diehard Packer and Badger fan. My parents are from a small town called Lake Bronson, up by the Canadian border. It’s the doppelganger of Keillor’s Lake Woebegone—“the little town that time forgot and the decades cannot improve,” the kind of town where the word “community” really means something. It was there, as a kid, that I learned how to look out for neighbors, how to greet people on the street even if I didn’t know their names, and the value of a hard day’s work. While those days are long since past, I never lost the northern Minnesota brogue (especially after a few pints) nor the love of community. It was also that Minnesota youth that led me to participate in just about every team sport imaginable—fastpitch softball, hockey, basketball, tennis, soccer, flag football and even broomball.

Growing up an athlete introduced me early on to the ideas that individuals can be stars, but victories come as a team; the ability to bounce back and learn from losses was the only way to win in the future; central to leadership was the ability to rally the team to better their performance; and that good teammates had your back no matter what. These were lessons that would serve me well as a future leader, teacher and coach. Sports led me early to these lessons and led me to first loves.

Global Journeys  

Author Margaret Wheatley writes that “we see the world as we are, not as it is.” But my perspectives on life, love, country and inclusion have been deepened by seeing the world, experiencing other cultures and eating foods I can’t pronounce. My global adventures began as a U.W.-Madison student when I lived in a small town in Southern France for nearly two years. I attended a Political Science institute and a Letters college, and ultimately earned a certificate from Universite de Provence in International Studies and French. While studying in France, I also joined a women’s soccer team in the small town of Éguilles. It was the first time in my life as an athlete that I was the outsider, the last one in.

It was daunting, and scary, but it built character and courage. By the end of two seasons, we had won the Coupe de Provence championship, and I had made friends for life. I also traveled to Italy, Hungary, Austria, Yugoslavia, Germany and other European countries. That experience, in addition to earning a French degree, introduced me to the value and fun of global travel—experiences that continue to shape how I see the world and deepen my appreciation of the concept of “other.” Since that time, I have been to amazing places such as Nepal, Costa Rica, Bonaire, Corsica, Malta, Spain, Singapore, Norway, Sweden and Denmark, among others. I have participated in teaching exchanges to Northern Ireland and Belgium and led study abroad trips to Germany, Northern Ireland and Ireland. As much as I love to travel, as my grandma always said in Norwegian, “Å gå er bra, hjemme er best” (to go is good, home is best).


For the Love of Hockey  

When I was about six years old, my dad signed me up for figure skating lessons at a park near our house. On the very first night of practice, I was coming up the slippery wooden ramp to the warming house when a hockey player came through the door and knocked me down. In bracing my fall, I slammed three fingers in the door and ended the night in a cast. Goodbye figure skating career!

My cousins lived on a lake and we would skate all winter long. I could still participate in the ice games with a broken hand. They propped me up in front of the net wearing an old pair of my cousin’s hockey skates and his goalie equipment. The next season when my dad was signing my brother up for hockey, he asked, “Do you want to do figure skating or hockey?” A pretty progressive question for the early 1970s, when there were as many girls who played hockey as boys who were on the pom-pom squad. Without pause, I screamed, “Hockey!”

From there, my brother and I played on the same team for the next several years—all the way until high school. I was small but fast. Whenever the boys discovered I was a girl and decided to come after me, I would simply out-skate them and step out of the way for my much bigger brother to take care of things! I remember so many games on outdoor ice in Minnesota, frigid temperatures that drove us into the warming house between periods to warm up. Dad would hold my feet until the feeling returned. It was either that or 6 o’clock games on indoor ice on Sunday mornings. Despite the weather and schedule, both of which were equally brutal, I fell in love with the game. I played with the boys through age 16, and gave it up to focus on high school basketball, soccer and softball. But I never stopped skating.

Shortly after I began classes at U.W.-Madison a poster caught my eye at the Natatorium—an invitation to skate with the University Club A team. After a few calls, I found myself at practice with borrowed equipment. Word on the ice was that a hotshot young kid from Minnesota was in town.

Well, maybe not such a hotshot, but I held my own with women from around Madison who were literally the pioneers of women’s hockey. I played with the Club A team throughout my undergraduate years and for several years thereafter as it transitioned to a private team and the expansion of women’s and girl’s hockey skyrocketed. My teammates became my Madison family, were a positive force both on and off the ice (well, closing down Jingles at bar time on a weekend was not all that positive for a college student, but still), and are a part of some incredible life memories. Legendary skaters like Masher, Jonesy, Voich, Kate the Great, the Blair Twins, Jill, Marley, Susie and so many more were hockey warriors who played at the Shell at 11 p.m., road-tripped to Minnesota to play three games in a weekend, then traveled to Brampton, Ontario for Canadian tournaments, one time with only seven skaters.

There were victories and losses, injuries and celebrations, practical jokes and deep conversation—but in the end, it was the most inclusive group of women I had ever been around. Gay, straight, married, single, parents, students, teachers, all sharing a common bond: hockey.

My 30-year hockey career ended with my second major knee injury. When the surgeon told me, “If you want to golf when you are 40, you need to quit playing hockey,” I decided the risk of injury was too great. I took to coaching instead—a natural extension of my love for teaching. For a few seasons, I coached a USA Hockey B-level team in town with the same energetic spirit and love of the game that I had experienced over so many years. Coaching ended when I started my doctoral studies. Something had to give, so picking my studies seemed like the most logical, but not preferred, decision.

Since 1998, I’ve also been involved in broadcasting for the national champion University of Wisconsin Badger women’s hockey team. I was asked to provide color commentary for the first-ever varsity game at the Kohl Center, a game that pitted the Badgers against University of Minnesota-Duluth and included interviews with Olympian Cami Granato and USA hockey coach Ben Smith. I had no prior broadcasting experience, but it was a lot of fun and I realized that after so many years in hockey, it was pretty easy to just talk about the game. I have continued to be a part of hockey broadcasting over the years in both radio and television whenever public television calls and invites me back. And when I’m not calling a game, I’m usually in the LaBahn arena stands watching. I still love the game as much as I did when I was a kid in Minnesota. My only regret is that I was born too soon and missed the incredible opportunities that young female hockey players now have to earn college scholarships and compete in the Olympics.


Professional Stars Align  

I entered the education arena in a sort of cosmic way. After years in the private and public sectors working in product development and marketing, I worked for five years at a local nonprofit that focused on community building, organizational learning strategies and quality improvement. As I saw the evolution of that nonprofit, I began to think about what might be next for me. With an undergraduate degree in Marketing and International Business/French and an MBA, I was looking back toward the private sector and a possible move from Madison. It was then that I met Warren, a now-retired leader from Madison Area Technical College who asked if I had considered teaching.

Despite experience in executive education and consulting, the answer was “not really.” He mentioned that he had a marketing faculty position open and that I should consider it. I threw my hat in the ring and passed through to the final interview round. Within a week, the nonprofit I was working for laid off 90% of its staff. And on the same day I learned that news, I was offered a faculty position at Madison College. I was unemployed for exactly four hours.

Since that serendipitous day, I can proudly say that I am the only person in the 103-year history of the college to have served as a faculty member, program director, associate dean, dean, associate vice president and now, vice provost. I was awarded Distinguished Teacher and Outstanding Employee by our students and my peers. I have worked and continue to work alongside the smartest and most dedicated faculty anywhere, the most creative and supportive staff, and academic leaders who truly believe in the mission of the college and the power of individual transformation—and a community that demonstrates this commitment through their actions every day.

My continued interest in higher education has been nurtured and expanded over nearly three decades, first as an undergraduate, master’s and Ph.D. student; as a college instructor and now, as a senior leader. Through that journey, I have come to appreciate the role that higher education plays as a pathway to life and career enhancement for a wide range of populations. In an era of skills gaps and worker shortages, education is the key to individual opportunity and economic vitality. That means access to quality education credentials and experiences must be open to all. Nearly 70% of all jobs by the year 2020 will require at least an associate degree—and many of those jobs don’t exist yet. So, to provide a flexible skills base, a belief in oneself and a resiliency that will allow all to contribute in a meaningful way to the community of the future is a challenge worth relentless pursuit.

In other words, to borrow a metaphor from hockey great Wayne Gretzky, preparing students with the skills they need to succeed in an ever-changing job market requires educators to “skate to where the puck is going to be, not where it has been.”

In my current role, I oversee teams that create powerful and relevant programming and curriculum that prepares students to be change agents. My commitment is to enhancing an academic culture that invites all students to find their voices and their stride about their studies, ideas, values, identities and future.

A Safe Place to Learn  

Madison College is an amazing place to learn and to work. Specifically, it lives out its values of excellence, respect and integrity in many ways relative to the affirmation and inclusion of LBGTQ students and staff. We as educators are well aware of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, a pyramid of needs that reminds us that safety and belonging are critical components that must be met first if students and staff are to find their way to success and self-actualization.

Consider these examples: The student organization, Gender and Sexuality Alliance, is overseen by two of our committed faculty members. The group focuses on outreach, social events, film screenings, learning events related to inclusion and sexual health, and key leaders travel to Washington D.C. to attend policy briefings on LBGTQ issues that matter to our students and community. Recent projects include working with the Student Senate to attain gender-neutral bathrooms in the new Truax Gateway, and strategies to more fully recognize transgender names in official college records. There are software limitations but the importance of choice of preferred name and gender pronouns and the need to collect aggregate data on sexual orientation and gender identity of students and staff is evident.

There are also ongoing efforts to expand the Safe Zone spaces to the entire campus and broaden Safe Zone Training to all staff and students. A safe zone or a safe space is a place where all people feel safe, welcome and included. Working alongside the Gay Alliance, the Safe Zone program aims to increase the awareness, knowledge and skills for individuals and address the challenges that exist when one wants to advocate for their LGBTQ peers, family members, friends, coworkers and for themselves. Creating safe zones is a proactive step Madison College has taken to create welcoming, inclusive spaces so that all people are empowered to reach their full potential.

In addition, with the leadership of Madison College President Jack E. Daniels III, the College is hiring a Vice President of Diversity, Inclusion and Equity to further identify and coordinate high-leverage strategies to advance our college as a place of welcome, where all are positioned to perform their best work without regard to their sexual identity, race, ethnicity or gender. In the college’s Shared Governance system, a primary focus of one of the councils is projects that emphasize diversity and inclusion strategies and data analysis. The Library and Student Development teams have created guides that consolidate LGBTQ resources in a one-stop web location.

Much has changed during my 18 years here. Though Madison College has faced many of the same challenges as other public institutions of higher education, including incredible economic, social and political change and upheaval, one thing remains the same: People matter at Madison College. All people. I’ve seen big and small miracles every day from committed faculty and staff who protect and affirm the dignity and rights of all, and who work as tireless advocates in pursuit of equity and inclusion. It’s a shared commitment that is taken seriously at every level of the college, at each of the nine campuses in our 12-county district. We’re a team. And that, quite simply, is why I stay.

The Value of Teachers  

One of the questions I always dreaded in job interviews is, “Where do you see yourself in 10 years?” I always thought, “Who really knows?” and would respond with a rather generic-yet-positive answer. The reality is that I have positioned myself for advancement at every stage of my professional and academic life. While by nature I am very goal-oriented, a deliberate planner and a driven, forward-thinking person, my belief has always been to focus on doing the very best in the present moment, no matter the job.

The credibility earned by doing the right things right, having a good work ethic and maintaining authenticity leads to the next point of decision and advancement, just as Richard Bach emphasized in his book. Had somebody told me 20 years ago while I was working in the business arena, having completed a Master’s in Business Administration, that I would end up in higher education, first as faculty and eventually as a senior leader with a Ph.D., I would probably have asked him what color the sky is in his world. My journey wasn’t part of a specific plan or goal. But, as I focused on excellence at the current step, the doors kept opening and I confidently walked through each one, accepting the next challenge at every level.

Having the courage to walk through those doors into new and often unnerving challenges is when I learned the most about myself. When the job, degree, team, country or task was new and daunting, it was then that I was most open to advice from others, the most humble, and the most intentional about what I needed to learn to make it to the next day. I think it was that “edge” mixed with a bit of fear and self-doubt that motivated me to work harder, do more and, as a result of applying the wisdom gained in difficult times, gain confidence and the courage to move forward. It has been said that you can’t be brave unless you’re afraid. I believe it!

From Mrs. Bates in third grade who told me, “Yes, girls can become construction crane operators” in response to my stated career choice, to Mrs. Stanoch in high school who through her true love of France inspired me to live abroad, play international soccer and pick up a French major to complement my marketing undergraduate degree, to my many mentors at Madison College, I have been abundantly blessed with influencers, each who in their own way has shaped the person I’ve become: Coaches who taught me how to lead, to understand the value of collaboration and teamwork, and how to win and how to lose; incredible parents who instilled a strong Norwegian work ethic, humility and who modeled respect for others at every turn; Grandma, who became a mayor in her 70s and taught me perspective, gratitude and how to smile at the world around you since “it is better than the alternative;” and Marcia, who reminds me daily how easy it is to be kind and generous, and who has been a constant source of encouragement, support and good humor, and without whom my path and choices would have been dramatically altered.


Authentic Leadership  

Once a teacher, always a teacher I think, but I try each day to link what I have learned on my path to be a leader of faculty and staff, a maintainer of tradition, a role model for future leaders, and a champion of change and innovation in higher education. Just as identity and integrity of the teacher leads to good teaching, it is integrity and authenticity as a leader that drive the value I bring to all aspects of my life, at Madison College and elsewhere. My approach to leadership has emerged from my experience throughout the course of my life, and my leadership style and beliefs have emerged in alignment with my core values of inclusion, respect, good humor and genuineness. Over the years, I have learned to simplify things, ask better questions, drop pretenses, and be true to myself and kind to others at work, at home and with friends. I believe in leading by knowing people, knowing their names and learning what matters to them, for only then can we make authentic connections that position us to inspire, to lead, to transform.

A broad and deep base of business, educational and life experience combined with a rich network of colleagues, friends and family has led me to this point today. Given the opportunity, would I do anything differently? Perhaps I would be gentler with myself, let go of overdoing it and spend more time just sitting on the deck. But substantive changes? No. I am proud of the person I have become and deeply cherish the path, people and choices that have led me here today. The pillars that ground me include a life of love and friendship with Marcia, the valuable role that Madison College plays for so many in our community, fun and amazing family and friends, and the opportunity to make a life in the coolest city anywhere.

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