Missing Miss Communication

I miss Miss Communication. She—if we can call “her” “she”—was the striking sculptural installation outside the Pomerantz Center that dominated the entrance area of the building for five months. Elegant and elusive, she stood 20 feet tall and was made up of over 3200 cans and 1600 lines of fishing wire that connected the cans across a 27 foot span.

Miss Communication was the creation of Pansum Cheng, an artist who has been a sculpture technologist in our Fine Arts department for nine years. He received a grant last year from the President’s Diversity Council to erect Miss Communication—a challenging process that took well over four months and the assistance of a rotating team of students and the active support of the college’s security, buildings and grounds, and environmental health and safety departments.

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Cans and string: it seemed so simple. But somehow, looking at the installation, I’m not sure it really was. I mean, I’ve certainly watched children using string and cans to chatter away, but apparently very few viewers did that. Maybe Miss Communication was too imposing or too complex: after all, with so many almost barely visible lines stretched across that 27 feet, it could be difficult to even see who you are talking to on the other side. So maybe Miss Communication was making another kind of statement, one that required more contemplation.

Mr. Cheng, who is a native of mainland China, arrived here at the age of nine. He says he experienced a kind of cultural disconnect—not an unusual occurrence for an immigrant—and had to learn to read between the lines. It’s not just language, he points out, but ethnicity, age, religion, gender, personal ambitions—all these things and more play a role in how we connect with and understand one another. This piece, he says, was borne out of his frustration, and even excitement, of living in such an intensive multicultural world. I understand that. One needn’t be an immigrant, or nine years old, to experience it. We all go through the world interpreting other peoples’ words, their body language, and their intentions. We don’t begin to know how often we misread and misunderstand one another….how often our communication is really miscommunication.

So yes, I miss Miss Communication. She had a lot to say to us—a lot worth thinking about and remembering in our everyday encounters with the world.

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Student Ideas Resonate at Clinton Global Initiative University

At every turn at FIT, I find a reason to be proud. It is approaching end of semester and our corridors and lobbies are starting to radiate with outstanding examples of student (and faculty!) work. In too many disciplines to name, our students are being selected for exceptional awards. Last week I posted about two of our students who dazzled legislators in Albany as we lobbied for funding.

Now, I am pleased to say that two FIT students—Lydia Baird and Willa Tsokanis—recently returned from the University of Miami where they represented the college at the annual Clinton Global Initiative University (CGIU). Only one in six proposals is accepted at CGIU for presentation; it is a very selective process. The students were also asked to write an op-ed for a publication that CGIU put out as part of its meeting.

Lydia Baird and Willa Tsokanis
Lydia Baird and Willa Tsokanis

Lydia and Willa are both Textile Development and Marketing students and their winning proposal was to develop a muslin compost system for FIT. They believe—appropriately so—that FIT should be at the forefront of fabric waste management and that we can lead the fashion and textile industry by education and example.

Last year, three of our students were selected to attend the CGIU with their proposal to plant a natural dye garden, which indeed they did on the 9th floor terrace of the Feldman Center, and which has been carefully tended to throughout the year. I am very optimistic about the creative and ambitious compost system Lydia and Willa will develop and all FIT can continue to do to protect and preserve our planet’s resources.

» Learn more about the muslin compost system proposal

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Advocating in Albany: Budget Time for New York State

It is budget time in Albany and on the long list of items being negotiated is one of prime importance to FIT: how much funding will the state’s community colleges receive in base aid. Earlier this month, I joined a small, but potent contingent of FIT representatives to travel to Albany to lobby for the best possible outcome for FIT and our sister SUNY campuses.

In fact, we do this every year while the legislature is wrestling over the budget. We are not the only college to do so. SUNY itself mounts aggressive advocacy campaigns. This year, we spent part of our two days in Albany with the New York Community College Trustees and the New York Community College Association of Presidents, who were there on behalf of the base aid issue as well.

Before I even go into the details of what we want, I have to state the obvious: this is an extremely hectic and important time in Albany. By law, the budget must be passed by April 1. Governor Cuomo has already issued his proposed executive budget. While we were there, endless numbers of special interest groups—many wearing bright t-shirts or hats brandishing their logos—were crowding the elevators and the marble hallways of the ornate old Capital and the legislative office building, hoping for two minutes or ten with a legislator or a staff member. Despite the freezing weather and piles of snow outside, thousands of people were out there, rallying for one cause or another.

Capturing the attention of legislators under these circumstances is a task that combines the labors of Hercules with the film Groundhog Day, in which—for us—the same day is repeated again and again as though it’s the first time. With each and every legislator, we explain and entreat—and, dare I say, we do it enthusiastically and effectively: we capture their attention. We arrive every year fully prepared, thanks to the diligent advance work conducted by our director of government relations, Lisa Wager, and our vice president for finance and administration, Sherry Brabham, both of whom were part of our small traveling team.

But as persuasive as our funding arguments always are, nothing is as powerful and persuasive as the students who accompany us. They are FIT’s best advertisement.

albany_with_students

Legislators love them. Indeed, one of the great pleasures of these trips for me is to witness the interaction between the legislators and our students. This year, we had Annmarie Arnone, a first year illustration major from Nassau County, and Christopher Wallace, a third year production management major from Brooklyn, who is president of the Student Association. You should have seen them! With poise, humor and energy, these very articulate students talked about their life at FIT with total conviction and affection. I am convinced that these students are the reason our Albany representatives greet us each year with such enthusiasm.

I should add that we were able to show off our faculty by presenting each legislator with a signed and framed sheet of the U.S. Postal Service’s 2015 Lunar New Year stamp, commemorating The Year of the Ram, illustrated by Professor Kam Mak—one of several of our faculty who have designed US postage stamps.

Lunar New Year stamp illustrated by Kam Mak

Our effort in Albany was largely to advocate in support of SUNY’s community college funding request—its Rational Revenue Plan—for base aid increases. This calls for an increase of $250 per full-time equivalent (FTE) student for each of the coming three years. The governor has proposed no increase at all in base-aid for the coming year. Last year, we ended up receiving only $75 per FTE—leaving us with less money per FTE than we received in the darkest days of the recession.

We met “formally” with numerous influential senators, including our own Senate representative Brad Hoylman, Senators Ken LaValle, who chairs the senate higher education committee and Toby Ann Stavisky, who is the ranking Democratic member of the senate higher education committee. We also met with Assembly members Denny Farrell, chair of the ways and means committee, and higher education chair Deborah Glick—and had opportunities to greet other legislators as well. As demanding as these visits are, they are well worth it, not only to add our voice to those of our sister campuses advocating for the funds we all need, but also because it gives us one more opportunity to raise high the FIT flag.

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Goodbye, Winter!

It is hard to believe that daylight savings time has arrived. Just the other day we had to close the college early—yet again—because of the treacherous snow-driven weather. But now Accuweather tells us that all that snow will be melting—it is predicting temperatures in the 40s and 50’s, and even the 60’s over the next few weeks.

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As I measure it, we had almost eight weeks of cruelly freezing, disabling weather this winter—and like everyone else, I am bored by it. The irony, for me, is that I normally like cold weather. I’m sorry to say so, but it’s true. Well, what I really like is the clothing that winter requires. I love the wonderful fabrics that keep us warm: the wide variety of wools, the sweaters, the coats, the beautiful leather gloves and boots, the shawls. But I am ready to close the door on my winter closet. So is BeBe, by the way.

BeBe has never liked having to wear booties or storm coats or little woolen sweaters—handsome as he is in them. BeBe does not need a summer wardrobe and he is panting in anticipation of that 60 degree day. At this point, so am I.

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Career Success Depends on Liberal Arts, Part 2

One of the disturbing outcomes of the surveys I posted about recently on college learning and career success is the disparity between what employers and college students think about how prepared the students really are for the workplace. In fact, the survey report is titled: Falling Short? College Learning and Career Success.

One of the major finding was that employers “overwhelmingly” endorse what they call “broad learning” and cross-cutting skills as key to career success. And in that category, they include all of those skills we associate with the liberal arts: critical thinking, oral and written communication, analytic reasoning, to name a few. But the report summarizes two separate national surveys conducted at the same time: one of business and non-profit leaders and the other of current college students. Both groups were asked some of the same questions, and yet they arrive at some startlingly different conclusions—some of which may be detrimental to students as they start to seek jobs.

In fact, the students seem to fully agree with employers on the career value of broad learning and cross-cutting skills such as critical thinking…oral and written communication…analytic reasoning…and so on. The problem is that students by a large majority think they have developed those skills—whereas employers disagree. Only about 25 percent of employers say that recent college graduates are well prepared in these areas. And more than two-thirds say that “improvements are needed” if recent college graduates expect to advance and get promotions in the workplace.

Why the discrepancy between the students’ and employers’ assessments? Unfortunately, the report is silent on that. It simply states the outcomes.

What are we, at FIT, to make of this? We believe we prepare our students well in the areas in which employers say students—and colleges—are “falling short.” Over the last decade as we implemented our strategic plan, we raised the profile on liberal arts learning and emphasized the acquisition of critical thinking skills.

In recent years, our students have demonstrated considerable improvement in tests on critical thinking; indeed, our Middle States evaluators noted in 2012 that students report they are challenged to think critically in completing their assignments. Of course, that could speak to the same misleading confidence that the students in this survey expressed. The millennial generation is nothing if not self-confident.

On the other hand, I think of other metrics that one might use to assess how well we do on this score. One third of our student interns are hired by their places of employment, which at least suggests that employers are pleased with their abilities. Our job placement rate is over 80 percent. And then, late last year, Payscale.com—the salary, benefits, and compensation information company—reported that FIT alumni had the highest mid-career median salary of all 349 community colleges in the survey. Surely that would suggest that these FIT graduates managed to advance in their careers quite well.

Our students have another advantage as well. One of the additional findings in these surveys is the importance that employers attach to “applied learning.” Well, applied learning is really one of FIT’s hallmarks. With our roots in industry, we developed a pedagogy at the outset that emphasizes both theory and “applied” or “experiential” learning. Internships, senior or capstone projects, the competitions our students enter…all of these require the acquisition and application of real world skills, and I believe this helps to make our students very attractive in the job market.

None of this is “proof,” of course. I think what this report tells us is that no matter how well we think we are doing, we cannot afford to be complacent. Even if we think our students are the exception—and we have no way to “prove” that they are—we still must maintain the pressure on ourselves to ensure that when FIT students graduate, they do, indeed, possess the skills that employers value most. Our students—and their future employers—deserve no less.

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