Tennis Anyone?

With the U.S. Open so much in the air right now, my mind doesn’t turn to Flushing Meadows, but rather right here to 27th Street where, for years, we have been turning out championship tennis teams. That may be surprising to many people who don’t automatically link FIT with tennis or soccer or any sport, for that matter. But the fact is we have 15 teams that compete in the National Junior College Athletic Association which is made up of about 600 two-year colleges across the country. And last year alone, four of our teams placed in the top ten nationally–with the women’s tennis team coming in second two years in a row.

The strength of the FIT athletics and recreation program has been years in the making with a dedicated director and coaches patiently developing teams that meet our students’ needs. But our students are natural competitors. They arrive at FIT filled with career ambitions, and the athletes among them apply that same fierce competitive zeal on the playing fields.

FIT Women’s Tennis Team

The upshot is that every year we have a roster of winning teams at both the regional and national level. Last year we had two regional team championships: women’s cross country and women’s volleyball. Both of them placed in the top ten nationally, along with the women’s half marathon and, as I mentioned, women’s tennis.

It may sound as if we have no men’s teams–but we do: men compete in cross country, half marathon, outdoor track, swimming, tennis and so on. And over the years, many of our men’s teams also placed high or the men themselves received All-American honors. It didn’t happen last year, but I am rooting for them for the coming year.

As an educator, it is important to me that our athletes find the right balance between their scholastic and athletic lives. And every year, they make me proud. Among the most prestigious athletic awards college athletes can win are those that recognize their academic achievements as well. Last year, eight of our teams won national all-academic team recognition, including men’s tennis (with a group 3.39 GPA), women’s swimming (group 3.44) and the women’s half marathon team (3.80)–which placed first in the country. Thirteen of our students–with GPA’s ranging from 3.6 to 3.9–were individually recognized as well.

And while I am bragging, I might as well point out that our teams, all called the FIT Tigers, wear the best-looking, sharpest, COOLEST uniforms in the country. This is the Fashion Institute of Technology after all.

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Welcome to our 70th Year

FIT_70year_logo_primary_BLUEWhenever we start a new academic year, I count my blessings. Living as we do in a world incessantly ablaze, it is gratifying to return to FIT and to focus anew on the business and challenges of my “work-a-day” life. Fortunately for me, and I believe for everyone at FIT, the work we do is the best and most fulfilling in the world: it is the work of education…the work of opportunity.

This happens to be a special year in the life of the college. It is our 70th anniversary. In 1944, FIT greeted its first students: 100 men and women who wished to pursue careers in the garment industry. They were beneficiaries of visionaries–bold, idealistic, risk-taking individuals who understood that even though their industry was then thriving, its future was not assured. They were tailors, manufacturers, labor leaders and educators who believed that education was the key to the future. For years they fruitlessly pedaled their appeal to the city fathers for an institution such as ours. When the state funded new technical schools for every industry except its largest–apparel–our founders put up their own money and struck their own deals to open our doors.

That is the spirit that continues to thrive here. Our resilience and remarkable growth over these 70 years provide a record of determined risk-taking, a record of idealism and accomplishment. This year 2300 new students arrived, offering new energy, new talent and new ideas–students eager to seize the day and ensure, once again, the future our founders envisioned.

That is why–no matter what is happening outside our doors–I am always so pleased to welcome our faculty, administrators, staff and students to another academic year. I feel privileged to be part of a community that creates opportunity for the next generation and the pathway to the future. I cannot help but wonder if our founders would recognize their industry as it has evolved over these 70 years–but I believe they would surely recognize their own DNA in the college that they created and be very very proud.

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Creativity & Business

In a meeting on campus not long ago, we were talking about creativity in the context of FIT when one of the people present said, “Creativity is rewritten at FIT every day.” That really struck a chord with me–and I think with others in the room–because it is a kind of global statement that rings true throughout the college: in the curricula of all of our schools, in our pedagogy, in the work our students produce every single day.

The statement actually came from Professor Stephan Kanlian, who heads our MPS program in cosmetics and fragrance marketing and management, and I point this out because I think there is a general misconception “out there”– in the world at large–that creativity is limited to artists and designers, musicians and performers. How many times have we heard those derogatory references to “suits”–the grim men and women in the boardroom or back offices who are counting the dollars and cents, immune to the muses of poetry, music or art. But is Bobbi Brown a “suit?” Leslie Blodgett? What about Bill Gates? It’s a terrible cliché and does no justice to the immense creativity involved in any successful enterprise, be it a couture collection, a marketing strategy or a business plan.

Here is a great example: At one of our recent board meetings, four of our business school students–two in FMM, one in AMC, and one in TDM–did a presentation of a business plan they created for opening a Paris branch of a New York City-based retailer. They were the first-place winners of an annual international student competition sponsored by the World Retail Congress. The elements involved were daunting, ranging from the selection of the store to finding a location for it in Paris; adapting the retail concept for the Paris market, developing a business plan–with all of the requisite “suit”-intensive stats: operating costs, rent, taxes, labor costs, profitability–and a marketing plan for the store opening and a five year growth plan. In justifying their Parisian location, they were also required to produce a video, as well as visuals for their presentation at the Congress. Now, we can talk about the rigorous critical thinking that went into this project, but think of the creativity that infused all of that. In the end, our business students apply everything they learn through the lens of their own innate creativity.

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Why Teens (and Pre-Teens!) Love FIT

It seems oddly quiet—and calm—on campus this week, and I know why. Our summer precollege programs, which this year brought 2,000 teens and preteens to campus, just ended. While we always have college students taking courses during the summer, they seem to disappear into the ether when these highly energized youngsters arrive. With an astonishing pitch of excitement, they seem to take over every corridor, classroom, elevator, our sidewalks and plazas. They always make me smile.

They come from all over the world: Belgium, Mexico, Pakistan, Italy, France and China, not to mention 44 states, including California, Utah, Tennessee and Minnesota. But the majority are from the New York region. And since we offer programs for middle school as well as high school students, they range in age from 11 to 18. In fact, over 20 percent are between the ages of 11 to 14.

Many colleges offer summer programs for teenagers, but ours is unique in the same way that FIT is unique: it is geared for the student with an interest in design, fashion, the arts—or the business of fashion. With schools throughout the nation offering almost no exposure to the arts anymore, our precollege programs often provide a first opportunity for these youngsters to explore their incipient interests and to cultivate their budding talents. I wish every youngster had this chance.

So for the past three weeks, here they were, in our labs, classrooms and studios, taking courses such as fashion forecasting, draping, life drawing, photography, fashion art, magazine design, the beauty business, comic book drawing (a special hit with the boys), and fashion merchandising. They took field trips to galleries, museums, to designer studios and stores ranging from H&M to Prada. They also toured our own museum’s special collection and were introduced to our library’s archives. Exposed in these settings to the very resources that industry professionals use, the students were, according to our precollege program director, “in heaven.”

I was fascinated to learn that these students are not interested in technology-based courses. They are saturated with technology. What they want is a hands-on tactile experience—which they are not getting in their schools—or straightforward career-oriented information. So the design-oriented students signed up for sculpture and sewing, painting and screen printing. And our business-oriented students chose courses in which they could learn as directly as possible how the industry works and picked their instructors’ brains about other resources such as trade publications and websites.

It is only a three-week program, and yet it is, for these students, profoundly important. They are at an impressionable—even vulnerable—age in a new environment that encourages them to explore their creativity and to be a little bit introspective. Not surprisingly, they form close friendships. “It’s nice to really fit in somewhere,” one girl said in her blog. Indeed, for many of them, the experience is transformative. And I have to share a quote from a thank you letter one young man sent to one of his instructors: “Your class taught me about college preparation, a career and opportunities that I couldn’t imagine…You helped me see that life beyond high school was way more realistic and achievable than I thought.” It is easy to understand why almost 25 percent of the students in FIT’s first-year class—every year—were participants in our precollege program.

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The Creative Process and Critical Thinking

As I walked through the exhibits of our graduating Art and Design students at the end of the spring semester, I was reminded of a wonderful story about the composer Johannes Brahms that people like to tell when talking about creativity–or the creative process. One evening in Vienna, so the story goes, Brahms was with a group of friends in a local café. He was asked how he spent the day. “I was working on my symphony,” he said. “In the morning, I added an eighth note. In the afternoon, I took it out.”

As much as anything, this story–probably apocryphal–illustrates a salient point about creativity. It is hard, painstaking work. It is often a struggle. It requires deep and serious thinking. Critical thinking.

I think we often harbor romantic notions about the creative process. We may envision a Jackson Pollack exuberantly dripping paint on a canvas…a designer intuitively draping fabric around a dress form… a rap artist spontaneously rhyming. But it doesn’t happen like that. And I think our students know that very well. They work long hard hours to produce their amazingly inventive objects, products and art works. And like their peers in any traditional liberal arts college, they need well-developed critical thinking skills to succeed.

In fact, because creativity is one of the highest forms of critical thinking, I could even argue that our students are held to a higher standard than students at traditional colleges and universities. In their senior design projects, our Art and Design students face complex problem-solving challenges and produce brilliant toys and jewelry, packages and paintings, garments and accessories, textiles, jewelry, interiors, photographs. The creation of these works reflects all of those cognitive processes that make up the full complement of critical thinking skills: knowledge, comprehension, application, analysis, synthesis and judgment.

Imagine the knowledge required to determine the impact of pigments and dyes on silks or linens, to understand the relationship between light and color or to design a restaurant lounge to code; imagine the analysis required to resolve basic design issues of size and composition, the judgment that goes into the selection of a fabric, the placement of a dart or a button or a product in a photo shoot. These are just a few examples of the kind of critical thinking skills these students must master and apply as they go about their creative tasks.

As Brahms said of that eighth note: “In the afternoon, I took it out.”

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