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August 28, 2008

The Tale of Two Grateful Dead Shirts and My Passion for Red Rover

Last week I spoke at U. Penn Erie's freshmen orientation in a huge room filled with 1200 freshman. The orientation leaders were scattered around the room directing the students to fill the seats closest to the front. In my normal approach, I planted myself by the front door with a few orientation leaders and became the informal welcoming crew.

The students filled in as we greeted them with smiles and good morning wishes. I usually comment on cool or unique clothing I see as a way to personalize the greeting and make the students feel more welcome.

With the room about half full a student walked in wearing a torn Grateful Dead shirt, but I couldn't see his face to make eye contact and say hello because his head was drooped to his chest. His shoulders hung low and his feet barley lifted off the ground as he moved past. All his non verbals said he wasn't excited to be there and he hadn't made any friends yet. As he passed me in our greeting line, I pointed to his shirt and said, "Nice shirt." He looked up and smiled quickly and went on to his seat off to the side by himself.

Ten minutes passed and with the room nearly full, another student walked in with a similar torn Grateful Dead shirt and body language. As he passed me in the greeting line, I pointed at his shirt and said, "Nice shirt." He looked up and smiled. I continued,  "There's another guy who came in with almost the exact same shirt. He's seated somewhere over there." I pointed and the student's eyes lit up for a moment as he looked over the crowd of people. But with 1200 freshman in one room, it was nearly impossible to find that one student again.

I held out hope that maybe they'd run into each other throughout the rest of the day and make a connection because they were the only two people wearing Grateful Dead shirts. But the realistic side of me knew that the odds were extremely low and that made me sad because that one little connection could have completely changed their college experience.

The National Resource Center for The First-Year Experience and Student in Transition says,

"If we don't engage a student within the first two weeks of school, we essentially loose them for the full 2 or 4 years."

That's my fear of leaving the connection up to chance or through some randomly paired ice breaker. We might loose them for the full 2 or 4 years. I know there is a fantasy about meeting interesting people in college by chance, but we shouldn't stop there.

This leads to the passion I have for what we are doing with Red Rover. It's not just a technology solution or assessment tool, it really can change lives and I believe that 100%. It's why we've put so much into it already and continue to do so. When I talk about Red Rover, I don't want to talk about it as just a technology solution, but rather I want to talk about it in terms of changing students' lives, because that's what it does. For the two students at U. Penn Erie, it could have potentially helped them have a better first day at college, a better four years at college, and ultimately a better life.

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