Postcard from Ann Arbor, Michigan: Visiting the District 3 Conference

by Jennifer Boehmer
Portland Community College
Portland, OR

“M” is for Michigan! And when you visit the quintessential and charming college town of Ann Arbor, the big gold “M” of the University of Michigan stadium won’t let you forget it. The “M” is a symbol of pride seen everywhere, but as it turned out, “M” is also for “motivation,” “memories” and “making connections” thanks to a stellar conference program presented by talented district director Kayte Hamel and the District 3 team.

We began with a welcome reception at renowned Ann Arbor food icon, Zingerman’s Roadhouse, where I got to catch up with Michele Kersten-Hart (next year’s NCMPR president) and Kyle Schwarm (a past NCMPR president). We then enjoyed a dinner featuring Zingerman’s famous delicatessen-inspired cooking and a keynote from the owner himself, Ari Weinzweig.

Ari founded the Zingerman’s deli more than 30 years ago with little more background than having once worked as a dishwasher in a restaurant and a degree in Russian history. His story of building his dream into a nationally famous business, with 10 restaurants and food exports all over the world, is really quite something. At the core of his success is a unique philosophy about how employees are treated. At Zingerman’s, everyone from the busser to the cooks to the delivery drivers has a hand in making decisions. It’s a systems view, premised on the idea that we all advance at a better clip when we all work toward a common mission. And think about it, this works for our colleges as well. Ari used this example: If, when you ask a college enrollment specialist how their day is going, and they say “great – it’s been really quiet” or “awful – we’ve been busy all day,” you are seeing the absence of a systems view. Alternatively, if we are all considering our own personal stake in the mission of bringing higher education to students, how many more dividends can we reap, both in success for the organization and in motivated, happy employees? It’s about cultivating culture, and I think we all found these ideas inspiring.

The next day featured a great lineup of presenters covering topics from social media to mobile campaigns to cross-media marketing to a look at parent perceptions. One presentation about a STEM fair, presented by Laurie Jorgensen of the College of DuPage, provided an especially interesting case study for developing fresh recruitment approaches. Drawing inspiration from the famous COMIC-CON festivals, “STEM-CON” was unique in that it placed concentrated focus on science programs and the exact careers those programs can lead to. Requiring the commitment of dozens of volunteers and internal staff, as well as local business partners representing these industries, the inaugural event was a risk that paid off in spades. I appreciated the clever ways Laurie deliberately reached out to girls and people of color in these often-underrepresented programs, choosing, for example, to kick off the program with a female African American keynoter who is a community science leader. And I have to share this quote the College of DuPage staff received in evaluation: “Amazing exploratorium of STEM possibilities! Please don’t let this event be one of a kind! How can community help?” Who among us wouldn’t shed a tear of joy or two at that kind of feedback?

It’s no surprise that District 3 included some terrific award winners. First I’d like to congratulate Communicator of the Year Dotty Karkheck  (Jackson College), Rising Star Amanda Pochatko (Terra State Community College), and Pacesetter Dr. Rose Bellanca (Washtenaw Community College). Each of these women is a great example of dedication and service to higher education. I’d also like to congratulate all the Medallion awardees – as well as Kayte’s coordinating team who put together an awesome video showcasing the winners!

Our closing keynote provided a fascinating look at brand cultivation while paying homage to the great state of Michigan. Speaker Chad Wiebesick served as the director of social media and interactive marketing for the state of Michigan’s tourism and economic development agency for nine years. He was the one behind the famous state-branding campaign, “Pure Michigan.” Under his influence through social media, the slogan grew to rival the likes of “I love New York” and “What Happens in Vegas Stays in Vegas.” In fact, for people who embraced the love of their home state, “Pure Michigan” even became a popular tattoo! The secret to this mass-marketing success was individual attention: Chad and his team concentrated on cultivating quality followers (not quantity), by singling out die-hard “Pure Michigan” fans. Once when someone used the hashtag in a post about her wedding engagement, they marked their calendars. A year later, when the Michigan wedding was about to take place, they mailed the bride a box of swag. The word-of-mouth goodwill that resulted was priceless. It was this kind of personal attention that spurred such memorable moves as a friendly competition between the states of Michigan and Wisconsin as to which state looked more like a mitten. For the price of $200, a winter clothing drive, and a lot of personal engagement, Chad was able to earn $17 million in free PR that pushed “Pure Michigan” into rallying-cry status. I was really inspired to be reminded that no matter what size our budgets may be, creativity and boldness count for so much.

Before I left Ann Arbor I had just enough time to go for a run through the University of Michigan campus. Running through the stone arches of the law quad, through the red and gold changing leaves, and past back-packed students heading to class, I was reminded why I love higher education so much. There is a feeling of joy I get that comes from being a part of making journeys possible. Thank you so much, District 3 colleagues, for the inspiration you provided, and for the motivation to keep striving forward.

Jennifer Boehmer is currently serving as president of NCMPR and is the associate director for strategic communications at Portland Community College in Oregon.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *