Tag: Lawrence alumni

Sixth annual Giving Day brings record support for Lawrence and its students

Terry Moran '82 interviews Dominica Chang (far right) and the four Lawrence University students who studied abroad in Senegal during the spring term.
As the cameras roll during Thursday’s live one-hour Giving Day webcast, host Terry Moran ’82 interviews Dominica Chang (far right) and the four Lawrence University students (from left) who studied abroad in Senegal during the spring term, Bronwyn Earthman, Tamima Tabishat, Greta Wilkening, and Miriam Thew Forrester.

Story by Ed Berthiaume / Communications

Lawrence University saw a huge outpouring of support Thursday as alumni, faculty, staff, students and other supporters contributed more than $1.94 million on the school’s annual Giving Day, the most ever in the event’s six-year history.

Giving Day was highlighted with a one-hour live webcast on Thursday evening, hosted by Terry Moran ’82, a national correspondent for ABC News and the parent of a 2018 Lawrence graduate.

The $1,940,586 in contributions that arrived over the course of the day came from more than 3,100 donors. Records were set in the amount raised, the number of overall donors and the number of participating faculty and staff.

“Wow, what a day for Lawrence,” President Mark Burstein said. “The funds we raised will support our students in countless essential ways. Thank you to the Lawrence community for your investments in the university. Our game changers, the Classes of 2003 to 2023, and faculty and staff blew the roof off.”

Giving Day drew attention to the myriad of ways financial contributions support Lawrence students, among them campus improvements, enhanced study-abroad opportunities, burgeoning sustainability efforts, new and diverse classroom and research innovations, music and other arts activities, and athletics.

Faculty, staff, and students pitched in over the course of the day, holding engagement events on campus and reaching out to alumni around the world, capped by the evening webcast that featured videos on campus construction projects, the school’s Full Speed to Full Need initiative, the Conservatory of Music’s Presto! tour, and the athletic department’s camaraderie and enthusiasm. Burstein, faculty and students joined Moran as guests to talk about the many ways in which the funding supports the liberal arts experience for today’s students.

“We are beyond excited and grateful that the whole Lawrence community came together to break records,” said Amber Nelson, associate director of Annual Giving and a key organizer of Giving Day. “It is always impressive seeing so many people rally around Giving Day. From alumni reaching out to their classmates, encouraging them to give, to staff answering phones, to students running events on campus, to countless other ways people showed their support, it really takes so many different people coming together to make this day so special for Lawrence.”

President Mark Burstein (right) talks on the Giving Day set with host Terry Moran ’82.

The Giving Day success is the continuation of momentum that has been building since the $220 million Be the Light! Campaign first launched, quietly in January 2014 and then publicly in November 2018. Last month, Lawrence landed at No. 26 on Forbes magazine’s 2019 edition of the Grateful Graduates Index, which follows the money in terms of alumni giving at private, not-for-profit colleges. Lawrence was the only Wisconsin school to place in the top 70, one more sign of the enduring bonds between the school and its alumni.

Most of the monies raised Thursday will go to the Lawrence Fund, which is used to support the day-to-day operations of the campus and the student experience. The Lawrence Fund is one of the pillars of the Be the Light! Campaign.

Monies donated Thursday were matched by supporters who agreed to be “game changers” in the Giving Day campaign. For contributions from the Classes of 2003 through 2023, they matched $500 for every contribution, no matter the amount. For all other contributions, they matched dollar for dollar.

Lawrence’s 2018-19 fiscal report showed support topping $24.4 million, the fourth highest year to date. The Be the Light! Campaign has surpassed $185 million to date in gifts and pledges.

The Be the Light! Campaign includes the Lawrence Fund as one of its four cornerstones, along with the Full Speed to Full Need initiative to make Lawrence accessible and affordable to all academically qualifying students, the Student Journey, which has welcomed numerous endowed positions aimed at supporting cutting edge programs and course offerings, and Campus Renewal, targeting facility and infrastructure upgrade projects on campus.

Ed Berthiaume is director of public information at Lawrence University. Email: ed.c.berthiaume@lawrence.edu

Lawrence experience inspires, informs Madhuri Vijay’s path to “The Far Field”

Portrait of Madhuri Vijay
Madhuri Vijay ’09 has earned critical praise for her debut novel, “The Far Field,” including being long-listed as a semifinalist for the Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction. The 24 semifinalists will be narrowed to six on Nov. 4. (Photo courtesy of Manvi Rao)

Story by Ed Berthiaume / Communications

Madhuri Vijay ’09 was taken aback by the critical praise that accompanied the January arrival of her debut novel, The Far Field.

Now, nine months and a multi-continent book tour later, comes the announcement that her novel, published by Grove Press, has been long-listed for the prestigious 2020 Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction, a literary honor that could push her visibility to new heights.

“The whole thing feels somewhat surreal and a bit like a dream,” Vijay said by phone from her home in Hawaii, where she and her husband are preparing for the imminent arrival of their first child. “It’s always hard to take (the honors) seriously because it always seems like someone is going to call and say, this has all been a big mistake.”

That is not going to happen.

Ten years removed from her days as a Lawrence University undergrad, Vijay has arrived as a significant young novelist. The Far Field has been short-listed for the JCB Prize for Literature, long-listed for the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature, and has drawn stellar praise in book reviews from the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, New Yorker, and others. On Nov. 4, the 24 books long-listed for the Carnegie medal in the fiction category will be narrowed to six finalists.

Along with accolades from the literary awards circuit comes much admiration from faculty members at Lawrence who nurtured Vijay’s storytelling skills a decade ago, not to mention current students who see her as a rock star in the making.

“When Madhuri visited my creative writing class last winter — she read at LU on the day her novel was officially released — my students saw her as a kind of superhero: glamorous and whip-smart and on the verge of international fame,” said professor of English David McGlynn. “But they only glimpsed the end result of an awful lot of work and an endless amount of dedication and determination.”

The publishing of The Far Field came after a six-year writing and editing process that Vijay called grueling, exhausting, and exhilarating. The book, set mostly in Bangalore, a metropolitan area in southern India where Vijay grew up, and the more remote, mountainous regions of Kashmir, tells the story of Shalini, a restless young woman, newly graduated from college and reeling from her mother’s death, who sets out from her privileged life in Bangalore in search of a family acquaintance from her childhood. She runs smack into the unsettled and volatile politics of Kashmir.

When Vijay launched her book tour early this year, Lawrence was an important stop. She points to her time as a student here as the impetus to a life of writing. She will tell you she arrived in the fall of 2005 as a determined but narrowly focused freshman. She’ll then tell you she left four years later having explored, sampled, and embraced every nook and cranny of the liberal arts experience, a creative enlightenment that rerouted her plans, turned her focus to fiction writing, and led her to the story that became The Far Field.

She double-majored in psychology and English at Lawrence, but it wasn’t until she was midway through a 12-month Watson Fellowship following graduation that she called off her plans to go to graduate school for psychology, applying instead to the Iowa Writers Workshop, a highly focused two-year writing residency at the University of Iowa.

Details on Lawrence’s English major here

“Lawrence itself was one of the best things that ever happened to me,” Vijay said. “I grew up in India, and our system of learning is in some ways very good because it’s very thorough and it’s science-based and it’s very rigorous, but it doesn’t allow for a lot of experimentation and play.

“So, when I got to Lawrence, I was overjoyed to discover that I could just dabble in all of these different things. I would take biology and Latin and I would sing in the choir and I would do all of these different things, which is the foundation of a liberal arts education. But it’s also, as I see it now, the foundation for being a good fiction writer, in that you have to be interested in everything all of the time and that nothing is divorced from the other thing. … Everything is worthy of study and everything is worthy of interest. That’s the thing I discovered at Lawrence.”

McGlynn was in his first year on the Lawrence faculty in 2006 when he first encountered Vijay, then a sophomore in his English 360 class. He recalled her being smart, poised and articulate, but her writing was far from polished.

“Her writing showed promise, but it also needed to be refined and to mature,” he said.

What made her stand out, though, was a willingness to work. That was evident from the get-go.

“She recognized her intellectual capacity, but she also knew capacity was only the beginning,” McGlynn said. “She knew she needed to work. She knew she needed to walk the path. That, more than anything, was her great gift. She remains one of the most dedicated and passionate students I have ever taught in my 13 years at Lawrence.”

With additional guidance from Tim Spurgin, the Bonnie Glidden Buchanan Professor of English Literature and associate professor of English, Vijay applied to and was selected for a Watson Fellowship, funding a year of travel and study. Her Watson study was focused on people from India living in foreign lands. Her travels took her to South Africa, Malaysia, and Tanzania, among other places, and her desire to write and create grew along the away.

Details on the Watson Fellowship here

“Being on the Watson means you are alone for a year,” Vijay said. “You’re absolutely independent in that nobody is looking over your shoulder. You either do the work or you don’t, which, in a nutshell, is what it means to be a writer. No one is waiting for you to produce anything. You either do the work or you don’t. All the urgency has to come from you, and it’s a lonely profession.”

Interestingly, it was during her Watson year that she first encountered Shalini and some of the other fictional characters that would eventually become key players in The Far Field. And it was her continued correspondence with McGlynn that in part set the wheels in motion.

“I wrote a short story during the Watson that had some of these same characters in it,” Vijay said. “It was very bad. But David McGlynn read it. He is one of the few people I trust to read even my worst writing. He was the one who literally suggested, ‘Why don’t you make this a novel?’ So, I wrote about 30 pages, and that’s how I got to Iowa, on the strength of those 30 pages. But it was a very different version. It had nothing to do with the book that eventually got published.

“After I got into Iowa, I didn’t touch those 30 pages, and I didn’t think about those characters for two years. It was only after Iowa when I was thinking about what to do next that I began thinking about those characters again. … If David hadn’t said that to me, I probably wouldn’t have written this book. I may have written something different, but not this book.”

Vijay is now a year into a follow-up book project that she says has yet to fully take shape. She knows the positive reaction to The Far Field assures nothing. It’s about continuing to put in the work.

“There is no point where you arrive at some sort of certainty where you say, ‘OK, this is a guarantee,’” she said of her life as a novelist. “Every single day feels like a gamble, feels like a risk, feels like you could fall at any given moment. That point (of certainty) hasn’t arrived, and I don’t think it ever will. And I don’t think it ever should. … You should always feel like you might fall flat on your face. That is the only way to do it honestly.”

Ed Berthiaume is director of public information at Lawrence University. Email: ed.c.berthiaume@lawrence.edu

Moran to host Giving Day webcast; campus engagement activities planned Thursday

Aerial shot of the Lawrence campus, featuring Main Hall in the forefront.
Maintaining Lawrence’s beautiful campus takes an ongoing commitment. The annual Giving Day, which engages alumni, faculty, staff, students, and other supporters, is a big part of that commitment. A one-hour live Giving Day webcast begins at 7 p.m. Thursday.

Story by Isabella Mariani ‘21

The sixth annual Lawrence Giving Day kicks off on Thursday, Oct. 10, and it promises to be the biggest one yet, highlighted by a one-hour live evening webcast on lawrence.edu, hosted by ABC News journalist Terry Moran ’82.

Terry Moran ’82

The schedule for this one-day fundraising event is packed with exciting events designed to highlight all that’s good about Lawrence University.

“It’s about celebrating Lawrence in general,” said Amber Nelson, associate director of Annual Giving. “I’m so happy with how it’s grown. Last year was a record-breaking year for us with dollars and donors due to the great outreach we were able to do.”

The goal is to make each year more successful than the last; Lawrence is always adapting to meet the needs of students, therefore always in need of funding. This means ramping up engagement with potential givers, and, of course, with the students who are doing great things on campus, showcasing just how important those gifts are.

Here’s a rundown of Giving Day highlights so you won’t miss a moment. Use the hashtag #LUGives on social media to spread the word.

An assist from a beloved alum

As the host of Giving Day, Moran will take the lead on the 7 p.m. live show and will meet with students throughout the day to talk about experiences they’ve had at Lawrence that are made possible by Giving Day contributions.

Moran, who has remained engaged with Lawrence through the years and frequently teaches summer seminars at Bjorklunden, has covered the world as a journalist with ABC News for the past 22 years. He is a senior national correspondent based in Washington, D.C. He was previously based in London and served as the network’s chief foreign correspondent. Earlier in his career he was an anchor on Nightline, World News, and other ABC News broadcasts.

An editor at The Lawrentian during his time at Lawrence, Moran also has written for a number of publications, including the New York Times, Washington Post, and The New Republic.

New campus engagement events

Student participation in Giving Day is of high importance for the overall success of the fundraiser. After all, it’s students who see the impact of gifts each day at Lawrence. This year, students will have multiple opportunities to get involved with engagement events, with a chance to win sweet prizes.

For one, the Student Ambassador Program will host a game of the Price is Right, where students can guess the prices of various items on campus and win some Lawrence gear. It’s happening from 8 to 9 p.m. Thursday in the Warch Campus Center.

Other events on Thursday include Spin the Wheel Trivia (11 a.m.-1 p.m. in Warch); Make Some Noise for Giving Day, a chance to play musical instruments and offer a personalized thank you to donors (2 to 3 p.m. outside of the Conservatory of Music); and What’s on the Menu for Giving Day, a food spread catered by The Jerk Joint (5 to 6:30 p.m. in the Diversity and Intercultural Center).

Giving Challenges

Giving Challenges are the key to connecting with the community on Giving Day. Keep an eye out for five challenges you can participate in on Facebook, where you can help reach a goal by sharing posts and tagging friends to spread the word about Giving Day.

Supporting the Lawrence Fund

You can give to numerous areas on Giving Day, but the Lawrence Fund is the primary repository for gifts. The fund distributes gifts to four key areas of need — affordability, academic excellence, student experience and caring for campus.

“It keeps everything going on campus” Nelson said of the Lawrence Fund.

Gifts are matched by Game Changers

The name Game Changers is no joke. This Giving Day, these generous supporters boost every gift. Every gift. Gifts from the Classes of 2003 through 2023 will be matched with $500, while all others are matched dollar for dollar. These alumni, family and friends are a huge inspiration.

“It’s wonderful to see the community coming together and supporting this,” Nelson said. “Alumni understand they’re paying it forward. It’s cool to see their willingness to give back and that they’re proud to be a Lawrentian. It’s a really uplifting day altogether.”

Exciting live shows

Don’t miss any of the live shows on Facebook that will be happening throughout the day. Student hosts will take our virtual audiences along for the ride to campus events and behind the scenes of the live evening webcast.

“Seeing the impact of (the gifts) and what they can do is one of the great things,” Nelson said of the significance of Giving Day. “Being able to hear students share about a research project they’re able to do because of the money raised or the scholarship they got. … Seeing how the support for Giving Day factors into that really plays a role.”

It’ll all be topped off by the live show on the Lawrence website from 7 to 8 p.m., hosted by Moran.

Isabella Mariani ’21 is a student writer in the Communications office.

VR at 50: 1969 brought much change, including debut of a beloved campus bar

Mark Catron '69, a student bartender when the Viking Room opened as a bar in 1969, stands behind the bar with Jake Yingling '20 during Reunion Weekend.
Past meets present: Mark Catron ’69, a student bartender when the Viking Room opened as a bar in 1969, joins current student bartender Jake Yingling ’20 behind the bar during Reunion Weekend in mid-June. “Fridays and Saturdays were very, very popular,” Catron said of that first year.

Story by Ed Berthiaume / Communications

The Viking Room, a cherished on-campus hangout for generations of students, is carved deeply into the history of Lawrence University.

The names of students past and present cover the tables and booths, carved with affection, a metaphor of sorts for the deep bonds that alumni have with the place best known as the VR. Tucked in the lower level of Memorial Hall, it has served as a gathering place for students of drinking age — and faculty and staff — for five decades.

The VR is celebrating its 50th year as a bar. It had long existed as an on-campus lounge, but it didn’t serve alcohol until the first beer was tapped on March 7, 1969.

Mark Catron ’69 remembers it well. He was one of the original student bartenders, pouring beers during his senior year while “Bad Moon Rising” and “Sugar, Sugar” blasted from the speakers.

“The response was overwhelming. It was terrific,” said Catron, who visited the VR in early June while back on campus for his 50th class reunion. “People would come in after their afternoon classes and sit around and talk and have a beer or study.

“Fridays and Saturdays were very, very popular. There would be dances and a lot of music.”

The times they are a-changin’

When Lawrence successfully sought a city liquor license and remade the VR into a bar, it was new territory. Not many college campuses featured their own bar. The drinking age was 18 at the time, which meant most every student was a potential customer.

It arrived at a time when college campuses were hotbeds for social change and political demonstrations. There was no shortage of talking points in the spring of ’69 as students gathered in the VR.

“The four years I was here, there were terrific changes in powers, dormitory living and arrangements,” Catron said. “And clearly, this was part of the liberalization of the campus. Between the time we came and the time we left, there was a lot of turmoil, a lot of change going on, a lot of people questioning the way things had always been.”

Introducing a bar on campus amid all that, well, that was either going to prove to be genius or crazy, Catron said.

“From the administration point, maybe it was a sort of experiment to see if the students were capable of handling it in a responsible way,” he said. “I never had the impression there was ever any doubt about that. But I’m sure there had to be some questions among the adults in the room.

“This was the same time we were occupying the dean’s office. Lots of challenges were going on from a social standpoint. … The campus was different when we left from when we arrived, and the bar was just part of that change.”

Susan Jasin ’69 was another of the original student bartenders. When she went to Appleton City Hall to get her bartender’s license, she said the workers there told her she was the first woman in the city to be licensed as a bartender.

“I kind of got a giggle out of that at the time,” she said.

“It was fun to do because it was different and nobody else was doing it. I was just me. I was just Susan. I was doing it because it was fun.”

A new dynamic

While the VR remains a big part of campus life 50 years later, much has changed from its heyday in those early years. When Wisconsin’s drinking age increased to 19 in 1984 and then 21 in 1986, the dynamic in the VR changed, with much of the student body no longer old enough to legally drink.

The VR managers began to more actively market the bar to faculty and staff. A 1988 memo from the then-managers of the VR implored faculty and staff to increase their use of the bar, either as their own hangout or as an alternative classroom space.

“Keep in mind that the room is large, we play tapes upon request, and that our stereo does have a volume control if the music proves to be too loud,” the memo read. “Simply put, we would enjoy seeing more faculty and administrators using the VR on a regular basis, whether you choose to drink or not.”

Thirty years on, some faculty and staff continue to heed those words. And some jump in as guest bartenders, a long VR tradition.

The VR has gone through numerous changes in its management structure over the years. Presently, the bar is again managed by students, with oversight from Greg Griffin, director of the Warch Campus Center.

Jake Yingling ’20 frequents the VR with friends, and works bartending shifts as a student worker. While he understands the crowds in the VR may be smaller now than in the ’70s and ’80s, there are still nights when the place is hopping. And he appreciates it being on campus.

“The busier nights are the better nights,” he said.

“Now being 21, I can come here to do work, I can hang out with friends. It’s a good place to kind of hang out and relax.”

Five decades worth of alumni would raise a glass to that.

Ed Berthiaume is the director of public information at Lawrence University. Email: ed.c.berthiaume@lawrence.edu

Lawrence alum shares ‘Window’ view in global journey with secretary of state

Glen Johnson ’85 (right) traveled the world
from 2013 to 2017 with U.S. Secretary of State
John Kerry. A new book details
his deep dive into international diplomacy.

Story by Ed Berthiaume / Communications

Glen Johnson ’85

When Glen Johnson ’85 first set foot on the Lawrence University campus in the fall of 1981, he was singularly focused on forging a career as a journalist.

He had opted not to attend a school with an established journalism program, preferring instead a liberal arts education that would give him the broad-ranging intellectual tools needed to pursue journalism while also prepping him for life’s unknown adventures.

Nearly three decades later, still fully engaged in a journalism career that had taken him to the Boston Globe and included coverage of five presidential campaigns, Johnson would find himself staring down one of those unknown adventures. John Kerry, freshly tabbed by President Barack Obama to replace Hillary Clinton as secretary of state, reached out to Johnson in early 2013 with an unexpected offer — join his team as the senior communications advisor.

Johnson accepted, and he would be by Kerry’s side for the next four years, traveling to 91 countries and all seven continents, getting an up-close look at diplomacy at the highest levels and gaining perspective on world affairs that he said was both encouraging and daunting.

More information on the book can be found at www.glenjohnson.com.

His experiences are now shared in his new book, Window Seat on the World, published this summer by Disruption Books. It’s garnering significant attention, in large part because of the vast differences in diplomatic style between that of Kerry and the Obama administration and that of President Donald Trump and his administration. Johnson hopes the book will shed new light on diplomacy, its opportunities and its challenges, and provide a guide for those interested in a career in diplomatic service.

As Johnson makes the rounds of media interviews and book fairs, he hasn’t been shy about singing the praises of the liberal arts education he got at Lawrence and how that gave him a base on which to build a journalism career and then deftly shift into his role with Kerry.

“I came to Lawrence with the full expectation of being a reporter,” Johnson said. “I was fascinated by it.”

He majored in government at Lawrence, drew inspiration and insight from talented English professors and studied abroad in London for two trimesters.

“When I came out, I climbed the proverbial ladder rung by rung to develop myself as a reporter, from small newspapers to the world’s largest news organization in the AP, and then to the largest newspaper in the part of the country where I lived, the Boston Globe,” Johnson said.

“When I got this call from John Kerry offering the position at the State Department, it was a huge life decision, to change careers from the only one I’d ever done or ever really wanted to do. I thought about where I was personally, sort of mid-life with my younger kid about to graduate from college, and feeling like if I wanted to pursue a second act, now is probably the time.

“And then the specifics of the opportunity, the chance to have a high-level position with a top Cabinet officer and to see the world at his side. … If there was anything worth leaving the only career I ever had known, it was for something I considered to be the opportunity of a lifetime.”

Glen Johnson ’85 took more than 100,000 photos during his time with Secretary of State John Kerry, including this one of Kerry meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

In the four years that would follow, Johnson would spend the equivalent of four months on an airplane, logging enough mileage to take him and Kerry around the world 57 times. In addition to being Kerry’s lead communications officer, Johnson became the traveling contingent’s primary photographer, shooting more than 100,000 photos, many of which are featured in the book and are part of his public presentations about the book.

He had a front row seat for Middle East peace talks, Iran nuclear negotiations, and government transitions in Afghanistan and Nigeria. He witnessed the difficult diplomacy that comes with interactions with China and Russia. And he got a bird’s-eye look — and unsettling lessons — in the perils of climate change and their global ramifications. All of that is explored in the book.

“I wanted to deal with topics that really struck me and I thought had resonance and would continue to have resonance,” Johnson said.

It was climate change, and the stark reality of what’s at stake, that may have struck the rawest nerve, he said. And it came as perhaps his biggest surprise.

“At first I thought that was a strange thing for us to focus on,” Johnson said. “I knew John Kerry to be an environmentalist, but I thought it was almost a strange thing for a secretary of state to focus on when we first started. But not too long into this job, I realized it made sense because it was a problem that by definition transcended borders and was global in scope.

“And then the blessing of the job was to have the ability to travel the way we could. We ended up going almost to the North Pole, going almost to the South Pole. We saw above the Arctic Circle. We saw Antarctica. We saw all these places around the middle of the Earth. The effects of climate change were so readily apparent that you could see the effects of them on diplomacy. We have the potential now for issues with migration sparked by climate change, we have the potential for water wars between the haves and the have-nots.”

United States Secretary of State John Kerry flies in an Embassy Air Chinook helicopter from Kabul International Airport to ISAF headquarters in Afghanistan in April 2016. Glen Johnson ’85, who took the photo, says visits to Kabul and Baghdad were the two trips he and Kerry never told their families they were making.

Johnson minces no words about the abrupt change in attitude and message regarding climate change that came with the transition to the Trump presidency. He expresses other frustrations on topics of shifting diplomacy and approach, but the climate change conversation cuts particularly deep because of what he saw with his own eyes.

“It’s tremendously alarming and it’s frustrating and exasperating,” Johnson said. “I have zero patience for climate deniers because there is no factual basis for that belief. There are reams of empirical data and there is so much you can see first-hand to rebut that. The debate can’t be about whether climate change is occurring. The debate has to be focused on what to do to address it.

“If you have someone in office who talks about it as being a hoax and that kind of thing, you just can’t take someone like that seriously. And especially someone who has the opportunities that we had at the State Department, and that is to travel the world to see it first-hand. You don’t have to take someone else’s word for it. You don’t have to take 97 percent of peer-reviewed scientific studies on the topic. You can get on a plane and you can go to Svalbard yourself or you can go down to McMurdo Station like we did. The current secretary of state or the current president can do all that, and yet they choose not to.”

While the widely different approaches to diplomacy between the Obama and Trump presidencies has drawn much of the media attention surrounding the book, Johnson said he purposely didn’t weave that into the bulk of the book. He saved that for a chapter near the end.

If this were just an Obama vs. Trump comparison, the book would have a short shelf life, Johnson reasoned. He’d rather the book take a deeper run at diplomacy and the call to diplomatic service.

“I wanted the book to stand up beyond these four, or even eight, years of a Trump era,” Johnson said. “I wanted it to be more about institutional lessons of diplomacy as illustrated by a more classical diplomat like John Kerry than an us-versus-them thing.”

The art of State Department diplomacy is a mystery to most Americans, Johnson said, even though it incorporates thousands of employees in offices, posts, embassies and consulates around the world. It’s often the most forward-deployed part of the federal government, more so than the U.S. military in many cases, but most people know little about it.

“I saw this book as a chance to teach about diplomacy, have some case studies about issues that continue on today,” Johnson said. “And then also potentially to serve as a guide to inspire diplomats.”

Ed Berthiaume is director of public information at Lawrence University. Email: ed.c.berthiaume@lawrence.edu

Music is everywhere as Mile 7 gets rolling; partnerships grow deeper

With a whistle in his mouth, Kenni Ther gestures while leading the Brazilian samba drumming workshop Thursday at Mile of Music.
Kenni Ther ’16 leads the Brazilian samba drumming workshop in Houdini Plaza during Thursday’s opening day of Mile of Music.

Story by Ed Berthiaume / Communications

Kenni Ther ’16 had his young charges hanging on his every word, eyes focused, sticks in hand, a mix of drums and upside-down buckets in play on a gorgeous afternoon in downtown Appleton’s Houdini Plaza.

“I get tired of talking sometimes,” Ther told the gathering of several dozen kids and the adults they brought along for this high-energy teaching session on Brazilian samba drumming. “That’s why I have the drum. I’ll let the drum do the talking for me.”

And, so he did. And the young drummers followed suit as a couple hundred spectators nodded their approval.

A few hundred feet to the east, a crowd overflowed from the patio at Bazil’s Pub as singer-songwriter Christopher Gold played a heartfelt set and shared stories of joy and despair and the wisdom gained from both.

It was the middle of the afternoon. On a Thursday. Welcome to Mile of Music.

The annual four-day all-original music festival kicked off its seventh edition on Thursday, mixing nearly 900 live music sets in 70-plus venues with more than 40 interactive music education workshops, a blend that differentiates this festival from most any other music event on the planet. It continues through Sunday — and, yes, admission is free.

The Music Education Team, supported by a grant from the Bright Idea Fund within the Community Foundation for the Fox Valley Region, is a full-on Lawrence University juggernaut, led by music education instructor Leila Ramagopal Pertl. It features more than 25 instructors, many of them, like Ther, alumni who developed their musical skills and nurtured their passion for music while students at the Lawrence Conservatory of Music.

Full lineup of Mile 7 music education workshops here.

Meet the Lawrence-led Music Education Team here.

Like the festival itself, the music education workshops have grown in size and scope since first launching in 2013. More than 7,000 people are expected to take part in the hands-on sessions before the finale, a ukulele workshop, brings it to a close on Sunday afternoon.

“It’s great to get out in the community and have people learn music in not a classroom setting,” Ther said after the samba drumming workshop ended. “Sometimes people think you only get to learn music in your private lessons or in a school band or orchestra or choir. No, music is for everybody. Everyone listens to music, so everyone has the right to be their own musician and figure out music on their own.”

Nestor Dominguez ’14 talks to the audience during a mariachi workshop in The Grove, a green space next to Brokaw Hall.
Nestor Dominguez ’14 is joined by Mariachi Jabali as they lead a mariachi workshop Thursday in The Grove, a green space next to Brokaw Hall, during Mile of Music.

A few blocks down College Avenue, on the green space next to Brokaw Hall known as The Grove, Nestor Dominguez ’14 was leading a mariachi band — Mariachi Jabali, featuring students from Appleton North High School — as they introduced the music to a couple hundred onlookers. They ran through a variety of music within the mariachi genre, from jarabe to bolero to ranchera to polka.

“Just get up and wiggle around and come up with a dance,” Dominguez encouraged the crowd as the band showcased the popular jarabe style. “If you’re going to be here with us, you need to get up and dance.”

Then there was bolero, the mariachi music of romance. Dominguez, who plays and teaches mariachi music in Chicago, encouraged the crowd to make and maintain eye contact with the person next to them as the music played.

“Eye contact is so important,” he told them. “Let’s connect as human beings. … I’m not saying you’re going to fall in love with the person next to you, but that would be all right.”

A world of music in our back yard

As the music education offerings at Mile of Music have evolved over the past seven installments, they’ve taken on a more global feel, Brazilian samba drumming and mariachi being part of a festival mix that also includes, among others, Ghanaian drumming and dance, Afro-Cuban singing, and Balinese gamelan. New this year are sessions on Native American music and dances of India.

That’s not by accident. Ramagopal Pertl said the team has purposefully set out to showcase as many cultures and styles as possible, a theme embraced by team members and the audience alike.

“That is really important, especially for the little ones,” said Francisca Hiscocks of Appleton, a native of Spain who attended Thursday’s Brazilian samba drumming session. “Just for their education, to be exposed to something different, that’s important. For me being from a different country, I think this is so great.”

More on the connections between Lawrence, Mile of Music here.

Porky’s Groove Machine returns to Lawrence, Mile of Music. Read more here.

Thel, who teaches music at a middle school in Oshkosh, said cultural variety in the festival’s music education outreach is all about being inclusive and enlightening.

“Maybe hip hop is your thing, that’s great,” he said. “Maybe acoustic guitar playing is your thing, or the ukulele workshop, that’s your thing. Everyone has a specific rhythm in their heart that they can relate and respond to. We’re just trying to help people figure out what that is.”

Mile of Music was drawing rave reviews as it got rolling Thursday. Music could be heard coming from everywhere along and near College Avenue — in bars and coffee shops, in Memorial Chapel, on patios, in alleyways and on green spaces on the Lawrence campus. Even from a camper parked on the Ormsby Hall lawn, home to the Tiny House Listening Lounge, a new venue for this year’s festival.

“I think this is just all really cool,” said Sarah Fischer of Appleton, taking in the festival’s opening day.

Bernard Lilly ’18, who performs as B. Lilly, puts on a songwriting and performance workshop at Copper Rock Coffee Company during Mile of Music.

More photos of the 2019 Music Education Team workshops here.

Cool, indeed. And the opportunity to bang a drum, get a lesson in songwriting, or learn about Native American flute playing while you’re here, well, that’s a bonus that is music to the ears of anyone who cherishes the connections between the festival, the community and Lawrence.

“We all agreed from the beginning that this wasn’t the type of festival that was ogling celebrity, it was craft focused,” said Cory Chisel, the Appleton-raised singer-songwriter who co-founded the festival with marketing executive Dave Willems. “It was like, here are innovative, exciting songwriters from around the world, and I wanted to bring all those people to Appleton specifically because of the specialness of this place and the music that was inside of us and the talent level we have inside of us here.”

It isn’t just about listening to and discovering new music, although that is a huge focus of the festival. It’s also about participating in the music-making, connecting the community with the music, Chisel said. Hence, the launch and growth of the Music Education Team. The partnership with Lawrence for that piece was as important as anything else in establishing the festival as one of the bright lights of the Midwest music scene.

“Mile of Music was about that connection,” Chisel said. “And Lawrence has been deepening and strengthening that community relationship.”

Ed Berthiaume is director of public information at Lawrence University. Email: ed.c.berthiaume@lawrence.edu

Generous donors put Lawrence’s annual fundraising at near-record levels

Nabor Vazquez '19 gives a presentation as students and faculty look on during Lawrence University's Biofest 2019.
Nabor Vazquez ’19 gives a presentation during Lawrence University’s Biofest 2019. A wide variety of academic endeavors are supported by the Lawrence Fund, which had its second best giving year to date.

Story by Ed Berthiaume / Communications

The generosity of Lawrence University supporters shone bright in the 2018-19 fiscal year that concluded at the end of June.

Monies raised for the Lawrence Fund, a key funding mechanism to support students, the work of faculty and the upkeep of the campus infrastructure, surpassed $3.9 million, the second highest one-year total in the school’s history.

But that is just one slice of the good news the school is reporting. The overall giving across all funds topped $24.4 million, the fourth highest ever.

The ongoing generosity of donors speaks to the deep relationship Lawrence alumni and other supporters have with the school, the desire to enhance the Lawrence experience for today’s students and the pledge to pay it forward for future Lawrentians, said Cal Husmann, vice president for alumni and development.

“The impact of philanthropic investment in the college is profound and enhances all aspects of the student experience,” he said.

The Lawrence Fund plays a significant role in the campus’s operation, supporting everything from scholarships, study abroad opportunities and research to infrastructure maintenance, Conservatory performances and athletics. It affects every student and every member of the faculty and staff in some measure.

Students and faculty pose for a selfie on a D Term trip to Hong Kong in 2018.
Study abroad opportunities are supported by the Lawrence Fund. Here an LU group poses for a selfie in Hong Kong in December 2018 while studying sustainability, livability and urban design.

The alumni donor participation rates in the Lawrence Fund have an impact on national rankings and future funding opportunities. It’s estimated that without the Lawrence Fund, each student’s tuition would increase by more than $10,000 per year.

“Gifts to the Lawrence Fund keep the entire academic and co-curricular offerings robust,” Husmann said. “Donors have invested in the curriculum, allowing us to add new professorships, enhance classrooms, and fund student-faculty collaborations.”

The $3.9 million raised in the Lawrence Fund is second only to the $3.91 million raised in the fiscal year ending in June 2016.

Meanwhile, the overarching $220 million Be the Light! Campaign, which launched quietly in January 2014 and had its public launch in November 2018, has reached $182.3 million in gifts and pledges. The ongoing campaign, the largest in Lawrence’s history, includes the Lawrence Fund as one of its four cornerstones. It also includes the Full Speed to Full Need initiative to make Lawrence accessible and affordable to all academically qualifying students, the Student Journey, which has welcomed numerous endowed positions aimed at supporting cutting edge programs and course offerings, and Campus Renewal, targeting facility and infrastructure upgrade projects on campus.

The recent $2.5 million gift from J. Thomas Hurvis ’60 to create an endowed professorship to teach the psychology of collaboration is the latest in a string of endowed positions, supported by Lawrence alumni, that have boosted and diversified the school’s academic offerings.

Mike O’Connor recently began his work as Lawrence’s new Riaz Waraich Dean of the Center for Career, Life, and Community Engagement (CLC), a newly endowed position that aims to better prepare students for life after Lawrence by, in part, enhancing connections with alumni in the students’ fields of interest.

The Full Speed to Full Need fund has made progress toward its goal of reaching $85 million, Husmann said. When that number is finally reached, it will mark a major milestone for the university in its ongoing commitment to make sure the doors are open to students of all socioeconomic backgrounds.

The fund has already delivered direct financial aid assistance to 250 students, and another 100 incoming students are expected to benefit in the 2019-20 academic year.

“The Lawrence community has rallied around the Full Speed to Full Need fundraising initiative in an increasingly strong fashion,” Husmann said. “With more than $82 million raised, we can provide more financial resources for our students than ever before, which is driving LU student debt down — against a national trend of increasing student debt.”

That sort of engagement is seen from Lawrence alumni all year round, Husmann said, and not just in the form of financial gifts or pledges. Lawrence alumni give back to Lawrence in other ways, too, he said.

“Hundreds of alumni serve as resources for the Center for Career, Life, and Community Engagement, volunteer with Innovation and Entrepreneurship, volunteer with admissions, and serve on boards and advisory groups. This reflects the enthusiasm Lawrence alumni have for their alma mater.

“We in the Lawrence community are so grateful for this impressive support.”

Ed Berthiaume is director of public information at Lawrence University. Email: ed.c.berthiaume@lawrence.edu

A pioneer with Posse 1, Mei Xian Gong takes on new role as a Lawrence trustee

Mei Xian Gong ’11

Story by Ed Berthiaume / Communications

Mei Xian Gong ’11 was a trailblazer when she arrived on the Lawrence University campus in the fall of 2007, a member of the school’s first group of Posse Foundation scholars.

A dozen years later, she’s blazing a new trail as the first of the Posse alumni to be elected to Lawrence’s Board of Trustees. She joins the board as a Recent Graduate Trustee, a three-year term for an alum within two to 10 years of graduation.

It was in the fall of 2007 that Lawrence welcomed its first group of 10 Posse scholarship students after forming a partnership with the New York-based Posse Foundation. The nonprofit organization assesses and develops students from diverse backgrounds who show leadership potential.

For a story on newly elected trustees, click here.

For more on the Posse Foundation, click here.

Gong tapped into her leadership skills as an undergraduate, serving on the Lawrence University Alumni Association Board of Directors and as a member of the LUAA Connecting to Campus Committee.

Now a market manager for Mettler-Toledo in Columbus, Ohio, Gong called her Lawrence experience a “major force” in her development and wants to pay it forward as a trustee.

“I want to have a better understanding of Lawrentians at different points of their journey, from alumni to current students and future Lawrentians,” Gong said. “I am sure much has changed since I was last on Main Hall green, so I hope I can learn from our current students on how we can continue to nurture them.”

Gong majored in chemistry and interdisciplinary chemistry/biology at Lawrence, later earning an MBA at Ohio State University. She has been with Mettler-Toledo since 2016, and has stayed involved with Lawrence in various alumni volunteer roles over the past eight years.

Posse experience

Lawrence is one of more than 50 colleges and universities that partner with the Posse Foundation, nearly double the number of partner schools since Lawrence and Posse first linked arms in 2006.

Gong was selected as part of the debut Lawrence group — known on campus as Posse 1 — and she says she continues to lean on her Lawrence and Posse experiences to this day.

“I still remember the moment when I internalized who I want to be,” she said. “It was the summer of 2007, before we started freshman year at Lawrence, when my Posse was tasked to complete an activity together in New York City. We had a guideline, with minimal directions, an envelope to open when we completed the task, and many ideas for what we can do.

“After a long discussion, we finally decided to take the ferry to Staten Island and go clean up a nearby beach. We had a common goal and yet still went through the different stages of group development. … My Posse members were young leaders with different backgrounds, experiences, and thoughts. Yet, still, I was shocked that we went through the forming, storming, norming, and performing stages when completing this as a team. … We acknowledged what role we took, and shared what role we would want in the future. I wanted to take on a more adaptable role, be what the group may need at different times, and chose ‘trailblazer.’

“Many of my Posse memories are like this … open discussions in safe spaces where I learned more about who I was and who I want to be. I learned from my Posse, relied on them to help me grow and take risks, and welcomed the person I was becoming.

“This continued at Lawrence and throughout my four years there.”

Gong said much of what she learned at Lawrence came well beyond the classroom. She got involved in alumni relations and worked as a class agent, which gave her opportunities to connect with faculty and administrators in a different capacity and gave her insights into the importance of campus finances, alumni connections and university stewardship.

“I would not be who I am today if I did not have the Posse plus Lawrence experience,” Gong said. “The Lawrence bubble is a thriving environment where we had many opportunities and mentors to guide us as we took risks, stepping a bit outside of our comfort zone.”

For the Posse Foundation, seeing one of its scholars appointed to the trustee position is testament to the strong bonds between the program and Lawrence.

“We are so proud of Mei,” said Posse Foundation Founder and President Deborah Bial. “As a Lawrence Posse alumna, she exemplifies leadership of the highest standard. Her professional expertise combined with her commitment to giving back make her an invaluable member of our community. We are thrilled for her and grateful to President Burstein and his fantastic team for our 13-year partnership, which has allowed us to serve so many dynamic students.”

From NYC to Lawrence

Born in Guangzhou, China, Gong came to the United States with her family in 1998. She grew up in Manhattan, and, with parents who spoke little English, she assumed certain leadership and outreach roles in her family. She would become the first member of her family to attend college.

Then a senior at Millennium High School, Gong said the Posse scholarship opened new doors for her. She chose Lawrence as one of her preferred schools in part because of the small student-to-faculty ratio.

“I really like the small environment, so I picked Lawrence as one my top choices,” she said.

The Posse Foundation puts an emphasis on diversity and the benefits that come when diversity is celebrated and nurtured. Being part of a Posse group — particularly as a member of the first Posse class at Lawrence — provides insights and tools that she and other Posse students can take into their post-college careers as they build and encourage positive workplace relationships, Gong said.

“I think it definitely makes it smoother as we go to work in different organizations,” she said.

The ongoing connections with Lawrence, even before her appointment as a trustee, have continued to be significant and beneficial.

Gong praised Cal Husmann, Lawrence’s vice president for alumni and development, and his staff for their efforts to stay connected with Lawrentians after they leave campus.

“He takes a vested interest in the student’s world,” she said of Husmann. “That’s really helpful, especially early in our careers when there are so many changes in our lives. He continued to reach out and show interest in my growth. That helped me feel confident in my abilities, knowing there is someone back at Lawrence who cares about my development.”

Ed Berthiaume is director of public information at Lawrence University. Email: ed.c.berthiaume@lawrence.edu

O’Connor’s arrival puts Life After Lawrence initiatives in hyperdrive

Mike O'Connor poses for a photo in the doorway to the Center for Career, Life and Community Engagement.
Mike O’Connor began May 1 as the new Riaz Waraich Dean of Lawrence University’s Center for Career, Life and Community Engagement. The endowed deanship is part of new initiatives to bolster career advising and community, employer and alumni connections.

Story by Ed Berthiaume / Communications

Connect. Connecting. Connectivity. Interconnected.

Spend 10 minutes with Mike O’Connor, Lawrence University’s new Riaz Waraich Dean of the Center for Career, Life, and Community Engagement (CLC), and he’ll drop a variation of connected into the conversation a couple dozen times.

He may even throw in team sport, collaboration and networking.

That’s not by accident.

O’Connor’s hiring to fill the newly endowed deanship is all about ramping up connections with departments across campus, with alumni and with potential employers to help students better prepare for life after Lawrence.

Being connected to the CLC and its resources, be it through internships and fellowships or employment contacts and alumni resources, is something that will be part of every student’s journey from the moment they arrive as freshmen during Welcome Week. It won’t be something to be put off until senior year.

“To me, the messaging for first-year students would be, the Center for Career, Life, and Community Engagement is just part of what you do as a Lawrentian,” O’Connor said. “It’s not a stand-alone entity. It’s interconnected, it’s part of the tapestry of Lawrence.”

That initiative, including the endowed deanship, is supported by a $2.5 million gift from J. Thomas Hurvis ’60 that was announced last November at the public launch of Lawrence’s $220 million Be the Light! Campaign.

O’Connor, who had been the director of the Career Exploration program at Williams College for the past five and a half years, sees opportunities for enhanced connections at Lawrence in every direction he looks. Many of those efforts were already under way before he got here, spurred by a Life After Lawrence Task Force that pushed for greater emphasis on preparing students for career and life opportunities after they graduate. Now, with more resources available and a renewed focus, those efforts are being supercharged.

“Life After Lawrence has a lot of moving parts,” O’Connor said. “There’s a big employer initiative and we’re building more pipelines for recruitment. More than that, though, is the potential for better integration with curricular goals and actualizing our alumni base at scale. We’ve got this amazing group of thousands and thousands of Lawrentians who want to help other Lawrentians. We’re working on tapping that power.”

For starters, career advising is being weaved into the Freshman Studies program in new ways. The Career Communities initiative has been launched and will continue to be fine-tuned and rolled out to students across all areas of study. And an interactive student-alumni mentor network is being developed.

“That will give us the ability to connect with alumni based on a certain major or career interest or geographic area, and be able to reach out to them in real time,” O’Connor said. “A student will be able to say, ‘Hey, I see you are working at Google in this data analytics role. I’ve been thinking about that as a career, can I hop on a call with you for 10 or 15 minutes to find out more about it?’ Or maybe I have this interview coming up and I need advice.

“This is something we onboarded at Williams and it was just a complete game-changer. It actualized our alums’ talents in real time in a useful way.”

The alumni relations work that’s already been done by the Alumni and Constituency Engagement Team puts Lawrence in a great position to roll out this enhanced recruiting network, O’Connor said. The recently launched Career Communities is a big step in that direction.

Read more about Career Communities here.

For alumni interested in helping Lawrentians in their career pursuits: Make yourself a Career Contact on AlumniQ”. 

Introducing an alumni affinity network to students will start during Welcome Week, although developing it and integrating it will be a work in progress.

“We’re trying to move on a lot of this very quickly,” O’Connor said.

There’s been encouraging cooperation from departments across campus as these initiatives have been explored, developed and tested.

“We’re lucky that we have a highly collaborative community with a lot of opportunities,” O’Connor said. “Not just our office but partnering with others across campus. The work of the CLC is really a team sport.

“We’re interfacing with Development and all across areas of Student Life, and we’re being increasingly intentional about how we’re working with broader alumni divisions, working with faculty and doing it in a more skilled way. If we’re all leaning into it, and I think we are, we stand a better chance to help a lot more students.”

On the personal side

O’Connor began his new duties on May 1.

He and his family — his wife, Kerrin Sendrowitz O’Connor, two daughters, Fiona Jayne, 3, and Isla Kelly, 7 months, two dogs and a cat — have embraced the move from the East Coast to Appleton, even if their move here from upstate New York in late April included a flat tire and a freak snowstorm.

“After logging over 100,000 commuter miles over the course of my Williams tenure, I can’t tell you what a pleasure it is to bike to work,” O’Connor said.

Now it’s time to explore their new home.

“The family and I like to consider ourselves outdoorsy,” O’Connor said. “We’ve been to 14 or 15 national parks, and love hiking, biking, and camping. … Given the age of our children, we love the park system in Appleton.”

Ed Berthiaume is director of public information at Lawrence University. Email: ed.c.berthiaume@lawrence.edu

‘Central Park Five’ opera has Lawrence alum in a thoughtful, emotional place

Story by Ed Berthiaume / Communications

Derrell Acon ’10 stood shoulder to shoulder earlier this month with Antron McCray, one of the five New York City teenagers — now men in their 40s — wrongly convicted in the 1989 rape and beating of a Central Park jogger.

The Lawrence University alumnus was days away from performing as McCray in The Central Park Five, an operatic retelling of the emotionally charged criminal case, set to open in an opera house in southern California. An ACLU luncheon brought Acon and his castmates and the five men they’d be portraying into the same room for the first time.

“It gave me a little more weight in terms of the responsibility I had to give an accurate picture to the audience and to be true to how I explored and continue to explore that character,” Acon said of meeting McCray.

The Central Park Five story of the coerced confessions, the guilty verdicts, the Donald Trump call for the death penalty, the vacated judgments 13 years later, and the eventual settlement that set New York City back $41 million is getting plenty of renewed attention on the heels of the recent release of Ava DuVernay’s Netflix mini-series, When They See Us, the intense retelling of the case that dominated headlines 30 years ago.

While the Netflix series is getting the bulk of the attention, the jazz-infused opera production from composer Anthony Davis — more than three years in the making and separate from the DuVernay series — has drawn its fair share of looks as well. The New York Times and Los Angeles Times previewed the Long Beach Opera production in the days before it opened on June 15, and opening night saw reviews from both newspapers and the Wall Street Journal, among other outlets. The New Yorker is working on a story as well, according to a spokesperson with the opera.

Derrell Acon '14 sings on stage with the four other leads in "The Central Park Five," an opera being performed by Long Beach Opera in southern California.
Derrell Acon ’10 (center) and his castmates in “The Central Park Five” sing in unison. Acon portrays Antron McCray, one of five New York teenagers falsely convicted 30 years ago.

Two more performances are scheduled for this weekend at the Warner Grand Theater in San Pedro, California.

“I wasn’t really anticipating any particular response,” Acon said after getting an enthusiastic welcome on opening night. “I was more aware of my own responses, understanding that it would be a very emotional process for me. As a young black man in America, you know, a lot of these topics are very close to my own experience, and these struggles are very mirrored in my own life.

“I think a lot about the rehearsal process, tending to all of these emotions, letting them out, having a lot of beautiful discussions with my colleagues, especially the five of us in the lead roles.”

The timing is coincidental, Acon said, but that the opera arrives amid heightened attention on the Central Park Five case is certainly beneficial to the public conversation. An earlier effort by Davis to debut the opera — since retooled and renamed — in New Jersey drew little attention. But that was before the Netflix series arrived.

“I’m a firm believer that everything is happening when it needs to happen,” Acon said. “All of these things are happening at once. It’s almost because our society is so resistant to the truth being revealed that you almost need it to be thrown into the mix as an atomic bomb for people to really put their ears up and understand how important this is, how terribly, terribly unjust this was.”

A journey to Long Beach

After graduating summa cum laude from Lawrence in 2010 — he was a double major in voice performance and government — Acon went on to earn a master’s degree and a doctoral degree in 19th-century opera history and performance from the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music.

He spent the next two and a half years on the road, performing, lecturing and studying. The schedule began to wear on his voice. Ten months ago, he relocated to southern California, drawn by what he calls the area’s “laid-back culture” and the plethora of arts opportunities.

He connected immediately with the Long Beach Opera, which was in the midst of a season based on issues of injustice. The casting for The Central Park Five was just getting started.

“I sang for them and was invited to join the cast,” Acon said.

He was working with people he didn’t know while immersing himself in the West Coast arts scene. He jumped into the mix as the opera company’s manager of education and engagement, organizing and facilitating community conversations in the months leading up to the opening of The Central Park Five.

“The journey began there,” Acon said. “It was kind of a crash course in introducing me to the classical music scene here. I am someone who has spent a lot of time in the Midwest and on the East Coast, so the West Coast scene was new for me, and this was just a beautiful introduction to that scene.”

The well-attended community conversations gave people a chance to speak their mind, to share with others in a very public and very cleansing way. To do it with the arts as an avenue to positive discourse on an emotionally charged topic was beautiful to see, Acon said.

“The key word is community,” he said. “The arts have this ability to create a community. Especially something like opera, where what you’re hearing is so visceral, it’s so emotional, so loud, as some of the younger people who have seen my work would say. You don’t really have an opportunity to do anything but listen. It’s so in your face, it’s in your soul, it’s in your heart.

“You may not always agree with the topic being put forth, but you are put in a position of contemplation, of consideration, and that is a communal experience. … Having the community of the opera house and the guidance of the voices and actors on stage may be enough to spark the conversation and the courage needed to really dig into some of these topics.”

The five lead performers in "The Central Park Five" sing on stage during the Long Beach Opera production.
“The Central Park Five,” by Long Beach Opera, opened just weeks after a Netflix series shined a new spotlight on the 1989 criminal case that resulted in faulty convictions of five New York City teenagers. Lawrence alumnus Derrell Acon ’10 (center) stars in the opera.

Opening night arrives

As the June 15 opener drew closer, the performance of The Central Park Five was being described as both emotional and powerful, with Acon and the other lead actors often singing in unison, a singular and pained collective character.

“I think operas work on multiple levels, and certainly a visceral level is one that I’m very concerned with,” said Davis, who created the production in partnership with Richard Wesley. “I want the audience to have an emotional experience that involves identifying with the characters and putting yourself in their place.”

After the opera opened, reviewer Mark Swed of the Los Angeles Times wrote: “Most of the opera, which is in two acts, follows the five through their arbitrary apprehension, inappropriate questioning, dubious trial, conviction and harsh sentencing. The boys react much of the time in quintet, voices blending in disbelief and outrage. The most effective operatic innovation is the creation of the Masque, who is less a character than the embodiment of white racism, be it the police, a reporter or various others.”

The reviews from opening night have been mixed, with reviewer Zachary Woolfe of the New York Times suggesting that the tone and the angst was spot on but having the five leads often sing as a Greek chorus means they “never have the chance to come to life as individuals, either in music or words.”

That’s a complaint, Acon said, that he also heard from a high school student who was part of a group he brought to a dress rehearsal. It’s a legitimate perspective, he said, but one he doesn’t necessarily share.

“I personally believe the opera is very effective in the way it keeps the five in unison, for the most part,” he said. “In a way, it’s saying this experience is not individual. This experience happens to so many young black men and other men of color in this country, so much to the point that we can sing the same words at the same time, in a metaphorical sense, because we all have these same sentiments as it relates to the American criminal justice system.”

Acon’s next chapter

When The Central Park Five performances conclude this weekend, Acon, a bass-baritone, said he’ll turn his attention to new opportunities in southern California.

The arts as a vehicle for education and understanding will almost certainly be part of that journey.

Acon, who serves on the Lawrence Board of Trustees as a Recent Graduate Trustee — a position established for alumni within two to 10 years of their graduation — earned multiple regional and national honors as a student and already has more than two dozen operatic roles on his resume.

His deep thinking on issues related to the arts, race and public policy was plenty evident during his time at Lawrence, and Brian Pertl, Lawrence’s dean of the Conservatory of Music, isn’t surprised that Acon is seeing early career success.

“At Lawrence, Derrell was already an outstanding scholar and stellar performer,” Pertl said. “The performance he created in association with his honors project, Whence Comes Black Art?: The Construction and Application of ‘Black Motivation,’  stands as one of the most important and compelling student productions I have seen in the past 10 years.” 

Ten months after landing in southern California, Acon said he feels like he’s found his artistic groove. The work with Long Beach Opera is just the start of some promising things.

“I’m excited to see what comes next,” he said. “I’ve got a lot of opportunities, and they keep coming in. It’s very encouraging.”

Ed Berthiaume is director of public information at Lawrence University. Email: ed.c.berthiaume@lawrence.edu