About this series: Building Brilliance With … is a periodic Q&A in which we shine a light on a Lawrence University staff member whose work helps support Lawrence’s students and the university’s mission.
Story by Ed Berthiaume / Communications
Mike O’Connor arrived at Lawrence University two years ago with a mission to reimagine how the school guides students in planning for the life that awaits after graduation.
He wasted no time after settling in as Lawrence’s first Riaz Waraich Dean for the Career Center & Center for Community Engagement and Social Change. He and his staff have accelerated career conversations for all Lawrence students, beginning with first-year students arriving for Welcome Week. They’ve launched the Viking Connect online platform to facilitate interactions between alumni with experience in a particular field and students exploring related opportunities, and they kick-started Career Communities to better organize and deliver information and resources for students.
The Life After Lawrence initiative, supported by a $2.5 million gift from J. Thomas Hurvis ’60, was a key component of the recently concluded Be the Light! Campaign.
O’Connor, director of the Career Discovery Program at Williams College in Williamstown, Massachusetts, before coming to Lawrence, said the explosion of activity surrounding career planning, mentoring, and access to experiential learning opportunities has been amazing to watch. We caught up with him to talk about all that and more.
What excites you about the work you do?
Two things come immediately to mind. First, working with our incredible students and alums—Lawrentians are brilliant yet deeply humble people who want to make the world a better place.
Second, our team. Every team member has leaned in to support one another and the broader institutional goals. We’ve grown and leaned on each other so much since COVID hit, and everyone has stepped up, pivoted, and flexed in so many ways. We care deeply about making opportunities more equitable and accessible, and we push one another to make that a reality. Working with them raises my bar and makes me strive to be better.
How have the changes and new initiatives in the Career Center impacted the life after Lawrence conversation for our students?
Great question, and there are so many directions I could go here. But I’d say we’ve made a few changes that have, broadly speaking, made for a better student experience.
First, it’s the focus on early engagement. Last year, we managed to work with 93% of first-year students—not bad, considering they’re not required to work with us. Generally speaking, earlier engagement leads to more focused outcomes, so I’m particularly proud of our efforts there.
I’d also point to Viking Connect. We’ve actualized a group of 900-plus alumni volunteers to act as mentors and connectors to students in career fields of interest. To date, over 3,000 messages have been sent on the platform; a number we hope to increase substantially in the years to come.
Then there’s the funded internships. Thanks to the incredible work of our colleagues in Development/Advancement—most notably Cassie Curry—we’ve been able to fund more student internships than ever before. Our funding sources are quite varied and broad and allow students to access different levels and types of funding to support their living expenses and needs.
And, finally, the Career Communities have changed the conversation. Each of our advisors manages two Career Communities and acts as the advisor/specialist/connector to opportunities within said fields. Students who sign up for a Career Community get a bi-weekly newsletter of internship, service, programmatic, and funding opportunities connected to their fields of interest, along with specialized content, potential alumni advisors, and more. The focus on Career Communities has helped us specialize more deeply, and offer more targeted advice, opportunities, and support.
What work or life experiences led you to this role at Lawrence?
Quite honestly, I never pictured myself living in the Midwest. In fact, I hadn’t stepped foot in Wisconsin prior to my Interview. But, as small worlds go, the recruiter for the Riaz Waraich dean role and I had some mutual friends—so I took his call to learn a bit more about Lawrence. At the time, my wife and I were both happily employed at great schools and expecting our second daughter, and the thought of moving halfway across the country wasn’t on our radar. But when I saw the work Mark Burstein, who I’d heard great things about, the trustees, and the working groups were doing with the Life After Lawrence initiative, I became intrigued. After talking with the search committee, I got really excited.
I tell people all the time, you never know when life-changing opportunities will present themselves, and you have to be ready to respond.
What is one thing you do away from campus that helps you recharge your batteries or otherwise brings you joy?
I’m a big believer in the healing power of nature. Being outdoors and exercise are incredible outlets, and I try to experience both every day.
About this series: Lighting the Way With … is a periodic series in which we shine a light on Lawrence University alumni. Today we catch up with Tom Zoellner ’91, a journalist, author, and English professor who this spring won the prestigious National Book Critics Circle Award for Nonfiction.
Story by Ed Berthiaume / Communications
Tom Zoellner ’91 carved out an impressive run as a journalist by seeing stories where others didn’t, drilling down to the why, and always being present, all things he first explored as a Lawrence student three decades ago.
In addition to investigative work, he has relished telling stories that on the surface might seem mundane—ordinary landscapes, he said—but speak to the deeper fabric of life, connections that span generations or unite communities or otherwise tell us something about ourselves that we didn’t know or understand.
“There’s great value in ordinary America,” Zoellner said.
He told those stories while interning at The Post-Crescent in Appleton while a student at Lawrence and again and again while working at newspapers, large and small, across the country for 20 years, from the Wyoming Tribune-Eagle and Savannah Morning News to the Arizona Republic and San Francisco Chronicle.
That ability to look beyond what’s visible was front and center as Zoellner, 30 years removed from his Lawrence graduation and now an English professor at Chapman University in Los Angeles, recently authored his seventh non-fiction book, The National Road: Dispatches from a Changing America (Counterpoint Press), a collection of essays based on his travels across the United States.
A huge literary honor
The National Road has been well-received—the New York Times called Zoellner an “old-fashioned American vagabond”—but it’s book No. 6, Island on Fire: The Revolt That Ended Slavery in the British Empire, published in early 2020, that has earned him some particularly heady attention this year. The book was named the winner of the National Book Critics Circle (NBCC) Award for Nonfiction in March, a prestigious honor. It beat out such notable finalists as Walter Johnson (The Broken Heart of America), James Shapiro (Shakespeare in a Divided America), Sarah Smarsh (She Come By It Natural: Dolly Parton and the Women Who Lived Her Songs), and Isabel Wilkerson (Caste: The Origins of Our Discontent).
“It was a thrill, considering the field,” Zoellner said of the honor.
Island on Fire is a book that saw the light of day only for the bulldog spirit Zoellner honed during his newsroom days. It tells the story of an 1831 rebellion by enslaved people in the Caribbean, led by Samuel Sharpe, a Baptist deacon. Thousands would die in their pursuit of liberty from the British empire.
Zoellner shines a light on Sharpe, who is a hero in the Caribbean but has been a largely unknown figure to readers in America and elsewhere.
“I’m not a trained historian,” Zoellner said. “I approached the story almost like a journalist.”
At the outset, Zoellner was simply looking to write about sugar and the ways in which the British colonies grew and sold it in abundance. That eventually led him to the history of forced labor and other atrocities in the region and the eventual rebellion by the enslaved Sharpe and his followers.
“Books on sugar had already been done; I really couldn’t find an angle into that that was going to say anything new,” Zoellner said. “But I came across in Caribbean history the accounts of the 1831 uprising. I just couldn’t seem to let go of it. There was such incredible heroism, and it was a really consequential event on which very little attention, outside of Caribbean history, has been paid and no one book dedicated to it.”
He decided to dig deeper. He booked a flight to Jamaica, with some hesitation.
“I’m a Caucasian guy who lives in California,” Zoellner said. “A question arose internally for me, is this really my story to tell? Can I go to this venue and write with any credibility? I decided I could because this was really a global story. Sam Sharpe, who is at the center of this book, ought to be better known. He ought to be regarded as a hero on the level of Gandhi, or some of the Irish revolutionaries against British tolerance in Ireland, or some of the Polish revolutionaries against Russian rule. He obviously belongs to Jamaica, but I considered him a figure of global stature.”
Zoellner, who in addition to his teaching responsibilities serves as politics editor for the Los Angeles Review of Books, had a tough time finding a publisher who met his enthusiasm for the project. They didn’t see the story connecting with readers in the United States.
He finally landed at Harvard University Press and went through a difficult peer-review process.
“It was a matter of being stubborn enough to push forward,” Zoellner said. “I resolved that the book was going to get done. It wasn’t that I thought I had to rescue Sam Sharpe. No, please; the story had been told, but it had been told in the context of larger Caribbean history and not for a U.S. audience. I was just determined that the story of those five weeks of rebellion was going to be between two covers and would hopefully become a tiny part of the conversation.”
The National Book Critics Circle Award gave Zoellner some reassurance that his work had indeed resonated.
“It was a vindication of sorts,” he said. “Not of me but of the story; that the timeless ways of resistance to oppression is something that should be part of the dialogue. It’s incredible heroism that is mostly lost to history. Even with as much documentation as we have, there is so much about it we don’t know. This is a way those rebels can speak from beyond the grave.”
The art of storytelling
Zoellner’s most recent book, meanwhile, has been garnering its own attention. When it came out in mid-2020, with a pandemic in full fury and a bitter election season fraying the public mood, The National Road seemed like a needed tonic. It introduced readers to a series of off-beat places and the people who live or work or hide there, infused with joy and anger, hope and despair.
“Over the past two decades, he has made some 30 cross-country drives and hundreds of ‘lesser partial crossings,’ both as a journalist on assignment and as a tourist with a taste for obscure landmarks and truck-stop breakfasts,” the New York Times wrote in a review of Zoellner’s book. “The National Road is a chronicle of Zoellner’s wanderings and wanderlust, what he calls his ‘unspecified hunger’ to cover the lower 48 states with ‘a coat of invisible paint.’ It’s also a sneakily ambitious book whose 13 ‘dispatches’ present a sweeping view of the American land and its inhabitants—how each has shaped, and deformed, the other.”
National Public Radio called The National Road “a fascinating investigation into American places and themes; metaphors for our country.”
Zoellner followed up the release of The National Road with an essay of another sort of travel, one that told of a trip he and a classmate took to Spillville, Iowa, during spring break while students at Lawrence in 1991. Unexpected Lessons from the Back Roads of the American Midwest was featured on lithub.com in October, giving Zoellner a chance to connect some dots from that quirky road trip to the twists and turns and heartbreaks that would color a life’s journey.
It all adds to an impressive resume that includes earlier books on the diamond trade (The Heartless Stone), how uranium changed the world (Uranium), the Gabrielle Giffords shooting (A Safeway in Arizona), and the history and influence of trains (Train).
Lessons from Lawrence
This is where Zoellner takes his thoughts back to his undergrad days at Lawrence and the early exploration of his newspaper career. His curiosity, his keen ability to observe, and his desire to make sense of it all 1,000 words at a time were first nurtured here, in and out of the classroom.
He came to Appleton in 1987 from his home state of Arizona, having never before been out of the Southwest.
“Illinois, Wisconsin, Minnesota; it all seemed exotic to me,” Zoellner said. “I was provincial and had not traveled at that point. So, the landscapes my classmates considered totally ordinary and boring, like dairy farms and silos and lakes, I thought they were wonderful, incredibly picturesque. Even parts of the industrial plumbing such as paper mills, locks on the river, various other kinds of factories, I thought they were beautiful. That probably sounds pretty weird to somebody from northeast Wisconsin, where it’s just part of the wallpaper, but for me it was like walking into a different world.”
He vowed to explore Appleton and the rest of Wisconsin and not to isolate himself on campus. He wrote for The Lawrentian, eventually becoming its editor. He pestered editors at The Post-Crescent to give him an internship.
The lessons, he said, flowed from there.
“A big part of my education at Lawrence came from the marination in the Fox Valley, thinking of myself not as a tourist but as a resident of the Fox Valley,” he said. “Working at The Post-Crescent was a huge education in the way government worked there, the way society fit together, the wonderful people in the Fox Valley. For students, it’s easy to miss out on that.”
Zoellner came to Lawrence knowing he wanted to be a journalist. He bypassed traditional journalism schools because he wanted the liberal arts experience, a wide-ranging course of study infused with historic sensibilities, context, and critical thinking. That, he believed, would inform his ability to tell stories others weren’t telling.
“That’s why I picked Lawrence in the first place,” Zoellner said. “Not just because it was in the upper Midwest and a long way from Arizona but because of that classic liberal arts emphasis. I still believe that. Getting that sort of multi-faceted approach, which is not vocationally driven, is the winning way to go.”
As he marks his 30-year Lawrence anniversary, Zoellner remains connected to Lawrence. He talks periodically with some faculty; he struck up friendships with Monica Rico in the History Department and David McGlynn in the English Department, both of whom arrived after he had already graduated. He applauded Lawrence’s recent decision to create a creative writing major as part of its English program. It speaks, he said, to all the things that helped him find his voice all those years ago.
Lawrence, after all, was the first stop on a winding journey that continues to reveal itself in unexpected ways.
“That sense of fascination with what many consider ordinary landscapes, that’s something that still gives me great pleasure today,” Zoellner said.
2 Minutes With … is a series of short features to introduce us to the passions and interests of Lawrence students on and off campus. Find more 2 Minutes With … features here.
Story by Awa Badiane ’21
Planning for life after Lawrence can be daunting. Terrence Freeman ‘22 is preparing by participating in the Graduate School Exploration Fellowship (GSEF) program this summer.
“GSEF essentially takes students from marginalized communities to a conduct a research program at a graduate school,” said Freeman, an anthropology major from New York. “It is mainly used to not only draw marginalized students to the graduate school program but also to give you a feel of what the graduate school experience is like, to see if you really want to do that after graduation.”
GSEF is a fellowship program that gives undergraduate students between their junior and senior years the opportunity to conduct research at one of the Big 10 research universities. Participants are partnered with a mentor and receive career development advice along the way.
Freeman is part of the Posse program at Lawrence and was encouraged to apply for a GSEF fellowship by his Posse mentor. He completed an application process that included, among other things, a personal statement essay and a research proposal.
“They said it was competitive and kind of tough to get in, so I was not putting too much hope into it; so, when I got it, I was like, this is awesome,” Freeman said.
After being accepted, Freeman went through a week of training that detailed what to expect from the program. He was placed with the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign and is being matched with a mentor. During the application process, Freeman presented a research proposal that was centered on his work in anthropology and archeology. The research conducted is ultimately chosen by the mentoring professor, but Freeman hopes to do research on North American archeology.
“I knew I wanted to work with an Indigenous community or an Indigenous population,” Freeman said. “I proposed studying the Pueblos in the Southwest because they have a rich prehistoric history. The main reason is, because they are a marginalized population, their prehistory goes unrecognized, and I wanted to shed some more light on it. Prehistory is pre-written time, so the material record is one of the only things that gives a voice to these people. By uncovering the material remains of the past, you are telling their story.”
Connecting archaeology, activism
Freeman, who will do his GSEF research this summer, has been active at Lawrence as a student activist.
“Me and my friend, Earl Simons, we co-founded the Students for Democratic Society (SDS) here at Lawrence,” Freeman said. “Essentially what it is is a national pan-leftist organization that tries to create change through student-led activism and student-led campaigns.”
There are about 20 SDS chapters in the United States. Freeman was able to get a chapter started in Appleton. As a chapter leader, Freeman attends a biweekly meeting to give chapter updates and stay coordinated with other chapters.
Freeman is passionate about activism and hopes to one day combine it with his work in anthropology and archeology.
“If I am going to work in archeology, I am going to work in public archeology, which is essentially conducting archeological research for the community,” Freeman said. “In my public archeology class now, we are talking about how public archeologists go out to marginalized communities and go to the people there and are like, ‘There is history beneath the soil now; how do you want to see it conveyed.’ I want to incorporate my activism with archeological research.”
Awa Badiane ’21 is a student writer in the Office of Communications.
About the series: On Main Hall Green With … is an opportunity to connect with faculty on things in and out of the classroom. We’re featuring a different Lawrence faculty member each time — same questions, different answers.
They are part of almost every conversation he has with his students, whether teaching business and economics classes or guiding students through their business models and presentations in preparation for the annual The Pitch competition.
A member of the Lawrence faculty since 2009, Vaughan also has lived those words in his own business pursuits. He’s the founder of the Kimberly, Wisconsin-based Guident Business Solutions LLC, providing business consulting in areas ranging from company culture to human resources to strategic planning.
He’s helped build Lawrence’s growing Innovation and Entrepreneurship Program, which brings together faculty expertise from various parts of the curriculum, most notably economics and the Conservatory of Music. It allows students to enhance their major with an I&E interdisciplinary focus, prep for master’s programs in business, economics, public policy, and international development, or prepare to launch careers in the business world.
Vaughan calls the I-E courses an ideal complement to any major a student is pursuing. They are elective courses open to all students.
“We spend time talking about career goals and life after Lawrence, and how to apply the lessons learned in I&E to that end,” Vaughan said. “Many I&E alumni stay in touch with me, asking for advice and sharing their career achievements along the way.”
Vaughan and his wife, Sharon, also have been active volunteers in Lawrence’s Friendship Family Program, providing guidance and outreach to international students.
Vaughan earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh and a master’s degree from Silver Lake College and previously taught business courses at Concordia University and Fox Valley Technical College.
We caught up with him to talk about his interests in and out of the classroom.
IN THE CLASSROOM
Inside info: What’s one thing you want every student coming into your classes to know about you?
I have been a teacher throughout my career. If not in the classroom as I do today, in the businesses I consult with and in the businesses I ran. I have viewed every co-worker as a student of business and have tried to pass along any experiences I have had that would benefit them. One of my goals for my students at Lawrence is for them to be much smarter than I am when they get to be my age and achieve a similar position in life.
Getting energized: What work have you done or will you be doing at Lawrence that gets you the most excited?
The Pitch competition and the Rabbit Gallery practicum excite me the most. The Rabbit Gallery, a pop-up art gallery on College Avenue run by I&E students, didn’t happen during the pandemic, but we are intending to pick it up as usual for this next Spring Term. We have approximately 600 community members tour the Rabbit Gallery each spring. It is one of our more popular practicums for students in the I&E program, with an average of 20 students participating each year. Watching our students excel outside the “Lawrence bubble” is exciting to watch. Our students have proven they can compete and represent themselves in a professional manner in academics as well as on the field or on the court. By the way, we also have a lot of fun as we learn together.
Going places: Is there an example of somewhere your career has taken you (either a physical space or something more intellectual, emotional or spiritual) that took you by surprise?
To be honest, I never aspired to teach at a university in a formal way. Like many of our Lawrence alumni, when the opportunity arose, I said yes. This is an “entrepreneurial mindset” we try to instill in our students. To have the courage and self-confidence to say yes when opportunities present themselves. As we discuss in class, our careers are most likely not going to develop as a straight line; they are made up of many crooked lines that are moving us forward in our careers in interesting and exciting ways.
OUT OF THE CLASSROOM
This or that: If you weren’t teaching for a living, what would you be doing?
My dream job would be to work in the National Park System taking care of the grounds and talking with the visitors. Hiking trails and taking in the sights when I’m not emptying the trash containers.
Right at home: Whether for work, relaxation or reflection, what’s your favorite spot on campus?
I enjoy walking on campus at dusk in the summertime. It is peaceful and quiet as the moon shines on Main Hall, and 10th week is far away.
One book, one recording, one film: Name one of each that speaks to your soul? Or you would recommend to a friend? Or both?
Many may not know that I enjoy reading about the Civil War and have either read or listened to many books on that era. I enjoy the strategies that worked and didn’t work during that time in our country’s history. I am currently listening to The Man Who Would Not Be Washington: Robert E. Lee’s Civil War and His Decision That Changed American History, by Jonathan Horn.
As my students do know, I am also a Star Wars enthusiast. I have several Star Wars articles in my office and have seen all the episodes several—OK, more than several—times, including Solo and Rogue One, and have enjoyed the story line for many years. May the force be with you.
2 Minutes With … is a series of short features to introduce us to the passions and interests of Lawrence students on and off campus. Find more 2 Minutes With … features here.
Story by Isabella Mariani ’21
Georgia Greenberg ’20 will continue her journey through Lawrence this fall when she begins a full academic year of student teaching in an Appleton elementary school, part of a partnership between Lawrence’s Teacher Education program and the Appleton Area School District. After majoring in government with a minor in education, she is now in pursuit of her teacher certification.
But until she steps into the classroom, Greenberg has been busy the past year pursuing another passion—serving as the communications lead for Sunrise Appleton, a local chapter of the youth-led Sunrise Movement organization that works to combat the climate crisis by spreading awareness and driving legislative change in communities across the country.
She also took time to help organize the recent LUaroo music festival on the Lawrence campus.
Most of the work with Sunrise Movement is done through Sunrise “hubs,” where community members meet, hold events, and forge partnerships.
Greenberg, who is from Chicago, took a one-year pause from her schooling before she jumps into student teaching. She joined the Sunrise Appleton group in May 2020, several months after some Lawrence students created the community-wide hub.
“I think there are a lot of students like me who have had these interests but haven’t been able to put them into action,” Greenberg said. “It’s very exciting that we can be the first step into that world for young people who haven’t had the opportunity to get involved with something like this before, including myself.”
But Greenberg highlights the importance of expanding the reach of Sunrise Appleton. Organizers have made early efforts to rebrand the hub into a more regional Sunrise of the Fox Valley. They held a recent public pizza party downtown, hoping to recruit members and educate the community about climate change.
The expansion of the hub is a focus for Greenberg, as her responsibilities center on outreach and social media engagement. But it was a hunger for personal connections that got her on board with the Sunrise Movement in the first place.
“The first step for me was that I missed people and want to be around people,” Greenberg said. “I do it because I want to make the world better, but I also do it because I will go crazy if I don’t have work that I’m doing that makes me feel in control over things that are freaking me out.”
An interest in activism
Greenberg’s interest in activism was sparked when she saw her teachers in Chicago go on strike in 2012.
“That kind of organizing has always been interesting and inspiring to me,” she said. “There was a time when I thought, ‘That’s for other people; I don’t know enough. I can’t do that.’”
That mind-set has certainly changed for Greenberg, who has found a comfort level as communications lead with Sunrise Appleton.
She thinks the leadership skills she’s developing will help as she looks to become a leader in the classroom. After obtaining her teacher certification, she hopes to teach in her home city of Chicago.
“Figuring out I wanted to teach made school make sense,” she said. “I’m so excited. It’s crazy that this whole thing is going to end up being a six-year journey. And this is the final step.”
Isabella Mariani ’21 is a student writer in the Office of Communications.