Category Archives: Building Experiences

Open Letter to College Students

I’ll be honest here. I’ve been a bit frustrated with some of my college-aged young adults recently. While I tell them that I am happy to edit papers at the 11th hour if the alternative is no editing at all, reading some of these last minute papers that they’ve admittedly rushed through push me into haranguing mode.

So here’s the tricky part. I don’t want to come off like I’m being insensitive to my students’ realities. Here is what I know. These young people are often:

  • juggling very busy schedules, replete with school, jobs, sports, and family obligations,
  • Dealing with challenging living situations, often with a great deal of transition,
  • Without a role model in the family who has completed college (or even high school) themselves.

So, with that noted, I remain annoyed.

Here are some challenges I throw down for my students.

  • Be your absolute best. If you’re going to college, and paying thousands of dollars, and likely mortgaging your future, you’d better make it worth your while. Demand the best out of yourself. Turn off the TV. Go talk to your professor. Stop taking selfies of yourself. Get out your agenda book and write down the due dates. If you don’t want to do these kinda small things, stop paying the college you and your parent’s hard earned cash, and start looking for more hours at your job.
  • Demand more from your college and your professors. You say your classes are boring. First ask yourself: Am I doing the readings? Am I participating in discussion? Am I doing the homework? If the answer is yes to all those questions, and you’re still bored, then talk to your professor, talk to your chair, and demand better classes. Are your texts racist? Probably. Does it promote a world view that you disagree with? Probably. Then supply some thoughtful, research-driven alternative work to your professor to supplement your reading list. But don’t be intellectually lazy. You’d better be reading or watching something other than TMZ.
  • Develop your skills. Nobody is interested in hiring someone who has been rubber-stamped through a degree. Here’s what you need to be effective in the larger world:
    • Communication skills. Know how to communicate with others using a variety of media– this includes face to face, email and social media. This skill is so that you can persuade people to do stuff for and with you.
    • Prioritizing. There is no question that the students that I work with know how to work hard. But increasingly I see them working hard at things that don’t make sense in the long game. It’s not “don’t have fun”; It’s don’t get stuck on social media for 12 hours and then tell me you don’t have time to fill out a scholarship.
    • Follow-through. From sending a thank you note to checking in with your professor about a test score, following up and following through makes you memorable, and shows that you know to how to see something through to the end.
    • Connecting. During college you have the ability to connect with other people– from the secretaries filing your paperwork, to the professors who are grading you, to your fellow classmates who can support you now and in the future. Figure out how to connect those people– using the skills listed above. Your connections make the difference in the world you will be making for yourself.

Here’s a secret. You don’t need to finish college to learn these skills. But you need these skills to finish college. You’re going to need these skills regardless of what you are going to be. And here’s what you’re going to be:

  • Business owners,
  • Lawyers,
  • Web designers,
  • IT specialists,
  • Prosecuting Attorneys,
  • Chefs,
  • Radicals,
  • Leaders,
  • Wonderful.

BE Accomplished: 6 months of Building Experiences

I began an experiment about 6 months ago. I decided that I wanted to work with young people. I decided that I wanted to do it in ways that felt genuine to me. I decided that I wanted to interact with the young people as a mentor, friend, and unabashedly myself.

I surrounded myself with friends who share similar values and who are also creating the world they want to exist in. We are working to create an inclusive and supportive community for our young members. We made some mistakes, but mostly it’s been joyous and fun. It doesn’t fit into our normal non-profit paradigm. Thankfully.

Scroll down to read quotes from students, see some raw data, and some lessons learned.


Comments from BE Youth Members

Community dinners are special to me because I get to meet new people, learn about their jobs and what they do. It’s fun and you learn about other people and you get to know them.
–H.P. CHS Junior

You were helpful because you were keeping us on track and you were there to help us go through personal and school related problems… you actually directed some of us to go talk to our professors  and advisors…and you never ever for once give up on any of us…some of the time when we push other people away they will stop coming but you were always there.
–F.O. PVCC student

Ms. Dolly spent her whole morning helping me edit my research paper that was due within couple of hours. I hate to admit it, but I usually do my work last minute. I hadn’t started on my research paper that was assigned on the first day of classes, until few hours before it was due. I got a B though. I don’t think I can ever forget the all-nighters I spent fretting, and how with the help of Ms. Dolly I got a B. We were not expecting that at all, but we were both happy.
–D.U. GMU student

Being a part of BE gives me the chance to help others understand that being a mother is not the end of the road.
–M.H. Certified Nurse Associate, and Pharmacy Tech

Having someone to give you honest advice about college and other things really makes a big difference. I’m blessed to have so many wonderful people like you in my life who I can turn to, ask advice about certain things and can be sure that I’m getting a honest answer.
–M.A. VCU student

You put smile in my face, make me think about my future. Ask me what’s going to be next step, every Monday and it feel neat to be asked. I am thankful for that.
–B.O. PVCC student

You were a means of support for me personally and academically. You are always there showing me the way and the steps I need to take to get there. I know I can come to you for help regarding anything, and I appreciate that you are always there to help and listen.
–G.N. PVCC student

Summary of Services

Building Experiences has worked with 35 students this fall. All services are free to students, and to date; all work has been done on a volunteer basis. Our income has been $1705 cash donations, and about $785 in in-kind donations. Expenditures have equaled $1,440.53. Please donate to support our work.

  • We have shared meals with 68 community members, including 26 youth members in the months of December and January.
  •  BE held 10 check in sessions at PVCC and reached 23 students, including a core group of 11 students who sought BE out each week. Topics of discussion included transferring to 4 year schools, dealing with financial aid, improving relationships with parents, peers and professors, and how to balance school and work.
  • BE has provided help to 10 students with editing papers, college essays, resumes and/or cover letters, sometimes even at the last minute.
  • BE has hosted 5 special events since August. We’ve enjoyed EpiCroqueTournament, a long distance, mixed terrain croquet game, held a “Tool Day” where we built birdhouses and carved in stone with a dremel tool, constructed natural wreaths, and attended a multi-day Youth Conference featuring bookbinding, knitting, car-care, college prep and a falcon(!). We celebrated the MLK Jr. weekend by having a delightful walking tour of local, downtown businesses. 17 students have participated in these special programs.

Lessons Learned/Guiding Principles

This has been a glorious experiment, with no end in sight.

  • Reject the “rules” I’ve been instructed in my professional life to establish boundaries, keep my distance, be equitable and fair. And yes, in many ways these are sensible, protective measures. But they are so limiting. There are young people who need hugs, young people who need money, young people who need rides, young people who need to be told what is up. I think many of the rules put into our institutions are based upon fear. I reject that fear.
  • Play the long game Fiscal and academic years lull us into measuring progress with met outcomes and completed classes, but ultimately we’re raising people. People who need to know their stories, understand their strengths, and have a network of supporters. Sometimes there are issues that can’t be resolved in one month, one semester, or one year. There are so many people that we can gain inspiration from who kept persevering. We must give ourselves permission to slow the pace of our aspirations, and honor those who work towards goals years in the making.
  • Don’t let shiny gadgets distract you from the true magic  I wanted to be famous. I wanted to be an old school professor. I wanted to be an avant garde artiste type with shaped hair. I wanted to be a thought leader. What I love to be now is a connector of people, someone who helps dreams come true, people become their best selves. Occasionally I get offers or suggestions that divert me from that passion. Fame, prestige flickers enticingly. And then I remember that that is false promise, and what makes me happiest is knowing that I made one of these young people see and realize their potential. Finally I have found the focus that eluded this jack of all trades for so many decades.

Thank you to BE’s Partners, Volunteers, Donors
Blue Moon Diner
Frazier Family Foundation
The Local Restaurant
Virginia Organizing
Gibson’s Grocery
Camp Holiday Trails
Whole Foods
Denise Interchangeable Knitting and Crochet
Peggy Harrison
Sammy Kaplan
Vu Nguyen
EcoVillage Charlottesville
Cha Cha’s
Frozen Motion Glass
Taiwan Garden
Join our over 50 individual donors, volunteers, and supporters, Give Today. 

Building Experiences Steering Committee is
Laura Galgano, Ellen Krag, Mia Logan, Davina Fournier and Marissa Turner-Harris.

Dolly Joseph is the Chief Facilitator.


What are we going to do about college expense?

Dear Langston,

From beyond the grave, can you revamp your poem? Can you tell me about a dream half-attained? A dream that is invested in, quasi-delivered, and then sabotaged?

In the past few weeks, I’ve had 4 students tell me these stories of heartbreak:

  • 3 semesters of Criminal Justice at ODU, 1 semester of PVCC. $26,000 dollars of debt. ODU won’t release transcripts, won’t allow 1st generation, immigrant student to register. Student is treading water, taking classes at PVCC that probably won’t transfer.
  • 3 semesters of Social Work at VSU. 1st generation high school graduate/college student has dropped out partly because of money, partly because fears that the school won’t maintain accreditation.
  • 2 semesters at VCU. Another 1st generation college student receives bill for $6,000 for this semester. Her CHS teacher writes a personal check for $3,000. Student returns for spring semester, not knowing how to get the remaining $3,000 before the end of term.
  •  5 semesters in North Carolina. 3.4 GPA. There’s no more money for this semester. This junior is taking classes at PVCC. As an upperclassman, what can she possibly take that is helping her complete her degree?

Our system is broken. These 4 African American students have done what they are supposed to do. They’ve gotten good grades. They’ve stayed out of trouble. They’ve done what our schools have told them to do. They’ve followed the American Dream of pursuing their education. And now they’re returning home. Without degrees. Enslaved to a debt that will not be released by anything except their death.

We let them down. We’ve sold them a false bill of goods. We’ve failed them.

Here’s what I know:

  • In the past weeks, I’ve talked to every college professor, every financial aid officer, and every scholarship manager that I could get hold of. None of them have had any hope of a solution for these students. Well, kinda one:
  • I will be writing ODU a polite, but embarrassing, letter threatening to expose that they billed a student $5,000 for housing for a semester he didn’t attend. He’ll still owe $21,000, but I suppose that’s a start.
  • All of these students were encouraged (some required) to apply to multiple 4-year colleges.
  • All of these students, and their families, were unprepared to deal with the financial shenanigans of the schools and the federal government.
  • If I were in their shoes, I wouldn’t have a clue how to proceed. And I spent 10 years prostrate to the higher mind.
  • This is not their fault. This is not only their problem. This is OUR problem.

Here’s how to be horrible:

  • Push kids through a K-12 system that doesn’t adequately prepare them,
  • Stigmatize them if they don’t go to college,
  • Tell them the only way to get out of the ghettos we’ve created is to go off to college,
  • Have them sign notes for thousands of dollars, that’s not quite enough to cover all expenses,
  • Create an unhelpful bureaucracy that penalizes for any slip up (in fact seems to be facilitating slip ups),
  • Blame them when they are not successful,
  • Accept that they’ll be making minimum wage in the service industry.

What are we going to do about this? Some suggestions:

  • Develop a relationship with, and advocate for, a particular student,
  • Demand more funding for state universities,
  • Destigmatize attending community college,
  • Demand tuition decreases,
  • Stop degree inflation (does every job really require a master’s degree?),
  • Stage national student and instructor walk-outs,
  • Take education seriously as a human right
  • Question who does it serve to keep our youth (particularly our youth of color) uneducated and broke.

Building Experiences Youth Conference 2015

This past weekend we had an amazing time at the first ever BE Youth Conference. Over 3 days 11 youth and 15 adults, one baby and one falcon came together to:

  • Make pizza
  • Bind books
  • 10891934_10205948761945270_1854783206660880486_n
  • Design a personalized flag
  • Set goals and expectations
  • 10897083_10205948764105324_7114031788607864172_n
  • Discuss college and career
  • 150103-0435

    With Permission from Peggy Harrison

  • Share life stories
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  • Explore available scholarships
  • 150103-0409

    With Permission from Peggy Harrison


    With Permission from Peggy Harrison


    With Permission from Peggy Harrison

  • 10898210_10205948775065598_6616167356019678992_npixel (4) pixel (3) pixel (2) pixel (1) pixel
  • Learn to knit and crochet
  • 10917309_10205297771220847_508034615138598994_n
  • Begin saving for the new year
  • Learn about car maintenance
  • 10408728_10205297771300849_4663716593044087324_n
  • Share meals
  • 10915231_10205948763105299_6143350829842027119_n
  • Hold a falcon
  • 10905997_10205297771340850_498779582771180810_n
  • Meet new friends
  • 10390528_10205297894503929_978074711424628580_n
  • Share cleaning responsibilities
  • 10344765_10205297767740760_2472665308418544499_n
  • Hug and Laugh

It was magical.


Thank you to Peggy Harrison for sharing her photographs.

Conference Commonalities: Ladies Arm Wrestling & Youth Development

A bit over two weeks ago I had the most affirming and wonderful weekend spent with over 50 women (and a handful of men). We came together in Washington, DC to hold a nation wide conference, and an interleague arm wrestling championship. For 6 years, I’ve been involved with CLAW, Charlottesville Ladies Arm Wrestling, and more recently, CLAW USA, the national coalition.

This weekend represented a shift in my thinking about CLAW. Continue reading