Union president revisits challenges undertaken by students, staff

Inaugural address: ‘Be comfortable being uncomfortable’
Union College President David Robert Harris at the Challenge board in Reamer Campus Center.
Union College President David Robert Harris at the Challenge board in Reamer Campus Center.

SCHENECTADY — Standing under a bulletin board full of students’ self-imposed personal challenges, Union College President David Harris last week explained how small personal goals can build something much bigger.

“There’s everything from the large to the small, from the intellectual, the cultural… all these kinds of things,” Harris said as he provided updates on the goals of students and staff across campus.

Students, staff and faculty had committed to these challenges during the opening days of the school year in a response to a call Harris made during his inaugural address to be “more comfortable being uncomfortable.” The challenges run the gamut from the serious to the simple: sit alone at lunch; eat healthier; exercise more; declare an English minor; supplement science and math reading with a couple novels; say hello to a stranger; go for a bike ride; learn to ride a bike. Graduate. Be less anxious about what comes after graduation.

“Oh, I love this one: ‘Don’t complain or say anything negative for a whole day’… good luck,” Harris said, adding that he planned to follow up with more students to see how their challenges have gone. “Did you do that? How did that go? What did you learn?”

During his inaugural address, Harris outlined the challenge and promised to take up his own personal mission: listen to political podcasts on the opposite side of the political spectrum and take yoga lessons.

“The first step in getting out of one’s comfort zone is to acknowledge what makes us comfortable,” Harris said during his inaugural address. “Given that I am an African-American, I am a sociologist, and I was a political appointee in the Obama administration, it probably comes as little surprise that my preferred podcasts tend to be center or left of center.”

So Harris promised to add conservative podcasts to his lineup and write weekly updates about what he was learned; he asked others to join him and find a way to challenge themselves in school, work or their personal lives.

A Union staff member started pursuing her college degree at SUNY Schenectady County Community College; another staff member finally got a driver’s license; Schenectady Police Chief Eric Clifford, after listening to Harris’ address and visiting with the new college president, committed to visiting the city’s 11 different neighborhoods and sitting down for a conversation with a stranger.

“Many times work is so busy that small things get overlooked,” Clifford wrote as he posted his personal challenge in September. “A challenge of mine is finding time to talk to strangers, and it generally makes me uncomfortable to approach strangers and start conversations.”

Physics professor Chad Orzel said he first thought the president’s challenge was “pretty corny,” but that it aligned well with the liberal arts mission of exposing students to a wide array of subjects and challenging them to think across different disciplines. He committed to visiting lectures and events in fields far from his.

“It’s what we are about, and we have a tendency to get away from that,” he said of the liberal arts ethos. “It’s easy to fall into only going to things I know a good deal about the field.”

So this fall he attended a lunch seminar on Basque history and film portrayals over time. Stretching himself even further, while at a student research forum, Orzel stopped by a presentation on pop star Cardi B and the construction of identity.

“I know nothing about the history of the Basque region at all,” Orzel said. “We should also have poets going to talks about physics.”

In what Harris promised was the first of many personal challenges to come. He said the physical act of yoga was harder than listening to the political podcasts but that writing about the political podcasts was harder than writing about yoga.

“It frustrated me at times, and I disagree, but it wasn’t like I was listening to something that I thought this is just ridiculous,” he said of the conservative podcasts. “But writing about it was challenging, because in our environment, you know, it’s hard to say anything political without people getting carried away often and assuming things you’re not saying.”

Harris said he spent a lot of time editing and revising and thinking through what ultimately turned into small posts to his Instagram page. He said the podcasts diverged most during the contentious confirmation hearings of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh.

“One of the few points of agreement was that we are at a dangerous level of partisanship,” Harris said.

Harris said heard from some Union alumni who thought he was stepping further into politics than a college president should. He called one of them to discuss it.

“It helped me understand the importance of thinking about the context people have when they read this, their mindset,” he said. From then on he started adding a link to the backstory of the challenge and why he was posting about political podcasts in the first place.

“That was exactly what I wanted to have happen, you deal with these challenge and learn to work with people across these lines,” Harris said.

During his first yoga sessions, Harris said, he struggled to submit to the mindfulness of Savasana – a pose in which you lie on your back and relax your mind and body – instead thinking about his day’s to-do list.

“The first time I was like are you kidding me? For five minutes, you just want me to lie here? I’ve got things to do,” he said. But by his final session, he found a moment of peace. “I got it and I was just able to relax my mind and it was a good thing … Sometimes you have to go slower to go faster.”

‘Develop those muscles’

Ultimately, Harris intended the challenge to inform and improve Union’s broader academic goals.

“They need to have nimble minds, have sampled a range of things and be comfortable learning new things,” Harris said of college students. “But it also means they need to be comfortable with a range of people and life experiences and understand that and understand their privilege and understand where they have struggles that are different from others.”

The student challenges were about putting aside their phones, being kinder to others, being healthier for themselves. But in the aggregate, Harris said, the Union community was learning the skills necessary for the college to take on new challenges from playing a larger role in the region’s challenges to creating greater access to Union for students from more diverse backgrounds.

The military has a tradition called “challenge coins.” The coins are an indication of rank and other achievements, so military officials might greet one another with a flash of their coin, Harris explained, a show of who ranks higher. A batch of Union challenge coins were ordered for Harris’ inauguration, initially planned as commemorations for special guests of the ceremony. But it dawned on Harris that the coins could be used as a sign of participation in the school’s new challenge.

“This is more a challenge like we are going to do something and support one another and thrive,” he said. “You can’t mock someone’s challenge, because what may seem small to you could be monumental.”

Harris said he was still thinking about what his next challenge will be.


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