Monday, December 3, 2007

A Spirit of Service

I normally keep 3-4 ideas going at a time for these blog posts, waiting for the right time or inspiration to publish my next post. My last post focused on partnerships and how they will require us to change some of our systems and services. I believe much of our future success will come through these partnerships and increasing access, but only to the extent that our collective attitudes about service are aligned. What do I mean when I say “service?” I had a very personal experience recently that I think is a great illustration of how I define the word.

At a recent charity event, we won a silent auction holiday package that included a wreath, candle, and Christmas tree. My family and I decided we would go pick out the tree at the place designated on the silent auction certificate. The location turned out to be in a very rural area north of Rome. The sun was setting quickly as we drove down an icy dirt road. A handwritten sign said "x-mas trees .7 miles". As we continued to drive with the holiday music playing on the radio and the kids singing in the backseat, I must admit there were elements of a Stephen King made for TV movie coming together. We passed a single farmhouse and continued on past a sign that said something about "road not maintained" after whatever date. Within a couple hundred yards, we went down an icy hill that told us we were in for an adventure. We made it up a couple of daunting hills until we met our match - we would go forward no more. As I tried to back ever-so-slowly down a fairly steep hill on this two-track trail in our front-wheel drive van, we gently slid off the two-track. The right front and rear wheels were buried in muck with a log under the frame while the left front wheel was on a patch of glare ice.

As the sun set below the horizon and darkness fell, we immediately ran the half mile back to the farm house and luckily connected with the owner of the farmhouse on the corner. He confirmed that the tree farm was indeed back there - likely just over that last hill where we were stuck. "His Christmas trees are just beautiful, but yeah, the guy's location is a bit of a downside", he said. I asked if he could help and he gave me a slow smile and curl of his lip and said, "two-wheeler?" I confirmed and he quickly stopped what he was doing and said, "I can get you out." It was clearly suppertime and he was in the process of shutting things down after what I imagine was a full day of work for him. He got right on his tractor and followed us back to the van. In no time we were free from the muck where we could follow him back to the base of that monster first hill for him to tow us up to the top and set us free to go home with our "first Christmas in New York" special memory.

I share this tale because this kind soul who literally saved us (there was no cellphone reception where we were and the nightly low temperature was going to be 7 degrees) could have handled our desperate situation a number of ways - he chose kindness. He never made us feel stupid. He never did anything to escalate our anxiety. All he did was smile, tell us he would be happy to help us, and made it seem like our exceptional circumstance was nothing out of the ordinary in his experience, so everything would be okay. When I think about increasing access and expanding our partnerships that will bring various streams of underserved populations to our open door at the College, we need to have the same attitude toward helping others as my favorite farmer does.

Customer service is an interesting concept in this country. We experience service in so many parts of our day - we all think we know it when we see it. Certainly there are common threads and strategies to providing good service. However, I believe that the best service starts with an attitude that permeates the entire experience and sends a consistent message of support, help, and understanding. We need to recognize that each student's circumstance is different – that although their story may sound the same to us as the next student in line, to them, their crisis is unique and needs our full attention. We have to remember that in all likelihood, this is their first college experience - their first interaction with us is their very first and anxiety-ridden step for them, even though we are in our tenth, fifteenth, or even thirtieth year of answering similar questions. The primary reason MVCC exists is to provide students with access to opportunity. If we can smile, tell others that we're happy to help, and make their exceptional circumstances seem like nothing we haven't been able to figure out in some way before, we will be on our way to creating the kind of environment where service isn't just something you see and talk about, it's something you can feel.

If you have thoughts on this that you'd like to share with me, please do at presblog@mvcc.edu