longread

Cole's race

I came across this story by chance. I was assigned a quick, 250-word write-up for an annual report about two students' summer internship. It's the kind of thing I've written countless times. I showed up at Sheltering Arms to interview the internship supervisors, thinking I'd be in and out in 10 minutes. But 10 minutes in, they said, "Hold on, do you know Cole's story?" I didn't. An hour later, we were still talking, and that afternoon, I was setting up time to talk to Cole and his internship partner, Ethan.

Cole's story is one of unbelievable resilience. It took a while to get it published, and in that time, it came full circle.

On a warm summer afternoon in August 2011, Cole Sydnor, ’17, was out on the James River with three friends. He was 16 years old, enjoying the newfound freedom that came with the driver’s license he got the day before.
The friends crossed the river at one of their favorite spots, the pipeline near 14th Street.
“It’s kind of isolated,” Sydnor said, “and there are a couple of rock features that are a lot of fun.”
“Don’t people get hurt out on the rocks?” Sydnor’s mom, Kelly, had asked that morning. “Haven’t people died down there?”
Sydnor, full of teenage swagger, reassured her. “Mom, I’m a great swimmer. I’m gonna be fine,” he told her before he left.
After lounging in the sun, the group started to make its way back toward downtown. Sydnor dove into the water, hoping to get enough momentum to push through the swirling rapids. Instead, he struck his head on a submerged rock.
He knew a set of rapids were swirling just a few yards downriver. He started kicking his legs to swim out of its path. Only his body didn’t respond.
Sydnor was a lifelong swimmer, completely at ease in the water. Confusion set in. He opened his eyes — something he never did in the murky waters of the James. He saw his arms floating in front of him and the water surrounding him quickly turning a cloudy red.
His only friend who hadn’t yet crossed the river saw Sydnor drifting downstream toward the rapids and snapped into action. A Boy Scout with water safety training, he jumped in and pulled Sydnor from the water. Another friend grabbed his cell phone — something the boys almost never brought to the river — and called 911. The third, a high school track star, raced to meet the paramedics at the road, feet bare and bloodied from running on the pipeline grates.
All Sydnor could think was, “Damn it. Mom was right.”

This feature originally appeared in the autumn 2017 issue of University of Richmond Magazine.

The case for clemency

This feature was part of my first issue as editor of Richmond Law magazine. Talking to Mary Tate about her and her students' work on this clemency case helped me better understand the nuances of writing about the law, and the complex nature of these cases.

In 2014, Dujuan Farrow, an inmate in a Pennsylvania prison, received a letter from Mary Kelly Tate, a law professor at the University of Richmond.
President Barack Obama’s administration had just announced its Clemency Initiative, inviting qualified federal inmates to petition to have their sentences commuted. Pro bono organizations around the country were banding together to help submit petitions — including the Institute for Actual Innocence at the University of Richmond School of Law.
In the letter, Farrow read that this law professor he didn’t know had reviewed his case and believed he stood a chance. She asked to take on his case and submit a petition on his behalf.
She offered no promises, but this was Farrow’s last hope, his last shot at a life outside the prison walls that had surrounded him for 12 years.
He decided to take it.

What We Think We Know

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Imagine you’re sitting outside, taking in the scenery. You notice a small animal flying through your sight line.
If you’re like most people, your brain categorizes what you saw — “bird” — and moves on to the next thing to catch your attention.
If you’re an expert bird-watcher — someone who’s spent years learning the subtle differences in calls, colors, and movement of birds in a narrow region of the world — you might discern a bright green and light gray plumage and instantly know you’re looking at a chestnut-sided warbler.
Our brains are constantly processing stimuli, often before we’re conscious of it. It’s a complex process that our brains manage by quickly categorizing the multiple pieces of information that come in. It saves brain power.
That’s why the brain of a novice bird-watcher might categorize only as far as “bird.” Another with a little more experience might notice a flash of red, go a level deeper, and register “cardinal.” The expert birders have trained their brains to move beyond broad categorizations and make fine-level distinctions — often in the same amount of time.
Cindy Bukach, a cognitive neuroscientist and associate professor of psychology, believes there might be something to learn from these variations in cognitive processing, particularly in the labels our brains generate when we look at each other.
“The way we interact with the world depends on how we categorize things in our environment,” she says. “And one example of that is the way we categorize faces.”

This feature appeared in the winter 2016-17 issue of University of Richmond Magazine. I also edited a video that accompanied the online version of the story.

For Future Reference

Walk into the Wright Library at St. Catherine’s School on any given day and you’ll be greeted by girls gathered around a table, laptops open and phones out, as they chat about a class project or just what’s going on that day. A student grabs a magazine from the racks on the wall and settles into a seat on a couch. On your left, the feet of a six-foot tall St. Christopher’s School student stick out from a nook under the stairs.

Directly ahead, librarians smile from a desk in the center of the room. It’s waist-high, nothing like the former circulation desk.

“By opening up the front of the library, we created a welcoming and productive atmosphere,” says Courtney Lewis, Director of Library Services and Innovative Research. “Our new location allows us to be easily accessible.”

From their new vantage point, the librarians have a 360-degree view of students working quietly at carrels, talking about banned books in a corner classroom, or searching for the next book in their favorite series.

They’re also looking out on a whole new way of experiencing the library at St. Catherine’s.

Physical to Digital

In the age of ebooks and digital publications, the need for libraries full of physical books may sound like a relic of days gone by. Audrey Church, president of the American Association of School Librarians, argues that’s not the case. The needs of patrons are just evolving.

“We’ll never move away from print materials,” she says. “But as we move into the virtual, electronic, and digital realm, we see a shift. There’s less shelving and more space for instruction.”

In other words, students working on research projects may trade large reference books and bulky microfiche machines for online databases, but they still need guidance on searching for information, evaluating and synthesizing it, and ultimately communicating what they’ve learned.

“Google does not have all the answers. Wikipedia does not have all the answers,” says Church. “Doing research in a college or university environment requires the use of those subscription paid resources. The library is the place and the librarian is the person that allows students to use those resources and gain those skills prior to stepping out into an academic environment at the higher education level.”

Even the communication aspect has changed. Traditional research papers are still a mainstay, but professors are asking students to think far beyond their final grade.

“Students no longer give their teacher a paper and get an A or a B,” Lewis says. “Modern-day professors want students to realize they’re part of a community of scholars. They’re part of a social network of people who are interested in a topic and who can inform research and give feedback that [helps you] get better.”

That means students may be asked to write for academic blogs and websites, or find more creative outlets to share their work. Familiarity with a wide spectrum of technology tools is a must, which is why the Wright Library’s old AV storage room, full of overhead transparency machines and film cutting equipment, is being upgraded with green screens, GoPros and drones.

“We asked and the girls said, ‘We want to know how to produce great YouTube videos. How do we interview each other? We need a room that’s soundproofed,’” Lewis says. “The ninth grade physics teacher, during his sound unit, is actually going to get different kinds of acoustical soundproofing foam and the girls will design the soundproofing of the room.”

Similar thinking also applies at the elementary level. Story time might still mean a group of children clustered around a librarian reading a book. Rather than straining to see the pages of a physical book, though, they might see an ebook projected on a wall.

This approach is evident in the Lower School Library, which is undergoing its own renovation. The first step was to create an open floor plan allowing for a variety of activities. Moveable tables and flexible space will accommodate small groups and station-based activities, as well as a recent partnership between Christy Irving, Lower School Librarian, and Ann Hamilton-Dixon, Lower School Technology Coordinator.

Beginning in the second grade, Irving introduces information literacy and research skills, such as the library catalog. In the third and fourth grades, a combined class with Hamilton-Dixon incorporates online encyclopedias and periodical databases, iPad presentation apps and a 3D printer.

“Technology and research and information literacy, they definitely go hand-in-hand, and having good research skills is so valuable,” Irving says. “I never expect the girls to leave the Lower School being experts, but we give an introduction to the resources that are available to them and a process for research.”

While technology and research may be front and center, the Lower School library is still a space for young girls. With the large nook gone and new paint on the walls, the room is now lighter and brighter, with plenty of room for movement — even when students are in their seats. New chairs will allow girls to wiggle and fidget without disrupting their neighbors; studies show that the more kids can move, the more they’re actually paying attention.

Back in the Wright Library, a handful of innovative Brody chairs also prove how every detail of your work environment can enhance productivity. The chairs are encased with a small wall to encourage quiet study, and some have attached lights and power outlets. They also have a stool, as psychology studies show technology-driven work is best accomplished with feet at an angle.

Upper School student Emma Walker is most excited about the improved seating options. “The Brody chairs provide more comfortable work spaces and are great for working at a computer for an extended period of time,” she says.

The strategic placement of Brody chairs, traditional study carrels, and collaborative tables in quiet and noisy zones also reflect the needs of girls at a rigorous school. Lewis says students at St. Catherine’s want to work near their friends, even when they’re completely focused on their work. “Two girls might pick Brody chairs right next to each other and be totally quiet and working, but occasionally send a text to the person next to them,” she says. “They want to be able to take a break from working alone, find a few friends, share how they’re feeling and get some empathy. It satisfies an emotional need and that level of openness, I think, is part of an all-girls school.”

Small Details, Big Wins

A workstation that looks like it was plucked from the first-class cabin on a flight to Dubai might catch a visitor’s attention, but many of the library developments are low-tech solutions to seemingly simple problems — like finding a book to read for the weekend.

Irving and Lewis refer to it as the “bookstore-ification” of libraries. Selected books are turned face-out on shelves to increase appeal among passersby. In the Lower School, picture books are moving to bins placed around the library’s perimeter, making them easier for little hands to manage.

“A lot of the local public libraries have transitioned to picture book bins because they allow the younger children to flip through the books,” Irving says. “It’s so hard, if you’re five years old, to take a book out and get it back on the shelf.”

The Upper School has incorporated genre and series labels to help students easily find what they’re looking for. Lewis estimates that library staff used to spend upwards of 45 minutes a day looking up the next book in a series. Now that information is at the girls’ fingertips.

Still other additions acknowledge the needs of high-achieving students neck-deep in midterms and college applications. Nineteen therapy dogs came in for a visit during spring break and hot chocolate days are planned for the winter. In the future, a library classroom may double as a meditation zone, complete with aromatherapy, soft music and coloring books.

“Eighth, eleventh, and twelfth graders, while they absolutely were doing homework and academic work, they showed higher rates of watching videos, sleeping, and things that were escapist behaviors,” Lewis says. “Obviously we have a great information literacy program, but girls need things outside of the classroom, too. It’s important for us to maintain that balance of what they need from us to help with their work, and here’s what they need, period.”

The Heart of a School

“It’s a pet peeve of mine when you go to an independent school that has a really strong sense of self and culture and you go into the library and you have no idea where you are,” says Lewis. “We wanted to show you’re at St. Catherine’s School, you’re at a girls’ school.”

Lewis is referring to design details, like a subtle daisy pattern on the couch upholstery, but every inch of the Wright Library reflects the ideas and input of the St. Catherine’s community.

In fact, the library renovations originated with the 2015 and 2016 graduating seniors and their parents who wanted a better space for the students they were leaving behind. The girls knew what they wanted in a library, and the Senior Parent Gift Committee raised the money to make it happen.

When Lewis came on board in 2015, she sent a survey to the entire Middle and Upper schools with a promise of fresh-baked cookies in exchange for their time.

An eighth grader might not be an expert in space design, but she is an expert in how she spends her day. To that end, students were asked to detail the campus spaces they use for collaborative work, quiet study and relaxation; their interest in ebooks, research databases and other tools; and even their furniture preferences.

More than three-quarters of the student body responded — and they didn’t hold back. The library staff learned that the original study carrels had to stay. Old rules banning food and drink needed to be rethought (after all, says Lewis, “you can’t learn if you’re hungry or thirsty.”). And student after student said quiet space was a must.

Once initial design concepts were in hand, they were plastered on the library walls with stacks of blank Post-Its, ready for feedback. Within days, hundreds of notes peppered the designs with thoughts on colors and space layout and everything in between.

The library staff also took notice of what was happening in the space and found solutions to problems students didn’t even know they had. For instance, after watching girls sketch out ideas on a whiteboard and text a photo to their group, St. Catherine’s purchased a whiteboard with built-in Bluetooth connectivity that allows students to view their notes in real time and share snapshots along the way.

Wright Library is still evolving, but it’s clear the changes are winning over students. Lewis says they were lucky to have 70 or 80 kids a day before the renovation, but they now see nearly 300 students voluntarily visiting the library every day. They’re not just hanging out, either; book circulation is up 329 percent.

Girls are also finding the library offers a cozy alternative to places like the Grove Avenue Starbucks for after-school study sessions. Wesley Wright, Governor Emeriti and the library’s namesake, is fond of saying the library is the kitchen of the school. It’s the informal gathering place at the heart of St. Catherine’s, the place where anyone feels at home.

Lewis believes they’re fulfilling that vision. “It’s almost left over from when it used to be a boarding school here,” says Lewis. “They don’t just leave at 3:30; they can continue to be in that library space. I love that.”

This feature appeared in the fall 2016 issue of St. Catherine's Now, a publication of St. Catherine's School.

Breaking the binary

It was August, but the air was chilly. Jah Akande, ’13, bundled up in his coat as he prepared to exit the plane. He had just arrived in London with that nervous excitement so many students feel as they begin a semester abroad.
Jah grew up in Richmond, just a few miles down the street from the University. These three months in London would be his first time not surrounded by the friends and family and places he had always known.
As he approached the airplane door, the pilot greeted him, “Welcome to London, sir.”
Jah paused briefly, thinking to himself, “That was nice.”
It wasn’t the pilot’s friendliness that caught him off guard. Rather, it was the first time in Jah’s life that anyone had ever referred to him using “sir,” or “he,” or any other masculine pronoun — and the first time he realized the terms fit.

About a year ago, I pitched an idea for a story about the experiences of transgender students at the University of Richmond. While we’re a co-ed university, we have a coordinate college system that still assigns students to a college based on their gender. I thought we might have a perspective that not many other colleges and universities would have.

The University doesn’t have all of the answers, and I know many of the people I talked to would like to see more progress. But I’m happy it’s also a place that’s willing to acknowledge, on the front page of its website, that there's still work to do.

I spent hours and hours talking to students, alumni, and staff and I wish I had endless room to share their full stories because this story barely scratches the surface.

Serious props to Katie McBride for the gorgeous artwork and Joedy Felts for the animation and Internet magic.

Talk to me

The day before I called Qasim Rashid, L’12, from my office on Richmond’s campus, a man named Christopher Harper-Mercer walked onto another campus, Umpqua Community College in Oregon, and opened fire on his writing class. He fatally shot a professor and eight students and injured nine others before turning the gun on himself. Media speculated on a hodgepodge of possible explanations and motives: the infamy of similar mass shooters, his own isolation, and racial and religious hatred.
Rashid and I planned to talk about the power of human connection to reduce cultural misunderstanding and the violence that can result from it — violence like what happened in Oregon just the day before. Our timing felt off. But was there a less volatile time this year to talk with him?

This profile appeared in the winter 2016 issue of Richmond Law magazine.

804ork, Vol. 2

A SERIES OF COOKBOOKS FEATURING RICHMOND'S MOST ADMIRED CHEFS, RESTAURANTS, AND CUISINE

804ork is more than a cookbook.
It’s a who’s who, a what’s what, and a local travel guide for the hungry, a book that will find a happy home on many kitchen counters, coffee tables, and bookshelves in Richmond and beyond.
804ork will help you learn about the food, the people, and the places that have won us over. You’ll find recipes for old standbys and new favorites, inspiring photographs, and words of victual wisdom from Richmond’s most admired chefs and restaurateurs.
The Dog and Pig Show

The Dog and Pig Show

I was honored to be a part of the team that created the second volume of this beautiful book showcasing Richmond's foodie finest.

For the project, I interviewed more than 20 restaurant chefs and owners for profiles and Q&As that offered a glimpse into their personality. I also served as copyeditor for all book content, including chef profiles, recipes, directory, and chapter introductions.

The book is available online and at local retailers.

Fair Play

It's clear there's potential for a lot of good to come from hosting events like the World Cup and the Olympics. But as public costs race into the billions, and at the risk of government upheaval and exacerbating human rights issues, one still has to ask, is it even worth it?
For some countries, University of Richmond law professor Andy Spalding says, the answer may be no.
Consider Oslo, Norway, which entered a bid for the 2022 Olympics. It's one of the least corrupt countries in the world according to Transparency International, it has a favorable position in the global marketplace, and the government infrastructure is strong. That left only economic considerations, but Norway's citizens didn't support the use of public funds to cover the infrastructure costs. Oslo was forced to withdraw its bid.
But Spalding isn't as quick to dismiss the potential for nations like Brazil. If a nation can use the platform to establish long-term, positive institutional reforms and improve its standing in a global marketplace, it makes the endeavor worthwhile, even at an economic costs.
In fact, Spalding argues that a push to let developing countries host could give more countries the chance to take advantage of the global platform and follow in Brazil's footsteps. It's those countries that have so much more to gain than gold medals and shiny new buildings.

This story appeared in the summer 2015 issue of Richmond Law, the University of Richmond School of Law alumni magazine. It's one of those stories that seems like it could be a bit dry and technical, but after talking to the people involved, I can't help but be fascinated by the subject.

3 Days in RVA

Lately it seems like all eyes are on Richmond. Frommer’s named the city a top worldwide destination claiming, “while you weren’t looking, Richmond got cool.” The New York Times says, “Richmond is strutting with confidence” as it emerges as a “new player on the Southern art and culinary scene.” And Outside magazine says residents are “absolutely justified in their zealotry.”
But what does a foodie city taste like? What makes an “it” neighborhood? What does it mean to be one of the happiest cities in America? And, as a university that brings in students from all over the world but once struggled to burst its own bubble, what’s our place in all of this?
Spend a weekend here with an itinerary like this and you’ll get a few answers. Delicate and hop-forward, classic French with a dash of comfort. A place that preserves history without shying away from innovation. Spiders who love RVA and work together to make our home a better place.

This feature appeared in the spring 2015 issue of University of Richmond Magazine. It's hard to believe I've lived in Richmond for nearly a decade. I love getting the chance to write about the people and places that make my adopted home, and this piece was no exception.

A Quieter Now

I sit down at my desk to write this story. I turn on my laptop, gather my notes, and open Word. Just as my fingers start to tap the keyboard — ding — an email arrives. I can answer that one tomorrow.
Ding. Another one. That I can’t ignore. And that reminds me, I told them I’d help them with that other thing today. It’ll just take a second.
Chime. A text from my husband asking if I can run home at lunch today to let the dog out. We’re also out of bread, and I need to remember to run by the grocery store. Let me write that down. Where did I put my pen?
Ring. “Did you send those files to the client yet?” Let me do that right now. Is this one the most recent version, or is that one? I’ll have to check.
The day progresses, and the to-do list builds. The gas pedal is mashed to the floor, and a leisurely cruise turns into a race down the Autobahn. My mind jumps between thoughts and tasks, each fighting to get to the front of the line. I keep telling myself that it will be easier to approach this writing assignment with a clear plate and head.
Soon, it’s 3:30 p.m., and my Word document is still sitting open with nothing more than a headline, a few half-formed thoughts, and a blinking cursor.
I close my eyes, take a deep breath, and try to recall Shari Motro’s first-year seminar: Sex, Mindfulness, and the Law. Every Tuesday, 16 students — as well as faculty, staff, and students from around campus — gather in the Law School Commons. The room is buzzing with pre-class chatter as we stand around a circle of chairs. Motro walks in, quietly removes her shoes, and takes a seat. Without a word, the activity of the room dissipates, and everyone makes his or her way to a seat on a chair, a couch, or a cushion on the floor.
“This is the time when we say goodbye to our phones,” she says. “We’ll come back to them in a little while.”
And then, we sit.

This feature appeared in the winter 2015 issue of University of Richmond Magazine, the University's alumni magazine. As a yoga teacher, I was especially excited by the chance to dig into a subject I personally care about. How great is that?

Pilgrimage: Poland

It didn’t take long for the details and questions of the Holocaust, which were constantly on our minds for eight days, to recede into the backdrop of our lives. We returned to classes and jobs, to roommates and families.
But there are still those moments when everything comes rushing back. Something simple—an article online, a picture saved on a phone, a dirty sock—can return us instantly.
Or maybe the question, “What was it like?” brings everything front and center again. Sometimes all we can muster is a simple, standard response—pointing out the obvious difficulty or defaulting to a humorous moment—as we try to stifle the images that begin to flash through our minds. We might choke back an unexpected swell of tears, because now just isn’t the time to feel everything all over again.
Other times, we can talk for hours, barely pausing to take a breath, thinking if we can remember every little detail, maybe we can give others just a hint of what they need to know. Because, as we learned, that’s the most important thing we can do—tell the stories.

Pilgrimage: Poland was a weeklong intensive travel experience, organized by the University of Richmond's Office of the Chaplaincy. Participants studied the roots of Judaism in Poland, how the Catholic nature of the company shaped the Jewish experience, and the lead up to and effects of the Holocaust on Poland and the Jewish community. Part of this exploration raised questions of responsibility, victimhood, and forgiveness.

My role was to document the trip, moment-to-moment, with photos, captions, and quotes from guest speakers and participants. Each day concluded with a longer post showing the continuing dialogue and learning experience for the participants.

Pilgrimage: Israel

We all have things in life that we hold dear, that define us, that we feel in our very core.
We all have things that are sacred.
Even though most of us had never set foot on Israel’s ground just over a month ago, this tiny country was unquestionably something we each held sacred. It represented a place where faith didn’t have to be something that we felt only in our hearts. It was a place where faith could be tangible and visible — where the length of a coat or the shape of a hat could tell the world what you believe. It represented a place where you didn’t have to explain who you are, but rather a place where you can just be.
It also is a place we knew held challenges, and we were greeted with them immediately. We saw what happens when competing stories fight for the spotlight, rather than search for the common ground of co-existence. We walked alongside the physical barriers that arise when a modern-day story of Exodus meets a fear of losing the first homeland a people have found in generations. We felt the tension that can build when dynamic faiths find a home within the same city walls.
No one claims that it was easy to hear that a place we hold sacred has real problems, but by challenging our existing beliefs, we learned right away the importance of listening to all perspectives.

Pilgrimage: Israel was an intensive 10-day travel seminar, organized by the University of Richmond's Office of the Chaplaincy. The experience included stops in the Galilee region, Haifa, and Jerusalem. Participants explored the history and current state of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, interfaith communication, and the traditions and important sites of Christians, Muslims, and Jews.

My role was to document the trip, moment-to-moment, with photos, captions, and quotes from guest speakers and participants. Each day concluded with a longer post showing the continuing dialogue and learning experience for the participants.