Sunday, May 20, 2012

"Concrete Jungle Where Dreams Are Made of"

The postings on this site are my own and don’t necessarily represent IBM’s positions, strategies or opinions.

Reposted from my "Learning to Lead" IBM blog:

It was a dilemma: Should the following blog-entry appear first on my personal blog, or on my IBM one?

I chose IBM first for two reasons:

  1. Essentially, in addition to being an opportunity for reflection, this blog entry could serve as Part II of the e-mailed thank-you note I sent to my management and the supportive colleagues and mentors who enabled me to pursue the part-time master's degree over the past 5+ years
  2. To me, its content would inevitably relate to my concept of learning to lead and the associated occasional discoveries that go with such learning.

Columbia Alumnae Made Me Cry

Tears didn't well up until the very end of the graduation ceremony when Alicia Keys' "New York - Empire State of Mind" boomed celestially from the same PA system that broadcasted the degree petitions by various deans and Columbia school presidents all morning prior...and specifically, not till the woman next to me (who spoke with her parents in Polish on her cell phone as the festivities were starting) sang along with me joyously: "New York, concrete jungle where dreams are made of; there's nothing you can't do, now [that] you're in New York ...." (Columbia University is in New York City.) The tears, I think, came from hearing the marvelous song visibly together with so many others, and so loudly and clearly in this ultra-academic venue when typically, I'm hearing it alone on the radio in my car. And they came also from hearing the Polish-speaking woman to my right belting out the song with fun fervor; if not from Poland herself, she was likely first-generation. With her blond, blue-eyed multilingual youth, she was as symbolic of hope and freedom for me at that moment as the Statue of Liberty.

The tears also sprang from a flashback to an exchange with another Columbia alumna, my middle-sister Kathy, when I lived in Chicago and she, in Brooklyn. Maybe it was sibling rivalry, but just as likely, she was trying to goad me into coming home to metro-New York from the Midwest, where I had lived for more than a decade by then; my whole family wished I was less than a plane-ride away and made their wish plain in many ways over the years.

"You know, you haven't made it till you make it in New York," Kathy said.

"Pfff," I responded dismissively, but smiled as I recalled the exchange in my head a number of times while working for IBM both at 590 and 11 Madison Ave. in New York City. And then I smiled again as I looked at the Columbia-blue sleeve of my master's regalia, figuratively if not literally, while singing along to Alicia Keys' anthem. Growing up, my other and oldest sibling, Deb, and I were less like rivals and more like bonus-mother and daughter, since she was nine years older than I. When I invited Deb to the ceremony, I said that I hoped she would be able to come, as she had been like another mother to me and so my achievement was partly her "fault," too. Deb's own graduate degree pursuit at Tel Aviv University had been tragically and permanently interrupted by the death of my dad of blessed memory (z"l) in 1982.

Discovering a Small World Among a Mass of Humanity

There was something fundamentally awe-inspiring and alienating at once about being part of a giant graduation ceremony:

Sitting apart from my family among students who happened to be completing their degrees at the same time, but with whom I was not necessarily close friends was a little lonely initially. It was the second academic occasion where I steeled myself for the payoff of feeling part of something much, much larger than myself. Twenty-five years prior, I sat practically randomly with a guy from my hometown who was also graduating the same year as I because we ran into each other in the crowd; the rest of my friends had either graduated the year prior when I studied at Hebrew University in Jerusalem for the year, or were on the five-year plan. We sat in the bleachers of the University of Michigan stadium, among an even bigger crowd than I saw in Columbia's Low Plaza on Wednesday. On both occasions, as well as during my high school graduation, my dad (z"l) was corporeally absent. His death in November of my senior year of high school was due to rare, common bile-duct cancer. This time, I thought of him directly as I watched the graduating physicians and surgeons stand with their heads bowed while their dean recited the Hippocratic Oath. Columbia-trained physicians treated my father at what is now called Columbia University Medical Center; devastatingly, his cancer was too advanced to save him by the time it was discovered.

This time, a quarter of a century later, maybe due to greater social skills and diminished self-involvement -- maybe -- I felt more engaged with my schoolmates. And I planned ahead: I recalled that Alysa Turkowitz, who like me is also openly-lesbian and Jewish, and who had interviewed me for her dissertation on lesbian, gay and bisexual (LGB) students navigating graduate school, was graduating, too; I asked if she planned to be at the larger ceremony on Wednesday and if so, if she'd like to sit together.

Absolutely, she said; she was in the same boat in that no one else she knew was graduating at the same time.

On purpose, I arrived at the meeting point extra-early, to secure a spot at the head of the Teachers College delegation, hoping my family would have a better chance of seeing me and then it also seemed fun that Alysa and I would lead off the procession; Alysa's dissertation concluded that LGB students were less visible than we wished, so it was symbolically important to me that we comprised the front of one of two, parallel lines of Teachers College students at a final moment of our respective graduate careers.

Prior to the procession, all students were told to stand in front or behind the person with whom we wished to sit during the ceremony. What an interesting social experiment! The Law School preceded Teachers College and it was fascinating to see collections of different regions of Asian guys and of pretty White women, all with long hair, and of tall White guys, and so on walk by us. Alysa and I made up the Jewish-American lesbian section of the Teachers College delegation -- as far as we knew :-) Afterward, at the reception, I mentioned my observation to Pat, about how like-people marched together and she said, "Carl Jung said that people prefer to be with people who appear to be like them, and that's why we have prejudice."

While we waited for the ceremony to start, Alysa noticed my ring and said, "Are you and Pat married?"

"Yes, we got married legally in Connecticut last summer, in my hometown, Stamford." Alysa congratulated me and then told me of how she had relatively recently proposed to her girlfriend Gwen, who had accepted. As I listened, I smiled to myself, thinking of how some might have thought it interesting that just like any number of women of any sexual orientation, we were describing our joy at having found The One prior to graduation.

As it turned out, Alysa couldn't keep me company through the entire ceremony, as her doctoral hooding ceremony began at 1 pm and her family and she needed to eat lunch prior, and so I opted to be sociable with others after she left, since I wanted to sustain a communal sense of the experience. Here is the predictable irony; I had plenty in common with someone who did not appear to be at all like me:

The hijab-wearing, gorgeous woman to my left turned out to have gone to the University of Michigan as an undergrad, too. She was from Dearborn, Michigan.

"Why did you go to Michigan from out of state?" she asked me.

"My father -- who was dying of cancer at the time, but who still took me to a college fair my junior year -- thought it was a good idea because of "The Michigan Daily"; I had been a reporter for my high school newspaper. He was sold on Michigan, too, because he had had a great conversation with one of our synagogue's congregants, a successful alumnus, during the fair."

"Ah, makes sense."

"But actually, I also chose it because I thought it was big enough that I could explore my sexual orientation without anyone from home knowing -- I had gone to a Modern Orthodox Jewish day school for eight years, growing up." I looked at her for a moment and then away.

"Michigan was very welcoming, it's true," she said simply and apparently without judgment.

"Why did you choose to go to Michigan?"

"My brother-in-law went there and he took me for a visit once and I loved the campus." Pat, who was in Higher Ed Admin for her whole career and who was specifically responsible for Facilities in her role as Associate VP and VP of Business and Finance at two universities told me later, "I read in a Facilities journal that something like 63% or 65% of students choose their university based on how the campus looks." This woman was not superficial; she had majored in Neuroscience, so Pat's stat must be right.

When Gloria Steinem received her honorary Doctor of Laws degree, a few minutes later, my bleacher-mate did not know who she was.

After explaining that she was among the leaders of the Feminist movement, I said, "I'd like to ask you potentially a super-ignorant question. May I?"

Graciously and instantly, she said, "Sure."

"Do you think it's because you are young or because you grew up in a Muslim environment that you don't know who Gloria Steinem is?"

"It's definitely not because I grew up in a Muslim environment," she said, "I'm such a Code Pinker."

"What's that?" I asked.

She looked at me with the same incredulous expression I'd had on my face when she didn't know who Gloria Steinem was. "It's a radical women's group that I joined in Ann Arbor and then here; it made me feel at home."

Later, I commented on this exchange on Facebook and one of my friends from Michigan responded, "Haha my sister is so "code pink!" and she's 5 yrs older than us!!! No excuse for either of u!"

Luckily, we had already found common ground because we discovered that she had had IBM Center for Advanced Learning colleague and friend Dr. Nabeel Ahmad as her professor during her final course at Teachers College and also that both of us had gone to the University of Michigan as undergrads.

Toward the end, when we saw that the singing of the Columbia "Alma Mater" song would happen soon, both of us smiled as we talked about how we still remembered the words to "Hail to the Victors," the Michigan Fight Song.

"Do you want to sing it?" I asked.

She answered by starting. We sang it softly to each other as we looked out at the throngs below. And then at the very end, when Alicia Keys' song echoed off of the Library, the Polish-speaking woman to my right and I sang along. Maybe that's all she and I had in common -- a love of Alicia Keys -- but probably not, if only we'd had a chance to talk, too....

At lunch, I told my mom, "I wish Dad could have been here."

"He was," she responded instantly, and yet I think that the day prior, my mom was missing being able to share the occasion with him more apparently.

A Happy-Sad Confluence Made My Mom Cry

Since it was indoors, the Master's Ceremony the day before was accessible to my mom. As I approached her, seated next to my wife Pat and close to the left-hand jumbotron, I went to kiss my mom's cheek and saw that her bright blue eyes looked even bluer with welled-up tears. I can remember seeing my mom cry only a few times in my life, including when my father of blessed memory (z"l) died in 1982, seven months prior to my high school graduation. As I sat down, I wondered, Is my mom overjoyed, or sad that my dad (z"l) missed so much, or sad that she didn't pursue a graduate degree or...? For my part, I was the sort of happy where I couldn't stop smiling (I'm the tallest one of the visible graduates in this photo.)

When I asked later why she was crying, she said, "Sometimes you cry when you're happy.... Your father missed everything."

My mother has a Journalism B.A. from the University of Wisconsin and neither of her parents (z"l) went to university. Her dad (z"l) didn't get to go to school beyond the 6th grade and initially, was a truck driver before starting a furniture business in Rochester, New York. My dad (z"l) had a B.A. in Industrial Design from the Rhode Island School of Design and neither of his parents went to university either. In fact, among the chief reasons I thought to pursue this graduate degree was that my middle sister Kathy was gravely ill with breast cancer and I said to myself, someone's got to carry on her legacy as an educator; Kathy has a master's in Applied Linguistics from Teachers College and another in Education from Bank Street College.

Thank God, it has been six years since her bout and hopefully, she's fine. Graduate school attendance was pretty rare in my family through our generation. Only our father's (z"l) sister Aunt Tovah (z"l) and our first cousin Sari each had a doctorate, and my sister Kathy and I have master's. Even more strikingly, my wife was the only one of her family to go on for grad. school. Neither of Pat's parents was able to go to university, yet Pat has an M.S. in Psych, an MBA and an Ed.D. She always said it was no big deal that she had them and that I didn't, but it was always big to me, and I feel better now, that at least I have one graduate degree. Pat has passed along a fun saying that a friend of hers declared after they finished their Psych master's. Her friend was so tired of all of the academic reading and writing (as I became, too), and said upon graduation, "Now, it's just chips and dip and day-time TV!" Not exactly in my case, since the degree applied to the work I do at IBM, but it still makes me smile because compared with working full-time and squeezing in school during every bit of my discretionary time, I think I'll feel on vacation till I fill up part of the time again with volunteer work, or more blogging or simply more socializing. The possibilities are disorienting -- in a good way!

The Smartest, Best People Are the Kindest, Too

At the end of the Master's Ceremony, I ran into the speaker Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson at the side-entrance of The Cathedral Church of Saint John the Divine, where I was searching for my mother; she was using a wheelchair for the day, since the Cathedral was too vast to traverse with her walker. I asked Dr. Tyson, "May I kiss your cheek? I was so inspired by you."

"Sure," he said without hesitation. He was several inches taller than I -- probably at least 6'3" -- and I tip-toed to kiss his face and he hugged me lightly. I stepped back and started to walk away smiling and suddenly thought to try to affiliate with the scientist in him by saying, "I work for IBM."

"Really? Where?"



Did I hear him correctly? How does he know "CHQ", I marveled. "Well, in the Learning Center next-door."

"IBM, what a great legacy it has."

"What a great legacy *you* have -- I loved your remarks about your father [who graduated from Teachers College 50 years ago]."

We smiled at each other and he walked out with a family member or friend, perhaps.

For another moment, I just stood there, so moved by his kind curiosity, and then found my mom with Pat; they were already in the car in the adjacent lot. I re-lived the experience with them. How lovely of him to ask, "Where?" I said. How terrific of him to let me kiss his cheek. His receptivity and curiosity were extra inspiration beyond his remarks.

His formal remarks helped me, too. Dr. Tyson said he wanted a quote from education reformer Horace Mann as his epitaph, "Be Ashamed to Die Until You Have Won Some Victory for Humanity." I tweeted about Dr. Tyson's quoting of Horace Mann that evening and my Toronto-based friend and IBMer Bernie Michalik (@blm149) replied to my tweet, " @SarahSiegel every act of kindness over indifference is a victory for humanity."

In his remarks, Dr. Tyson also said he hoped that as employers, we would be the sort who would hire the creative, thoughtful employees, and not just those who have memorized the right answers. He gave an example, where he'd rather hire the interviewee who asked to be excused from the interview and who returned 20 minutes later with the answer than the one who just spouted a response. The question to the fictional interviewees was, "How tall is this Cathedral's spire?" One of them answered, "One hundred and eighty-seven feet." The other returned and said, "I think it's around 185 feet." Dr. Tyson explained that the second interviewee had measured the shadow of the spire in the street and then the shadow of a person standing next to it and extrapolated from there, and that he'd rather hire him.

"Pat, I agree with Dr. Tyson about looking for more creative employees, but with one difference. I think at IBM, we have to be creative *and* fast," I said while we were driving home.

"Sarah, he said that the interviewee paused for 20 minutes, not two days," [so I think you're aligned].

Learning Is a Fragile Business

If Dr. Tyson had been one of my high school teachers, I wonder if I would have stuck with my childhood passion, which was encouraged by my parents and Mrs. Honan in elementary and junior high, and if I would have become a mineralogist, rather than growing sciencephobic in high school. He reminded me of how purely fun it had been during the Lego years. Just reading the Wikipedia entry on mineralogy intimidates me now, but as 10 year-olds, my friend Amy and I were the youngest members of the Stamford [Connecticut] Mineralogical Society. Amy abandoned rocks and minerals, too. She became a graphic designer and I studied Comparative Literature as an undergrad; it's a miracle that I ended up even *near* scientists by joining IBM. Still, everything happens for a reason, I believe, and the master's degree I earned was specifically in Organization & Leadership with a specialization in Adult Learning and Leadership...which reminds me of an exchange I had the following morning:

Prior to the general ceremony for all of the university's graduates, in the library, I ran into a guy I knew from Teachers College's QueerTC organization and asked his dissertation topic.

"Math Education [the early sort]."

I teased him: "Ah, my master's is in Adult Learning and Leadership, which is all about helping adults learn receptively despite any baggage they're carrying from poor childhood and adolescent education experiences -- "

"I promise to try and not mess them up too badly," he said smiling good-naturedly.

I smiled in return and wished him well, and he congratulated me, since I was wearing my gown.

Trying to Make My Family and IBM Proud

Next, I led my mom to a comfortable chair, where she would wait for me till the general ceremony was over, since at age 86.5, she would not be able to sit outdoor for three hours in what was expected to be rain, but which turned into hazy heat. Both of us seemed in a sour mood as we said goodbye, even as we tried to act brave. My mom might have hated having to sit alone and miss the experience and I hated that none of my parents was either able-bodied or alive enough to be right there corporeally.

Even as I was sad that my parents couldn't be at the outdoor ceremony, I did feel joy on my own for earning this master's, and it is serving IBM and me:

I did my final integrative project on "Business Leaders Gaining Cultural Intelligence Via Virtual Worlds" and I summed it up and commented on it in this blog entry. In the Summer of 2010, the "International Journal of Advanced Corporate Learning" published a seven-page article, which ultimately bloomed into the project, and the article has so far been cited by two doctoral dissertations ( and and a presentation for a university faculty development conference ( In the original seven-pager, and in the longer project paper, I explicitly acknowledged Amy Groves, since we collaborated directly on the pilots, and if not for Chuck Hamilton's and others' pioneering work in stretching Second Life as far as it could go in that time and place, the project wouldn't have been possible. So, after all, I sought work and school that would enable me to experiment.

When I told Pat about the citations in two doctoral dissertations, she said, "You've had the whole experience, Sarah. You've contributed to the body of knowledge, which is what academia's supposed to be about."

What I discovered during grad school that informed my learning to lead:

The biggest skills I picked up during grad school were how to do and understand formal research. Research requires creativity and concerted thought, and pausing to verify and/or qualify, rather than just going by pure hunch -- all essential attributes of the leaders I admire most. The most compelling adult learning theories I encountered were my advisor Professor Victoria Marsick's concept of "incidental learning" in the workplace, which like it sounds, is the often supremely useful social and informal learning we gain along the way to formal learning, and Professor Emeritus Jack Mezirow's theory around "critical incidents" or "disorienting dilemmas," which lead to unusually giant opportunities for transformative and emancipatory learning. I'm an incidental learning fan because it validates the mission of our department, Social Learning -- what I gravitate toward most naturally myself -- and I value critical incidents because I crave profound learning experiences that lead to breakthroughs, even if they're necessarily painful at the time.

Finally, what I re-learned at graduation that also informed my learning to lead:

  • Let music move me
  • Be grateful for my family and for strangers
  • Stay open, curious and kind.


David Chase said...

Sarah, I don't tell you often enough how much I enjoy your writing. And now that you're graduated I am looking forward to seeing and hearing you in person more often ;-)

Sarah Siegel said...

David, you're the best. I remember how kind your comments were when I was blogging from India.

And yes, there should be considerably more hours in the day for friendship adventures with you & Gerard now. Yay!