Lessons learned from the “Spirit Rock”

My career background started in Higher Education. I worked in Student Affairs at several colleges and universities such as the University of South Carolina, Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, the University of Central Florida, High Point University and Wake Tech Community College.

One of the aspects I loved about working at Embry-Riddle was how hungry the students were to be engaged on campus. Several years prior to my role, Embry-Riddle was known pretty much as just a flight instructor school. By the time I left though, the culture had completely shifted to more of a holistic university experience focused on student development. Student organizations had doubled in size, the athletic program became award-winning, residence halls (i.e. dorms) were everywhere, students were petitioning for a Student Union, etc.

Three of my proudest professional achievements at Embry-Riddle were forming a task force that wrote and composed the university Alma Mater, creating an all-male a cappella singing group called The AcaFellas, and bringing the “Spirit Rock” to campus.

Earlier this week, one of my former students sent me this picture below showing how the Spirit Rock is still standing strong as a symbol of student engagement and culture. It’s literally a boulder that we cemented into the middle of campus for students to paint and express their voice, advertise their activities, and promote school spirit.

What symbols are evident in your workplace or on your campus that people rally behind to express spirit and culture? If there aren’t any, that means there is opportunity for you to do what we did back in 2005.

But it won’t be easy. Others might challenge your idea like they did ours …

I still remember submitting the Spirit Rock idea to the Chancellor in 2005. The Chancellor looked at me like I was from Planet Zorkon.

“You want $5,000 to move a boulder onto campus? For what?”

“For school spirit. For students to paint and express themselves.”

No deal. He didn’t understand it. Nor should he have understood it because I hadn’t done my homework properly to put together a proposal.

So I researched other institutions and found that there were dozens of Spirit Rocks all over the country. I visited rock quarries and compared prices for various sizes of boulders. I spoke with construction crews and came up with a proposal to install the rock on campus that was hurricane-proof. I even had the campus attorney review my proposal.

Long story short, I re-pproached the Chancellor with my proposal.

Once again he denied me. He still didn’t understand.

I went back to some of my students on the Orientation Team. We researched more schools that had Spirit Rocks on campus. This time though, as a student led committee, we re-approached the Chancellor yet again.

He denied it again.

I left a copy of my proposal with the Chancellor’s assistant, Sally Short. I had gotten to know Sally because of all my visits to the Chancellor. Sally was also the mother of one of our members in The AcaFellas singing group. (Come to find out that she composed music so I had her involved on the Alma Mater committee later that year.)

Little did I know that Sally believed in the Spirit Rock idea. She saw it as an excellent strategy to boost student engagement and activity on campus.

Without my knowledge, Sally put the Spirit Rock as an agenda item on the Chancellor’s next meeting with the Board of Trustees. She knew the Chancellor would never approve it on his own, so she strategically had it listed as a “New Business” discussion item amongst the Board.

Sally took risk.

The Board LOVED the idea. The Chancellor was shocked.

A few short weeks later the Spirit Rock was born. Within the first week, it was painted dozens of times. As soon as one group finished painting the rock, another group was waiting to paint over it.

We had to develop a 24-hour courtesy policy within the first week.

The Spirit Rock lives on today. The picture you see was sent to me just this week over a decade later. I’m thrilled to see that the Spirit Rock has nearly doubled in size from all the paint!

If it weren’t for persistence, the Spirit Rock would have never come to be.

If it weren’t for homework and strategy, the Spirit Rock would have never come to be.

If it weren’t for supporters like Sally Short, the Spirit Rock would have never come to be.

In my early professional career, it was experiences like the Spirit Rock that taught me how important it is to have vision, believe in it with conviction, and rally supporters with a common cause than any one single person.

So again, what symbols are evident in your workplace or on your campus that people rally behind to express spirit and culture? If there aren’t any, that means there is opportunity for you to do what we did back in 2005.

Engagement is waiting on you. Be that person who brings it.

“When you have passion for something, you’ll make a way for it to happen.”

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