Making Lemonade

A recent Chronicle of Higher Education article entitled “Tips on Making the Most of Your College’s Location” shared suggestions for how “a college situated in a seemingly less-than-ideal place could appeal to students.”  A useful piece, to be sure, but it omitted some compelling examples of doing the most with the least.  Here are two stories that deserve greater attention:

Wetlands Community College (Everglades City, Florida) — There are more alligators in Everglades City than there are people, and the single most frequent cause of death in this community is being eaten by an alligator while walking or driving.  “These gators are smart,” observes Gary ‘Sweetwater’ Wench, Everglade City’s sheriff.  “They hide in the back seat of your vehicle and when you stop for a red light — Whammo! — one chomp and it’s over.  Plastic-covered car seats are a must in our town if you want to avoid replacing upholstery every three months!”

For years this constant threat of sudden death suppressed enrollment at Wetlands, until Bix Slawson became Dean of Admissions in 2014.  Slawson decided to revamp the institution’s recruitment materials to focus on the allure that risk and danger have for teenage males.  “We introduced our new branding slogan, ‘Live on the Edge at Wetlands’, in 2015, and haven’t looked back.  Our incoming class has grown from 283 in 2014 to 890 in Fall 2017.  The first-year gender breakdown has shifted from 56% female to 89% male during that period.  And our newly established Russian Roulette team won the NCAA Regional Finals last year.”

Slawson acknowledges that “we do have a retention problem, of course, because of the gators and the high number of students who try out for the Roulette squad.   But those who survive frequently go on to serve with distinction in elite units of the military.  Most Navy SEALs are Wetlands graduates.  We’re very proud of that.”

Carlsbad University (Carlsbad, New Mexico) — The city of Carlsbad is located about 25 miles from a nuclear waste repository.  “Radioactivity makes people jumpy,” says Dale Janway, the town’s mayor.  “And I mean that literally.  When radioactive material is absorbed through your skin, it affects the nerves associated with limb movement.  Just walk down Main Street in Carlsbad and you’ll notice people’s bodies jerking all around like they’re marionettes controlled by a crack addict.  It’s the damnedest thing you’ll ever see.  Naturally, this used to alienate high school students who might otherwise come here for college.”

Not any more.

In 2013, Swaseen Mushkentaya arrived at the University to chair its Performing Arts Department.  She soon recognized that the spasms produced by radioactive poisoning closely resemble much of the oeuvre of modern dance.  “It’s all there,” Mushkentaya claims. “The choreography of Martha Graham, Merce Cunningham, Paul Taylor, Twyla Tharp.  It’s as if the city’s public spaces were one huge rehearsal studio.”

Mushkentaya realized that combining toxic levels of radioactivity with dance instruction was a win-win for the school and the community.  She initiated a master’s program in Modern Dance that has attracted students from all over the country, and her latest work, Mutant Twitcher with Three Heads, will premiere this summer at the Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival in Massachusetts. 

“Our enrollment has mushroomed over the past three years,” Mushkentaya boasts.  “Oops, did I make a bad joke?”

Moral of Story: Stop complaining that your school sits atop a live volcano, and start turning negatives into positives.  Wetlands did it, Carlsbad did it, and so can you.