Zimmerman's law:

Be a swan if you want to
By Sydney Stanto Nguyen ('91)

Originally published in Winter 2003, this is just one of many stories from Madison magazine's award-winning Professors You Love series, written by JMU students and alumni, about the professors that have made the most impact on their lives — then, and now.

Kent Zimmerman

Kent Zimmerman

Of course, he always helped students after class and gave one-on-one conferences. But where I truly learned and cheered for more was in my chair each day in Management and Creativity class. The wisdom Dr. Zimmerman imparted in class was inspirational.

I knew Dr. Zimmerman's management class was going to be outstanding from the first lesson. On that first day, we walked in, chose seats and were instructed by Dr. Zimmerman to form a circle with our chairs. Dr. Zimmerman was seated straight across from me. He turned to the person on his left, flashed a huge grin and asked his name. The student gave his first name, and Dr. Zimmerman prodded him for his full name. Smiling a little wider, he then asked the next person in the circle to repeat the first young man's name and then to tell the class his own name. As he moved on to the third person in the circle, he grinned again and queried, "You get the picture?" The folks seated to Dr. Zimmerman's far right let out a loud gasp, realizing that they would have to remember and say everyone's name in the circle.

I learned that of all my classes, this was one of the only ones where I knew first and last names of my classmates (at least those sitting to my right!). I learned on that first day of class that it is possible to learn the names of a room full of people, and I have made a concerted effort to continue this practice throughout my 11-year career at American Management Systems. It has, on more than one occasion, proven to be a lesson worth remembering.

Professor Zimmerman helped shape my attitude toward work, a lesson that has continued to bring me success throughout my career. Our Management 450 class was the subject of one of Dr. Zimmerman's many experiments. During one class period, we were divided into six groups of four to five students with each group occupying a different area of the room.

Dr. Zimmerman walked to each group and pulled one person out into the hall. Of the six people pulled into the hall, three were told to be extremely positive about the assignment we were given, and the other three were told to be extremely negative. The assignment was to draw a farm scene. Each group was equipped with paper, crayons and, of course, the one secretly "positive" or "negative" team member. My group was invaded by a student who enjoyed the covert negativity.

As we drew our scenes, "Ms. Negative" really began to bother me. I've always tried to be an optimistic and outgoing person. As this student complained in utter disgust and refused to help draw, I decided that I was not going to be responsible for drawing all the things you would find in a farm scene. I am no artist, and the thought of sharing a scene drawn mostly by me was frightening.

At the end of the allotted time, we had to post our pictures on the wall. Groups with a negative influence posted drawings with sparse scenes — no animals, few structures, no imagination. Groups with a positive influence had elaborate drawings full of details like farm animals, rainbows, suns and tractors.

My first reaction when we got the assignment was to draw a lake and swan in our scene, but I allowed "Ms. Negative" to discourage me. I should have stretched my own swan wings. I kicked myself for not being strong-willed enough to overcome negativity — a lesson that has stuck with me and served me well in the workplace. I always try to remember to be optimistic, positive and cognizant of how I approach difficult situations.

Thank you, Dr. Zimmerman, for this one simple lesson. I learned how and why to be strong in the face of adversity, to persevere in tough times, to be a swan if I want to.

Sydney Santo Nguyen

Sydney Santo Nguyen ('91)

About the professor
Kent Zimmerman joined the faculty in 1975. When not teaching management courses, he keeps busy as a scuba instructor and actor in local theater productions. He is a member of the Eastern Academy of Management Board and president of the Shenandoah Valley Kiwanis Club. He served 12 years on the Organizational Behavior Teaching Society Board of Directors.

About the author
Sydney Santo Nguyen is a principal for American Management Systems, where she has worked since graduating in 1991. She's responsible for configuration management for the AMS financial system. She and Lam live in Northern Virginia with their children, Evan, 5, and Jacqueline, 2.