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A culture of kindness

Celebrating the gift that keeps on giving


SUMMARY: A benevolent spirit is at the heart of the Madison Experience, creating ripple effects throughout the JMU community.

By Emma Loscalzo (’22)

At JMU, Dukes not only hold doors, they “reach back and pull others forward,” said Tim Miller (’96, ’00M), vice president for Student Affairs.

That benevolent spirit is at the heart of the Madison Experience. Every day, students and employees practice a longstanding tradition of kindness — even toward strangers. These simple acts can have ripple effects throughout the community.

“This is a place where strangers become acquaintances, acquaintances become friends and friends become lifelong friends, and that can start with something as simple as the holding of a door or a smile,” Miller said.

Dave Barnes, director of University Unions, has seen this phenomenon firsthand. During his daughter Sarah Orem Barnes’ first tour as a student ambassador — a highlight for members of the organization — a friend gifted her a dozen roses. “It was very emotional,” Barnes said. “It was beautiful.” 

A couple from New Hampshire on the tour was so moved by what they witnessed and “how this community loved each other” that they perpetuated their own act of kindness. The couple, who did not know the Barnes family previously, found the tour guide’s information and sent her a care package as a thank-you for leading the tour. 

In those special moments, Barnes feels the essence of JMU — “that community of kindness, that touches beyond, in ways we don’t even know about.”

Jennifer Haller, a member of Friends of Rachel, a student organization that performs random acts of kindness for members of the JMU family, left notes of encouragement and affirmation on the mirrors in McGraw-Long Hall during her freshman year. In the following months, she remembers seeing new notes added by her hallmates. “It made me feel really good that they appreciated it, and then went on to do the same thing,” she said.

A message inside giveaway bags for students during National Kindness Week, organized by the Madison Society

When students returned to campus from spring break in March, they were welcomed with a weeklong promotion of kindness organized by the Madison Society, a group of students, faculty members and administrators dedicated to upholding positive traditions at JMU. The annual event is meant “to put a smile on people’s faces and make them realize that they are wanted and valued,” said Barnes, one of the group’s leaders.

During the week, students received two small gifts, one to keep and one to share. The idea was that the gifts — roughly 2,500 total — would inspire the people who received them to be kind, in turn, to others. The week featured activities, giveaways and random acts of kindness both on campus and online, including daily prompts on the Madison Society’s Facebook page. 

JMU’s culture of kindness isn’t confined just to campus, however.  

Board of Visitors student representative Xaiver Williams experienced JMU kindness a few hundred miles away in Hampton, Virginia. There, inside a fast-food restaurant, a stranger behind him in line reached out and paid for his meal. The stranger gave Williams no explanation, other than a glance at his JMU polo shirt and a hearty “Go Dukes!”

While getting his car washed before beginning his journey from Falls Church, Virginia, to Harrisonburg for his first day as vice president for Student Affairs, Miller heard a stranger calling out “J-M-U” to him. A JMU parent had noticed his purple attire and struck up a conversation, and she even got a picture of them together before he drove off.

Duke Dog's hugs contribute to the culture of kindness on campus.

Miller makes a point to pay it forward. He enjoys surprising others with acts of kindness, which he says are “about the recipient, not the giver.” Recently, Miller and Williams surprised students by placing more than two dozen boxes of Girl Scout Cookies on tables around campus for others to enjoy.

Although JMU is known for having a friendly campus, admittedly it can be difficult for Dukes to step out of their comfort zones and approach a stranger. 

“It’s really hard to get over that [initial anxiety] and do your first random act of kindness,” Haller said, “but seeing them really happy and knowing you made a difference in their day, it’s all worth it.”

In times of grief and despair, Dukes’ love and respect for one another can help the community heal.

On Feb. 11, students, alumni, administrators, faculty and community members came together on the Quad for a “Gathering of Hope” in the wake of several tragedies on campus and at nearby Bridgewater College. Those in attendance wrote messages of hope on purple-and-gold streamers — a coveted JMU tradition — and held them high while the Marching Royal Dukes performed. Williams, President Jonathan R. Alger, Furious Flower Poetry Center Executive Director Joanne V. Gabbin and others addressed the crowd, offering words of inspiration and compassion.

Williams’ hope for the gathering was that it would be “a catalyst for how we work together going forward, how we stand together in times of tragedy and crisis, how we love one another in moments where we don’t feel loved.”

Tim Miller and students at the "Gathering of Hope" on the Quad in February.

In that spirit, Williams was inspired to join the MRDs — the first campus community that felt like family to him — to play “Salvations Created.” 

During a conversation with Mike Davis, Alger’s chief of staff, Williams was inspired to put the intentions behind the Gathering of Hope into action.

At the end of his speech, Williams gave faculty members in attendance a homework assignment. When the last song concluded, he asked the faculty members to get to know two students at the event and remind them that they are valued. The goal was to “set up intentional moments for students and faculty to truly take a step toward healing and community reconciliation together,” he said.

Even Madison’s secret society, IN8, has taken notice of how Dukes band together in response to crises.

Traditionally, at the end of each semester, IN8 places public letters and candles in front of Wilson Hall to recognize the benevolence of eight JMU students who spread kindness while no one was watching.

In a classic pattern of eights, the secret society made a surprise midterm recognition on March 8 on the eighth step of Wilson Hall. IN8 left a framed public letter recognizing the “outstanding contributions by the Madison community, serving to strengthen connections and amplify our love for one another” for “recent events have left many with heavy hearts and minds, yearning for growth within one another and this institution.”

A new item was also left to accompany the traditional candle and letter — a mirror. The letter ended with a quote by Coretta Scott King: “There are two ways of spreading light: to be the candle or the mirror that reflects it.”



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Published: Friday, May 6, 2022

Last Updated: Friday, August 5, 2022

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