Brianna Pescok and Renee Hobbs visit the State of Deception exhibit at the United State Memorial Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C.

One of the best things about my new job is the extent to which I’ve been able to think deeply about the needs of college-age students in relationship to the unknowable future we all face. In aiming to create a school of national distinction, I’ve been asked, “Who is the ideal University of Rhode Island Harrington School student?” My answer never wavers. It’s someone with three essential qualities: (1) a “doer” with intellectual curiosity, tenacity, and ambition; (2) someone eager to develop outstanding skills of expression and communication using a variety of forms (written, oral, visual, multimedia, digital, etc); and (3) someone who is relationally-oriented, full of compassion and community-mindedness, and possessing a deep sense of what it means to “do the right thing.”

This summer I was delighted to meet many young people with all these qualities and boy, was it inspiring! For the second year, I participated in a special leadership development program, held in Washington, D.C., called “What You DoMatters,” a three-day program for college students supported by the United States Memorial Holocaust Museum. Students came from more than 40 colleges and universities around the United States and across the world.

The lineup of presenters was impressive. We heard from Carl Wilkins, the last American to remain in Rwanda after the genocide began in 1994. And Eboo Patel offered wise words about the ways that religious understanding can change ourselves — and the world. Former University of Maryland wrestler Hudson Taylor inspired us all with the tale of how he grew into the role of becoming a LGBT rights activist, helping change the culture of college sports.

The conference is designed around a special exhibit at the Holocaust Museum, State of Deception, which is an exploration of the rise of German propaganda in the 20th century. To open the event, Sara J. Bloomfield, director of the Museum, welcomed the student leaders, explaining that Nazis didn’t just spread hate. They also promoted an agenda of freedom, unity and prosperity that many people found alluring, using mass communications and the ability to exploit the Germans’ hopes and fears.

JoAnna in action

JoAnna Wasserman created “What You Do Matters” as part of her work for the U.S. Memorial Holocaust Musem.

One of the things I liked best about the conference was the time allotted to dialogue and informal sharing. Conversations were real, personal and authentic.

Some sessions took a close look at contemporary propaganda. Journalist Lou Jacobson took us behind-the-scenes at Politifact.com to see how they help readers distinguish between many shades of lies and truth in the propaganda machine that is Washington, D.C. You’ll also be pleased to know that I offered a session entitled, “Lessons from KONY2012” where we critically analyzed various perspectives from journalists, activists, critics, and social media experts on the meteoric rise and fall of the activist Jason Russell, whose creative new ways of reaching audiences with powerful messages captured the world’s attention in the spring of 2012. I’ll be sharing the lesson plan that I created for this session as part of a back-to-school suite in September. Stay tuned!

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