People were huddled around the sink, others packed like sardines into the two stalls of the men’s bathroom. A thunderous sound erupted outside the restaurant and torrential rain began to pepper the roof like pellets of a BB gun hitting an empty can. The city’s sirens bellowed as a tornado touched down about a mile outside of town; the monthly tests of Galesburg’s severe weather warning system had not been in vain. 

After nine months of scrupulous planning, this was not how I envisioned Trivia Night, the first social event on the calendar of IACAC’s Summer Institute program, ending. Every June, IACAC (Illinois Association for College Admission Counseling) holds a three-day conference for 50 new admission counselors entering the field, and I was one of two people co-chairing the 2015 event. Colleges submit bids to host more than a year in advance, and Knox College, my alma mater and place of employment at the time, had successfully earned that opportunity — I like to think my pitch for a Bubble Suit Soccer competition was what tipped the scales in our favor.

I felt a vibration in my pocket. Pulling my phone out, I felt an anxious pit in my stomach when I saw the name — Craig Southern, Knox College Director of Housing. I put the phone to my ear, “Hey Craig, what’s up?” A futile question, I knew what had likely happened. 

“Ben, you NEED to get to campus right now! Hamblin basement has flooded.” 

With the worst of the storm having passed, I ran the quarter-mile back to campus, skipping around gushing water overflowing every drain on the street. When I arrived, the damage was worse than I feared. Backpacks, laptops, and iPads were floating in the hallways. Power had been lost, and for the next five hours Craig and I triaged the catastrophe — moving folks’ luggage and belongings to dry spaces, transporting bed linens and towels from old rooms to new, contacting facilities staff to find available air-conditioned residence halls not in disrepair, and processing new keys to hand out when conference attendees returned.

What made matters worse was the fact that the social event did not only include 50 new college admission professionals but also 50 veteran counselors on IACAC’s annual Bus O’Fun Tour — the dangling fruit that draws colleges to host IACAC’s Summer Institute each year for the chance to showcase your campus to experienced college counselors. They also happened to be the group residing in Hamblin.

Instead of calling each poor soul impacted, I waited at the doorsteps of Hamblin. Mustering all the goodwill I had built up in relationships forged over three years, I began each conversation with “I am so sorry!” It wasn’t until 2 a.m. that all twenty-four people impacted by the flooding had made their way back to campus. Some handled the news as well as one could expect, while others had more questions than I could answer, but what every person left with was the knowledge and belief that I cared as much as they did about their predicament. Showing up, and being present both figuratively and literally, meant more than any words ever could.

No Straight Line

Meeting people where they’re at and doing everything in your power to let a person know that their problem matters as much to you as it does to them has paid dividends in my professional career. Whether I am consoling a student about the disappointing news of an Early Decision rejection, explaining to a parent why their son or daughter wasn’t inducted into the school’s Cum Laude chapter, or listening to a parent complain about their son’s lack of playing time on the basketball court. Making an effort to see an issue through their eyes, and letting folks know in all of the multimodal ways that you can, by what you say, and how you say it, that you get it, has been the best way to diffuse almost any conflict I have ever faced.

As the saying goes, “Sometimes the best laid plans often go awry,” and there wasn’t an inch of that conference that hadn’t been thought-out and planned in the months preceding. From renting pillows and linens at the local Holiday Inn to purchasing individual bottles of hand soap at Walgreens when we learned Knox facilities didn’t provide them. However, no matter how much you consider and prepare for every possible outcome or need, you can’t chart the course of life with a map, you’d best use a compass for that. There are many ways to get from Point A to Point B, but it’ll rarely be in a straight line; so keep your eye due north and know there is no one best path to follow.