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The Art of the Wow!

When was the last time you walked into a space and felt truly inspired? Or had your thoughts and ideas transformed? Or thought to yourself, “Wow, these people really like each other and love what they do…I can’t wait to come back!”? At Toppel, we are all about creating wow moments and celebrations that aren’t typically associated with a university career center. Why?

For those of you who know anything about me, you know that one of my passions is talking about organizational culture (as well as socks, wine, and Madonna…but I’ll leave these for future posts). Last year I wrote a blog post for The National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE) on the work and play culture that exists at the Toppel Career Center at the University of Miami, where I have worked since 2001. While this post is also grounded in the importance of culture, I will be honing in on the impact that art and culture can have on your brand and more importantly, on those you serve.

Art Transforms Space – Enter Gapingvoid

The word “career” comes with a lot of baggage and anxiety. Students sometimes exhibit a fear of the future or a reluctance to plan for the future and therefore, avoid their career center at all costs. So how do you make a career center more accessible instead of such a stuffy place? How about making it a place where people actually want to go?

When we moved into our new building in 2014, the Toppel Career Center quickly became known as one of the more aesthetically pleasing buildings on campus. But I knew that an architecturally beautiful building wasn’t enough. We had all these blank walls, and I wanted to fill them with something that was going to inspire people. When you think about the functionality of art, most people consider it only an aesthetic – which it can be – but I was also focused on the idea of function and outcome.

I first came to know about Gapingvoid in January 2014. I immediately connected with the company’s work and when I realized they were based out of Miami Beach, I knew it was meant to be! Gapingvoid embraced my efforts to ensure that the images on our walls were in sync with Toppel’s mission, focus, and vision. I met with the Gapingvoid creative team and we agreed that we needed pieces that would resonate with students and encourage them to get engaged.

As we went through each area and each office, and I explained to Gapingvoid the kinds of activities and conversations that occurred in them. Based on that conversation, Gapingvoid curated the pieces that they thought would be the most impactful. I found the art to be very fresh, inspirational, and even tongue and cheek, but without being contrived.

With all of this in mind, I took a big risk and moved forward with a huge installation at Toppel (80 pieces to begin with and currently at 122). I just knew that when people saw it, the risk would pay off. I thought: "Okay, I'm either going to lose my job or people are going to get it and jump on board.”

At our dedication ceremony, I was holding my breath because my boss was there, as was the provost, and the president, not to mention the Toppel family. Seeing them walk around and take it all in was nerve-wracking. But then our President at the time, Donna Shalala, came up to me and said, "This is terrific!"

Students have also connected to the artwork. We can't count the number of emails and tweets that we see from students, as well as the Instagram tags referencing the artwork using #ToppelCollection. That's how I know we made the right decision.

The risk paid off.

Can Art Transform Culture?

In our case, not exactly. But it certainly helped! Let me explain. We have been focusing and working on the Toppel culture for many years, long before we partnered with Gapingvoid. That said, something quite unexpected happened internally once the artwork went up. Our culture seemingly came to life through the many different illustrations and messages found throughout the building. The art reinforced everything we had been talking about for years and now serves as a daily reminder to the staff who live and breathe the culture.

We began a new project with Gapingvoid which involved the entire staff by challenging us to come up with 20 different words or phrases that embodied the values of the Toppel Career Center. It was wonderful to see how in sync we were, which made the exercise pretty easy. We quickly realized that our values and culture are one and the same. The finished product – The Toppel Values Wall – was designed by Gapingvoid and installed in a prominent location as a visual representation of who we are and what we strive for.

Creating the Wow!

We love to create wow moments and celebrations. In doing so, we have built a brand that is synonymous with having a great time, recognizing others, and giving back. To illustrate, here are three of our signature initiatives:.

Toppel Fest

How do you get your entire freshman class into the career center? You throw a huge party, of course! Food trucks, Sebastian the Ibis (our mascot), loud music, dance-offs, and cool swag (aka, Toppel merch) are just some of the ways we get freshmen to learn about what we do. More importantly, we get them immersed in our culture by meeting the team and recognizing that the career center isn’t this scary or overwhelming place. In just three years, Toppel Fest has been so successful that it has become one of the signature New Student Orientation events where orientation leaders and resident assistants are tasked with walking their students over to our center! Seeing hundreds and hundreds of students approaching your career center en masse is an unforgettable experience.

Toppel Awards

For years, we struggled with how to best recognize our strongest partners; those who understand and appreciate the value of career education in the college experience. We wanted to go beyond a simple certificate or tchotchke or email shout-out and do something that would be impactful. After going back and forth for a few years, we finally decided to take the plunge on The Toppel Awards and executed a near-flawless inaugural awards luncheon in 2016. We started with a call for nominations in categories such as Distinguished Administrator, Student Group of the Year, Excellence in Career Education, Employer of the Year, Recruiter of the Year, and Alum of the Year. It was heart-warming to see the large number of nominations that poured in from all over the University and beyond. Over 125 guests joined us for the awards luncheon to celebrate the amazing work being done by folks committed to our mission and values. To top it off, rather than giving out plaques or trophies to the winners, our generous friends at Gapingvoid provided individual pieces from their collection, which meant that each winner received their own unique piece of art as their award. Our 2nd annual awards ceremony is under a month away and the number of nominations skyrocketed due to the success of the inaugural program.

Toppel Day of Service

Giving back to our community is very important to us at Toppel. Throughout the year, members of our staff volunteer their time to help individuals in need and those agencies that support them.

Whether it’s educating inmates of a correctional facility on resume and interview basics or helping survivors of domestic violence transition back into the workforce, our staff has spent countless hours giving back. Three years ago, we decided to create a full day of service bringing together our students, recruiters, alumni, and Toppel staff to work on a service project, while allowing time for networking in a more informal and relaxed atmosphere. Service-minded students and recruiters/employers come together for a good cause and get to know each other outside of the typical career fair and information session format. From a beach clean-up to beautification projects benefiting United Cerebral Palsy group homes, Toppel Day of Service has become one of the most exciting and anticipated programs of the year!

Art was our catalyst! Wow was our result!

Both enlivened discussion and introspection, and were reminders of why we set out to do what we do. For us at Toppel, we set out to wow those with whom we engage and to ultimately help transform lives. My challenge to you is to find and create those wow moments; for your team, your students, and every other group with which you interface. If we are going to shake up and wow our profession, it begins with us doing it on our respective campuses. Are you with me?

Christian Garcia is a higher education professional with 20 years of experience in a variety of areas within student and academic affairs. He currently serves as the Associate Dean and Executive Director of the Toppel Career Center at the University of Miami, where he is responsible for the management and strategic direction of one of the country's most innovative and dynamic career centers. LinkedIn. Twitter.

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