Thank Someone Else's Mom

This Mother's Day, you might want to consider the idea for your employees, writes Stephanie Blaisdell.

May 8, 2019

The mother of our director of residence life would not let go of my hand after realizing that I was the one who had written her last spring. She told me how much the letter had meant to her and that she carries it with her at all times. To prove it, she guided me toward her purse and pulled out the letter.

The letter idea came from an article I’d read about Indra Nooyi, then CEO of PepsiCo, writing letters to her employees’ parents. Nooyi explains that on a visit to her parents in India, family and friends who had been invited to the house gave her a brief acknowledgment but heaped compliments on her mother for having raised such an accomplished daughter. Nooyi decided that her employees’ parents should be thanked, and she asked her direct reports for permission to write to their parents. She said the response was overwhelming, both from the parents and from her staff.

Working in higher education can be an incredibly rewarding experience. We get to unleash people’s potential and change their lives. Yet we also deal with mental illness and suicide, judicial proceedings, budget cuts and attrition. The long hours and emotional energy spent on students, personnel issues and administration work can be grueling. Our jobs may look easy from a distance and may not be well understood, even by those closest to us. I try hard to communicate to my staff that their work matters and that they are valued by the institution, but I had never communicated that to their families.

Inspired by Nooyi, I asked my leadership team of seasoned student affairs professionals at State University of New York at New Paltz if I could write a letter to someone important to them. Eight of the 14 agreed. I sent cards with a picture of our student union to six mothers, three fathers, four partners and a sister. I wrote a bit about what their loved one did at work, why it was important and how valued they are by the campus community and by me personally.

I did not expect any responses, but I received them, including one handwritten letter, one email and several expressions of appreciation from my staff members. One staff member told me that her mother had the letter framed because she felt it validated that she had been a good single parent. I learned that the staff member’s dad, a Vietnam veteran, had died from Agent Orange exposure when she was a child. I knew this staff member was a mother of three young children, so our previous brief conversations about her personal life had always focused on her children. Knowing more about her history helped me to see her more fully as a person.

One card was mailed just prior to a mother’s cancer diagnosis. My colleague, who had rushed home, told me that when the letter arrived days later, she tearfully read it to her mom while lying next to her on the hospital bed. A short time later, the family hung the letter on a bulletin board in the hospice room. I never got the chance to meet my colleague’s mother, but I am so glad that my simple gesture brought her some joy in her final days. More than that, I am happy that her mother was able to hear how much her daughter means to us.

I intend to offer to write letters again this year, and I will do so without the expectation that I will receive responses. But I suspect I may be developing some pen pals. I would encourage other campus administrators to develop some, too.


Stephanie Blaisdell is vice president for student affairs at the State University of New York at New Paltz.


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