When I recently cracked open the cover of a novel that has been on my bookshelf for some time, a photo tumbled out. It was of me and my friend Dana from our twentieth college reunion a few months before she died of cancer. I’d forgotten about the picture, which captures our final, joyful moments together that day. The photo now sits in a frame, and when I look at it, I immediately think of the thick place that bonded us to each other.

David Brooks recently opined on the thick and thin places in a person’s life in his touching New York Times op-ed, “How to Leave a Mark on People: (April 18, 2017). “Some organizations are thick, and some are thin,” he writes. “Some leave a mark on you, and some you pass through with scarcely a memory.” He further explains, “A thick institution is not one that people use instrumentally, to get a degree or to earn a salary.”

Brooks doesn’t mean that educational institutions can’t be thick. In fact, they are some of the thickest around. By his definition, “[a] thick institution becomes part of a person’s identity and engages the whole person: head, hands, heart and soul.”

The best schools and colleges do this naturally. They layer on the thickness and encourage students to try, leap, fail, rinse, repeat. My college, Hollins University, and friends like Dana were my thick places of possibility. Professors and friends moved (pushed, cajoled, dragged) me to places I’d never imagined.

Communicating that thickness to your constituents, current and future, is all about the head, hands, heart and soul.

  • What images and messages show how engaged your students are with your program, teachers and each other?
  • What events bind together current and past generations, if only on your Facebook page? Those “likes” are your graduates celebrating the thick place they love.
  • In alumnae and student testimonials, ask about the lessons they learned at your institution that shaped who they have become (more thickness) and share them.
  • Of course, post/describe/feature your school’s big successes and obvious choices (homecoming, award ceremonies, spirit rallies, etc.), but remember that the thickest part of a place often is found in the quieter, smaller moments. Make sure they are in your communications, too.

More than anything, thickness is about authenticity. Thick places don’t try to be like every other place. By doing so, they end up being the only place your students can ever imagine being part of, and that feeling never leaves a person. It’s always there, in their head, hands, heart and soul (and sometimes inside a book, waiting to be rediscovered).

Sarah Achenbach is the Director of Communications for Kalix Marketing.