The Power of Listening
When Michael and Sonja O’Donnell P 22 received a letter inviting them to join a family volunteer group, they realized they had a unique perspective.
As RISD parents, they were excited about their son’s education and quickly recognized that students and faculty at art institutions have different needs than those at more traditional liberal arts colleges. And as lifelong educators who currently teach the humanities at Maine Maritime Academy, they had a deep appreciation for the work that goes into running a school, from faculty innovation to volunteering and fundraising.
With their dual roles as parents and educators, Michael and Sonja felt that they could be a conduit between the institution and other families interested in supporting RISD and better understanding what makes the school and its students tick.
Now, they’re members of the Families Association Leadership Council and serve on the RISD Fund Steering Committee. As members of the steering committee, they reach out to people to encourage gifts to the RISD Fund.
“The committee is small, and what’s lovely about it is that we can really help RISD take their fundraising to the next level,” Sonja says. “The more families and alumni that get involved, the better I feel.”
“Volunteers help grow our community, and we couldn’t do what we do without them,” says Jonencia Wood, Executive Director of Alumni + Family Relations. “I’m grateful that Michael and Sonja are willing to share their expertise and their time. It’s always powerful to hear families talk about what RISD means to them.”
Michael shares that from the day they received the invitation, RISD has been interested in hearing feedback and ideas.
“RISD is not just listening so they can get a donation in the end. They’re actually listening to the parents, the alumni, the students,” he says. “And as volunteers, sometimes we have a different ear for things. We might hear about a problem or a source of disappointment. When Sonja and I report that back, RISD has been very responsive. It feels like we’re collaborating in a positive way.”
“When I talk to parents, I tell them that they can really make a difference,” Sonja says. “There are many ways to give back. RISD has a distinct culture and mission. We want other students to be able to get the education our son is getting—or even better! I truly believe in RISD’s capacity to innovate, respond and grow.”
When their son, Julian O’Donnell 22 ID, decided to attend RISD, Michael and Sonja were confident he would get a good education and become well-versed in the foundational aspects of art and design. As he took classes and met classmates and faculty, they became even more impressed with what a RISD education provides.
“One of the hardest things for Julian has been picking classes, because there are so many rich offerings and you can’t do it all,” Michael says. “But he has friends from different majors and benefits from learning from them. He comes home and says, ‘Wow, these kids are amazing!’ He really respects his classmates and teachers as artists.”
As Julian wraps up his senior year at RISD, the O’Donnell family is looking forward to celebrating Commencement + Reunion Weekend.
“The more we learn about RISD, the more people we meet, the more experiences we have, the more invested we feel. That isn’t always the case,” Michael says. “Volunteering like this isn’t something we’ve done for other schools. RISD is special.”