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Navigating the Bounty of Higher Education

candy

Although I’ve worked at the University at Buffalo for over eleven years, I still feel like a kid in a candy store. With every new researcher or project I discover, my mind spins with new ideas and wonderment.   And although my role as Associate Dean allows me to engage broadly with the University community, I can’t help envying the thousands of students who by virtue of their status have complete and open access.

If you think of UB, and perhaps all universities, as smorgasbords or grand buffets, you will envision endless arrays of delicacies. In addition to degree and certification programs, students can partake in study-abroad, internships, research experiences, and service. They can cultivate leadership and entrepreneurial skills, explore career paths, and make connections with alumni, while sharing hobbies and interests through clubs, sports, and social activities.

With so many struggling to afford basic luxuries and resources, the sheer abundance of higher education can seem down-right decadent, leaving us to wonder whether it can even be sustained. But from a student’s perspective, assuming they can handle their respective course work, the most critical challenge might be how to best access the universe of opportunities that lies before them.

Tis notion of access can be trickier than it seems. Clearly, some students get it immediately, choosing activities and courses that naturally build on their strengths and interests, leveraging valuable connections, while opening doors for future opportunities and support. But many students, too many students, instead meander through the grand buffet, either focusing solely on their required coursework or stumbling through the opportunities, failing to emerge with a cohesive or compelling plate.

These are the students I wish I could get to sooner, perhaps in their middle or early high school years. Ideally I could spend some time with them, appreciating their strengths and probing their interests. I would give them a tour of the University, introducing them to star students and faculty, orienting them to emerging areas of study, noting sparks of interest and curiosity as they emerged. And if I could really have my way, I would convince them that the world desperately needs their talents, and help them explore career paths through the lenses of impact, fulfillment, and purpose.

Once they felt an itch, an excitement to begin their journey, then (and only then) would I let them loose into the universe of UB, encouraging them to fully access opportunities and resources, to explore and take risks, to reflect, and to embrace their experiences and relationships along the way.

But alas, I’ve been told that my expectations are simply too high. And I hear adults talk nostalgically about their own circuitous paths, insisting that it all works out in the end. But I guess it’s the missed opportunities framed against the universe of possibilities that get to me, and the knowledge that degrees are simply not enough.

The truth is that our students have so much more to give and receive.  And higher education, and all that it affords, is a luxury worthy of our greatest dreams.

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Adventure Awaits

Adventure

Today is my birthday, and I couldn’t imagine a more wonderful present than the exciting adventure that awaits us in just a few short days.

In partnership with Global Explorers and Nardin Academy, I will be heading to the Four Corners region of the US Southwest along with 18 middle graders and a phenomenal Social Studies teacher for 9 days of hiking, rafting, cultural exploration and service.

I first learned about Global Explorers (globalexplorers.org) at an education conference over 5 years ago, when I was captivated by their mission of “providing transformative journeys for students and educators…inviting you to unleash your potential to do good in the world by sending you on a mindset shattering expedition that will encourage you to live a life that matters.” Browsing through their portfolio of destinations- Tanzania, Peru, Cambodia, Candian Arctic, and dreaming about opportunities to share such experiences with children, including my own, has consumed more of my time than I should admit.

But when I began working with Nardin Academy (as both a parent and trustee) on their strategic planning process and saw their dynamic new mission statement taking shape, helping students to develop their individual talents and cultivate their intellect, character and courage to make a difference in the world,” it seemed that Global Explorers could be a wonderful high-impact partnership. I am so grateful that Nardin leadership embraced the concept and that the trip resonated with students and parents. The notion of a 9-day adventure, sleeping outdoors without the amenities of home while being removed from all social media and technology, is a big ask for 12, 13 and 14 year olds. But the students have courageously accepted the challenge, and our adventure awaits. I should note that in addition to Nardin students, we will also have several students from City Honors High School, including 2 of my own children. These dynamics of differing grades and school cultures will add richness to the layers of experiences and lessons that will impact us in exciting- and still unknown- ways.

When I think about the missions of Global Explorers and Nardin Academy, and my work at the University at Buffalo cultivating Experiential Learning opportunities for undergraduate students, I am struck by how closely these align with my own sense of mission- as a parent, professional, and community member. The idea of utilizing our talents to make a difference in the world necessitates that we get out of our comfort zone, explore different cultures and ways of life so that we can live our own lives with purpose and impact. The more that we can engage young people in these types of high-impact experiences, the more our communities and world will ultimately benefit.

I am hopeful that this will be the first of many more Global Explorers trips to come. But for now I plan to enjoy every moment of this exciting adventure and I look forward to sharing some stories and reflections upon our return. – Mara

Steward Your own Growth

In my last post, “Check Your Professional Baggage,” I suggested that asserting your needs or accomplishments directly to your supervisor is not necessarily the best way to create opportunities for growth and fulfillment. Rather than leading to the validation and compensation that we crave, such actions can instead lead to self-destruction or marginalization, both of which should be avoided at all costs.

So what is the better way, I’ve been asked. And am I really suggesting that women should simply allow ourselves to be taken for granted or underutilized, rather than standing up for ourselves and asserting our value and self-worth?

I’ll begin with the second. Of course it’s not right, or necessarily fair for professionals to be pigeon-holed or constrained by jobs, expectations, or leaders that are overly narrow or restrictive. But fairness, or the actualization of human potential for that matter, are not the primary lenses employed in the workplace- or at least not the workplace to which I’ve been exposed. While our professional histories with all that we’ve accomplished, endured, and contributed blaze like beacons in our own minds, they may barely register with leaders who control access to opportunities for growth and advancement.

So what can we do if we are not getting the support or supervision that we need to grow and be successful? Many suggest that in such situations we should leave our positions in search of healthier environments with better leadership. For me, the notion of equating my own success and growth with effective supervision suggests a perpetual state of vulnerability and searching with no guarantees of rest.

Consider the following assertion. Growth doesn’t happen through validation, appreciation, or being handed an opportunity.   Clearly, all of these conditions can support and even expedite growth, but they are neither necessary nor sufficient to make it happen.

Growth is an internally driven process that involves expansion and evolution of skills, knowledge, and contributions. As you grow it’s natural to seek new opportunities and challenges through which to flex your talents and maximize your impact. Although many of our jobs feel restrictive and tight, we can usually find spaces in which to grow, developing new skills, insights, and connections that correspond with our areas of interest and goals.

And regardless of whether we’re expanding and evolving where we are, new opportunities are developing all around us, even though we may be completely oblivious or disconnected- especially if we are consumed with our own “stuckness” and misery. Being able to capitalize on emerging opportunities involves a sense of timing and sensitivity to shifts in circumstances, priorities and contexts, along with an ability to leverage your specific skills, experiences, and relationships.

Interestingly, while you ready yourself for these emerging opportunities, it’s actually the big categories of perceptions that can matter most. Rather than the specific historical details about what you’ve accomplished and endured, it’s the relationships and reputation that you’ve created- are you perceived as pleasant, competent, a team player? Although these categories may seem overly simplistic and even insulting in light of all that you’ve done, issues of collegiality and interpersonal dynamics are a major influence in securing the opportunities and positions we seek. I have seen leaders go to unbelievable lengths to avoid dealing with women who are perceived as emotionally fragile or needy (my words, not theirs), even if they are extremely competent and valuable from a human capitol perspective.

Based on my own experiences, here are some high-impact investments to consider with regard to your own professional growth and fulfilment.

  • Work on the values of humility and gratitude. These lenses will ground you and see you through periods of transition and dysfunction, no matter how long-lasting.
  • Cultivate your skills and knowledge. We can always expand our understanding of the world, and education is an investment that always pays off.
  • Build real and authentic relationships. In the end it’s the relationships that will lead to opportunities and fulfillment. While popular, the notion of networking is superficial, always go with real relationships that are built on respect and trust.
  • Find your passions and interests. This is often harder than it sounds, but figuring out what you really care about and what moves you will help you find the path for growth and fulfillment.
  • Lead from the middle. Regardless of how far up (or down) the food chain you find yourself, there are always opportunities to support others around you.

To be clear, I am certainly not suggesting that women – or men- should stay in unhealthy situations, or positions that constrain our growth and potential. There is much more to say and write about this topic, but my point here is simply that if we are serious about fully contributing our gifts and talents, we must begin to empower ourselves to steward our own growth.

Make Room for the Unicorns

unicorn

My daughter Natalie can’t be burdened before she goes to bed. Any mention of schoolwork or summer reading is quickly dismissed. She explains that there is simply no room for serious thoughts. She must keep her head clear for the unicorns and other fanciful creatures that fill her dreams.

Not surprisingly, Natalie loves to go to sleep. She tackles her nighttime ritual with gusto, cozying under her covers and shooing me away after a quick book and kiss goodnight. And she always rises with a dreamy faraway look, slowly transitioning into the world of wakefulness and the promise of a new day.

Like Natalie, I too enjoy sleeping. But sadly, no unicorns visit me during the night. Perhaps my mind is too cluttered with serious thoughts. Perhaps there is simply no room for them to play.

Over the years I have worked at readying for sleep. I have trained myself to relax, replacing anxious worries with soothing calm. And most nights I am able to drift off into nothingness, a restful reprieve between busy days.

Yet the quality of my slumber pales in comparison to Natalie’s. What I wouldn’t give to glimpse her unicorns, to stroke their downy white fur and feed them sweet treats from my hand. But even more than her unicorns, I envy Natalie’s ability to slip into the world of magic and fancy by simply opening her mind.

Is this a blessed gift of childhood, or a secret all her own? I shall prepare my mind for unicorns and hope that they will come.

Experiential Learning: “I am prepared to go anywhere, provided it be forward.” – David Livingstone

EL

Educational trends rarely excite me. By the time they’re broadly embraced, they’re often mere shells, stripped of any real meaning or theoretical power. And yet, despite my cynicism, I can’t help but celebrate the growing buzz around Experiential Learning.

Experiential Learning encompasses all flavors of applied education including academic internships, mentored research, service-learning, and cultural exploration. And while many schools and programs have long embraced their benefits, the notion of Experiential Learning is rapidly permeating more traditional bastions of education resulting in exciting new opportunities and programs of study.

From a cognitive standpoint, which is my own academic background, the benefits of applying learning within diverse contexts and settings are both obvious and compelling. And when facilitated properly, they can result in deeper and more sustained learning and opportunities for access and transfer of knowledge.

When viewed through the lenses of relevance and real-world application, Experiential Learning can be a catalyst for innovation, workforce readiness, and the types of entrepreneurial thinking and problem solving that we seek across disciplines and modalities.

But beyond its virtues as a high-impact pedagogical tool, Experiential Learning is a wonderful vehicle for supporting character development and identity formation, helping individuals to frame their own goals and interests within broader contexts and needs. Not only is this necessary for our long-term societal health, but also for the fulfillment of individuals seeking to utilize their own education and skills toward the greatest impact.

Interestingly, by embracing the value of Experiential Learning, we begin to view our roles as educators and parents quite differently. Schools and programs seek to provide rich and meaningful opportunities for students to explore and integrate, applying and deepening their learning through facilitated reflection and inquiry. And in this new paradigm, parents ideally help prepare their children to be open and ready to embrace opportunities and the learning they afford- even (or especially) when the lessons are inherently difficult or dissonant with their own experiences and ideas.

This is a role that I thankfully learned from my own mother, who seemed to understand the value of fully immersing oneself in new experiences and adventures, especially in the formative years. As I prepared to depart for my junior year of high school in Germany, I remember her dismissing my flowing tears, instructing me to not waste a single moment feeling sad or missing my family or life in Buffalo. Instead I should fully embrace every single moment of the experience that lay before me.

As I reflect on my current role as Associate Dean for Undergraduate Research and Experiential Learning at the University at Buffalo, I could offer the same motherly advice to our current and future students. Before them lies literally a world of opportunities. And our job is to help them embrace and integrate these experiences into their undergraduate preparation, positioning them for success, fulfillment, and an impactful career.

These are the wonders of Experiential Learning.  It is indeed an exciting time!

May You Be Humbled

What do you hope for your daughter?

I looked expectantly at my mother as she considered the interviewers’ question. I was a finalist for a Congressional scholarship that would send me to Germany for my junior year of high school. I had made it through the initial rounds, through essays, presentations, and competitive interviews. This should have been the easy part. I telepathically sent her pleading suggestions- “I hope she learns about different cultures…. I hope she comes back with special friendships….or memories to last a lifetime.” Any of these would have been appropriate, expected, and fine. But I knew my mother and accordingly held my breath.

“I hope she is humbled.”

Humbled, are you kidding me? At the time I was pissed. But I was also sick with mono, willing myself to make it through the interviews before collapsing in the car to sleep through the long drive back to Buffalo.

I ended up winning the scholarship and spent my year in Germany. It was a complicated year, at times wonderful and at others overwhelming, and according to my mother’s wishes, I was humbled. My adolescent narcissism was unable to survive the cultural transplant. There was no one to feed and nourish it, and instead of the adoration I had anticipated the mild curiosity with which I was received had been short-lived. And of course in my absence my family and friends had gone on without me, unscathed and obviously no worse for wear.

My humbling didn’t stop there. Despite complete confidence in my abilities and promise, I fell from grace as often as I approached it, trying to navigate the sharks and other carnivorous creatures that seemed to be continuously circling around my feet.

My humbling lasted for years, and although there is clearly still much more ahead of me, I feel as though I have finally gotten it- really gotten it. Like a character in a Greek tragedy literally destined to undo himself, we are all trapped by our own insatiable needs for appreciation, recognition, and esteem. In addition to being fickle, these are the worst kind of false friends, leading us on a path of self-destruction instead of the fulfillment we crave.

How wise of my mother to front-load my journey, breaking through my adolescent haze with a wish that although I was unable to understand let alone achieve, would stay with me as a trusted foil, slowly breaking my dependence in search of something more trust-worthy.

Clearly, I am no longer pissed at my mother for the wish she bestowed upon me so long ago. Ironically, like so many of her lasting impacts, she has absolutely no recollection of her words. But as I behold the young professionals around me who are fighting valiantly to gain appreciation and recognition for their own impressive talents and contributions, I cannot help but wax maternal and wish them the gift of being humbled.

An Unexpected Plug for Peer Mentoring Circles

I guess I have issues with organized fellowship of most kinds. I blame it on being raised by parents who are intellectually suspicious of group-think and all the trappings of conventional conformity. So when I was asked to help start a Lean In Circle it was my love for making things happen rather than my endorsement of the model that led to my initial enthusiasm.

Surprisingly, I bought the book and made it through the first couple of chapters before I had enough. It’s not exactly that I didn’t like it or agree with its basic premise. It just didn’t seem sufficiently profound or complex to warrant the numerous chapters, examples, and associated exercises. So when my colleague and I invited some women from across the University to come together for our first Lean In session, I was mildly curious but not especially optimistic about the potential impact.

What transpired over the subsequent six or more sessions is noteworthy not in its earth-shattering outcomes, but instead in the rarity of what we quickly created. Our circle was comprised of women from various sectors of the University, all with varying levels of expertise, job security, and organizational influence. Although we loosely followed the Lean In model for the first few sessions, we focused primarily on sharing experiences, challenges, and news all with the promise of confidentiality and unconditional support.

In hindsight it’s perhaps surprising how quickly the trust and intimacy developed, with the two hour sessions flying by. Although not everyone could make every session, we all admitted to looking forward to our time together, and benefiting in unexpected yet meaningful ways.

Personally, I appreciated the opportunity to learn about other units, getting an up-close view of the complexities and pressures that were different yet related to my own. I also enjoyed hearing from young professionals who were more idealistic and less jaded than I, with so much commitment and possibilities still ahead of them. But perhaps most beneficial for me was the expansion of my own professional network. Within the first few sessions I was able to contact my fellow members as trusted colleagues and friends, gleaning their experience and wisdom, enabling me to be more effective while gaining more satisfaction from my time at work.

When the year was coming to a close the question was posed as to whether we should continue with our circle. For me, the formalized meetings no longer seemed necessary since the members had now become my friends who I would naturally seek out for conversation, support, and collaboration. So it was suggested that perhaps we should scale up our efforts to support more women who could benefit from the type of experience and discussions that we had come to enjoy.

This was the most interesting part. What should have been an easy email inviting women from across the University to come together to explore peer mentoring and related support, instead felt somehow risky and dangerous. All of us who sent out personalized invitations reported experiencing the same trepidation upon reviewing our contact lists. Suddenly, we worried about reporting structures, interpersonal politics and dynamics, and unanticipated consequences that our efforts might invoke.

This sense of danger and foreboding stood in such stark contrast with the natural collegiality and comfort that we had quickly found within our own Lean In circle. On one hand what we had created was exactly the type of environment that filled a significant need within our own professional and personal lives. Without any formalized changes to our respective job descriptions, reporting structures, or compensation packages, we achieved significant gains in satisfaction and a renewed investment in opportunities for growth and expanded impact. These are exactly the type of outcomes that Sandberg emphasized with regard to advancing women toward positions of greater influence and power.

Clearly, all women deserve safe spaces in which they can explore challenges and frustrations, gain perspectives and advice, and experience the support that comes with being valued and appreciated. From my own experiences I know that work feels completely different when you are surrounded by friends who are always happy to collaborate, support, and assist you regardless of the circumstances or changing environment in which you find yourself. In this type of culture you need not expend all of your energy on being strategic and preserving your own sense of security in the face of ever-changing threats and dangers. Instead, you can enjoy your work, finding satisfaction in your contributions, while exploring new opportunities for growth and challenge.

While Lean In circles are obviously not the only way to cultivate such a culture, they are certainly worth exploring as we consider our own growth or the dynamics within the organizations and structures that we lead. While I maintain that the affordances of Lean In circles shouldn’t be viewed as particularly radical or complex, they are unfortunately not as ubiquitous as we might think or even hope. Accordingly, any discomfort or trepidation should be interpreted as symptomatic of an obvious and compelling need.

So You Want to Change the World?…..

I know you’re out there, even though I cannot see you.

Maybe we have already met. Or perhaps our paths are yet to cross in some interesting or circuitous way. That’s how it usually happens, some chance encounter or a connection through a friend. Or sometimes just a radiant energy that leads to further conversation. Although your stories are all unique, a distinct pattern has begun to weave itself. Perhaps the following profile resonates…

Although people are naturally drawn to you, you often feel alone, fundamentally different from those around you, like an outsider peering in.

Although you experience joy, you would not describe yourself as fun in the usual sense. Your happiness has a serious and reflective quality, a kind of gratitude rather than youthful abandon.

Although you are an achiever, you seldom take pride or satisfaction in your accomplishments. Instead, you refocus on the work ahead, yearning to use your gifts and talents toward the greatest impact.

You are at your best when serving others, and although you feel blessed with a strong sense of purpose and mission, sometimes these gifts feel like heavy burdens that are yours alone to bear.

Perhaps I know you because I am of your kind, and I seem to have developed a heightened sensitivity to your energy- like an airy layer of possibility floating above the negativity and fear that protect the status quo.

The great news is that our number is growing, and those who radiate the strongest are young and brilliant, determined to use their talents to make significant and lasting change. They seem to know instinctively that our systems are broken, and they are ready to serve and lead, understanding that the two are inexorably linked. And perhaps most importantly, they are not afraid.

But they desperately need our help. Their power can only be activated through opportunities to mobilize and leverage their gifts. When the spaces (or jobs) are too tight or restrictive, or the goals too narrowly defined, their potential fails to be realized, with only the most local benefits and impacts.

In order to increase their numbers, we must actively cultivate the talents, passion, and sense of purpose that lie latent within all children and adults. But for these young professionals, the Super Stars who are ready and eager to make their mark on the world, we must put their talents to use recognizing that they are special and finding ways to connect them with the communities they long to serve.

For those of us lucky enough to meet these individuals, we must serve as their mentors and sponsors, helping organizations utilize their talents either through existing or customized opportunities. And when necessary, we must help them create new models and paradigms, connecting them with resources and support, nurturing their efforts and helping them take root.  This clearly calls for a deepened level of engagement and commitment.  However, once we contemplate the implications, we will realize that the true burden- and possibilities- are collectively ours to bear.

Flipping the Success Pipeline

Our society loves Super Stars, those select individuals who possess exceptional beauty, talent, and dispositions that propel them to places of privilege and honor. Their lives and successes serve as the premise for our aspirations, entertainment, and the massive industries that sell access to their worlds. With our collective adoration in mind it’s not surprising that we seek out early indications of stardom and compete for opportunities to nurture and support success, fast-tracking those with the most promise with elite education, scholarships, positions, and opportunities. This is the pipeline that is most direct and efficient, and the one that most artfully perpetuates the status quo.

Don’t get me wrong, many who obtain positions of success and privilege do great things with their resources, serving on boards, establishing foundations, and subsidizing our most needed services. The undeniable fact is that without successful individuals who are philanthropically and civically minded, many of our communities would be stripped of the very assets and resources that we have come to rely on for our quality of life. Rightly so, we admire these individuals and appreciate their generosity, recognizing that they are special in going beyond the expectations that accompany the attainment of success.

But if we were to flip the pipeline and view stardom entirely through the lens of community development, would we select the same individuals to lavish with resources and support? While financial success would remain a viable pathway for making contributions, we would see it as at best indirect and inefficient. Simply waiting for and hoping that individuals will give back to their respective communities in ways that are significant and meaningful, and that these efforts in turn will translate into growth, is like waiting for Godot.

If we were serious about strengthening our communities our scouting for potential stars would look much different. We would seek out individuals who are closest to the challenges and problems, those who recognize the assets and capacities that could be leveraged and mobilized to make positive change. We would search for natural leaders from among our most challenged and underdeveloped communities and neighborhoods, those with a sense of urgency who spend their time and energies dreaming up solutions and developing their own capacity to catalyze change.

We would recognize that these are the people who are especially poised for success, and we would fall over ourselves for chances to cultivate and support their ideas, arming them with tools – leadership development, strategic planning, asset mapping, grant writing, mediation…. any strategies or paradigms that could aid their efforts and support our collective goal of making our communities stronger and our society healthier.  And once we prepared these individuals, organizations and systems would compete for them, offering signing bonuses and perks, recognizing their value in terms of furthering their respective missions and cultivating new and better opportunities associated with enhanced human capital and a more fully developed workforce.

What would happen then? Well, once these individuals achieved the success and notoriety that we have come to adore, they would start to become the premise for our aspirations, entertainment, and the industries that sell access to their worlds….

Be Brilliant

It begins with a spark, a current of energy that radiates outward, illuminating the darkness and igniting our collective possibilities.

It exists among us in people of all ages and backgrounds. Although some have achieved prominence it is not about money or power in the traditional sense.

Brilliance is an inner light that shines with clarity and purpose, emanating from within while radiating outward, catching and amplifying the light of others, brightening our world.

To behold it, we must be open and ready. For brilliance is most often quiet and understated.

A taxi driver from Ethiopia who sends his children home every summer to remember what’s important; a homeless woman who feels blessed to sleep in a park that is peaceful and safe, asking of nothing and appreciating the gift of life

Sometimes brilliance is bold and dramatic. A friend who funds medical projects in Africa, or Rotary clubs that together eradicate polio around the world

But regardless of the scope or focus, brilliance includes a heightened sense of purpose and meaning that serve as a driver, activating courage and strength, and mitigating fear.

People who shine brilliantly possess an inherent respect for others, and an ability to experience joy and gratitude that nourish their soul and provide all that they need.

To be clear, the world does not cultivate brilliance, nor does it recognize it as such. In fact the very word is defined as a one-dimensional strength, impressive and rare, but somehow different, as if too much.

Perhaps the notion of brilliance is inherently scary. If we were to acknowledge that it exists and represents a superior state that cannot be bought by money, power, or influence, it would be too jarring to address.

In many ways we are unprepared for brilliance, finding it easier to modulate our light, keeping our expectations low and seeking satisfaction in good enough.

After all, those who dare to shine often find their light weakened or snuffed out by others who fail to nurture their flames.

It is ironic that brilliance is viewed as threatening when it has the power to elevate us all.

By merely recognizing brilliance we connect with what is important and are rewarded with a sense of warmth and promise, a clarity that can guide us toward our own growth and fulfillment.

But how can we nurture brilliance, in ourselves and others?

First we must develop our sensitivity- noting shifts in our own levels of radiance and the radiance of others, as conditions change and become more or less conducive.

As we begin to notice changes we can glimpse the sources of our light, feeling out the edges and boundaries and appreciating our impacts and possibilities.

It is critical that we start with ourselves. For t is only when we are shining brightly and able to sustain our own brilliance that we can cultivate it in those around us.

Yes, brilliance is highly combustible, spreading from person to person, eventually  lighting up the world.

And although it begins with any one of us, we simply cannot be brilliant alone.