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Ken Barr Jr.

What is your official title?

My official title is the Director of Student Strengths Development at Kalamazoo Valley Community College.


What’s an average day in the ‘Zoo look like for you?

Each day is a little different for me, but every day will encompass at a minimum the daily operations of my position. There are approximately 12,000 students at KVCC and we assess about 2,100 new students each year through Strengths Quest. I meet with, on average, one student a day to work on their development. We are very intentional about having a tool in Strengths Quest to help students go through that analysis, and discover the natural things that can make them successful. We want our students to find ways to use those strengths to develop further, and then find where they can apply it. The way we do it is unique – it’s an intentional effort to be strengths-based, and that’s not just the students, it’s also for the employees, to drive workplace engagement and keep that consistency with the students that we are all speaking the same language, which is rare in a holistic sense; it’s great having 95% of employees speaking this language. We started the program as a pilot in 2008. I wrote an innovative thinking grant after starting as a part-time advisor downtown, and just asked myself and my colleagues, what do we have to do to get where we want to be with this program?


What kind of projects are you currently working on?

I’m currently working on increasing the number of community partners we have. It’s what I like to call “experiential education”. So, with everything we do in taking a strengths-based approach, we are trying to find or solicit organizations locally that know the strengths language, or would be interested in learning about it. We partner with these organizations to give the students an idea of ‘would I have the opportunity to use my talents in the right way’. I’m working on connecting my students so they have an understanding of the experience they will get in a a career that they are interested in. And, the important part of this, is connecting the students with people who love their job. I want the students to have the best experience, and you don’t want them spending the day with someone who is unhappy in their job – it gives an entirely different perspective. So right now, my project is helping the students connect.


Any upcoming events that you’re particularly excited about?

School’s starting in September, so Cougar Connection’s one. The start of every fall semester is the potential to see opportunities. We work very hard to create authentic relationships with students. The 0.1 Run is another – Chris Crowell of Gazelle is my mentor, so looking forward to that. And the Student Activities Leadership program at WMU. It’s a free conference to students hosted at the Radisson with all sorts of different topics being covered, revolving around personal growth and leadership.


What do you love most about Kalamazoo?

For one, it’s education city! There’s an incredible authentic commitment to education in Kalamazoo. People will think about the Promise, but on top of that, think about the higher education institutions of the size we have here, and the proprietary schools. But when I describe to my friends outside of that piece, it really has everything you could want from a big city, but you can still find parking. There’s a strong commitment to the arts, incredible places to eat, super interesting people in close proximity. I’m fascinated by people, and that’s why I do what I do, it’s why I studied psychology. It’s the small things here, the little things, that really mean a lot. Like the first Friday of every month walking downtown to Art Hop. You’ll run into a thousand people you know, have dinner at a place like Food Dance, walk on the mall – there’s just always something going on. It’s here, and people think these kind of things only happen in a place like Chicago, but it’s here. You just have to find it.


What can be done to improve our beloved Kalamazoo?

We can all be taking a strengths-based approach. We could be doing this and it could be starting sooner. We’ve had centuries of taking the other perspective – what’s wrong with you, why aren’t you doing this or that? Why don’t we take the energy and resources in the other side of it – we all have the potential to thrive. It should be everyone’s business to foster engagement. Kids have a contribution they could make in other ways. I don’t have the specifics, but I know what happens when people feel like they’re a part of something. If everyone thought about that, we’d do more to be engaged.


What has been one of your biggest learning moments?

That’s going to be difficult for me, because Learner is one of my Top 5 Strengths. The biggest thing about this program was the capacity for the student and their whole life. It’s not a career assessment, which is what we’re all used to when we enter college. My charge was to find out about this tool and these resources. Now, don’t get me wrong, I love those career instruments, but with Strengths Quest you are looking with a more critical eye. This is bigger than any interest inventory. This is finding your best life! It shouldn’t just be for career advisors, it should really be for everybody. That was what peeled the lid off, and that’s truly what I learned, that this has application with so many people in so many different ways. So it was taking what we were comfortable with, what we thought we knew, and understanding that we needed to do more.


What have you been jammin’ to recently? What’s on the iPod?

It is a steady dose of soul R&B, Brian McKnight, Justin Timberlake’s Take Back the Night is a favorite. I like to make a playlist off of one song.


What is next up on your reading list?

Upcoming is Making Hope Happen by Shane J. Lopez. We are going to read it as a staff, so we are going to introduce it into the faculty success center. The student staff, the regular staff, and the instructors all do a collaborative book reading. Basically the premise behind it is, the hopeful student is a successful student.


How do you take your coffee?…or do you?

No coffee. I drink Coke Zero – it really lends to my sophistication level.


What is your favorite app to use?

I love My Fitness Pal, really helps you meet your goals. IMDb, Scorecenter, Google Maps, and mPerks the Meijer app.


Do you have a “go to” spot in Kalamazoo?

One of my favorite things to do is go to the Union on Friday nights, listen to a band like the Skeletones. I order a bunch of little appetizers and just relax and enjoy the music and the atmosphere. I enjoy walking on the Kalamazoo Mall, and taking the loop from the Museum. Oh, and I love Taco Bobs, too.


Are there any places in the ‘Zoo that you haven’t been to and are dying to go?

Rustica. I’ve heard great things, and just haven’t been yet. I’ll get there soon enough.


What is the best reaction you’ve gotten to the name “Kalamazoo”?

I’ve had more than one person ask ‘is that a nickname’ or ‘is it real’. Oh yeah, it’s totally real.


Ken, thank you for taking the time to meet with us and sharing your thoughts! Keep up with Ken on twitter and be sure to follow us on facebook and twitter for updates.