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September 21, 2023

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Students read urgent notes on sidewalks

URBANA, Ill. – Administrator Robin Kaler needed students to register for the University of Illinois’ new high-tech emergency communication system, which will use cell phone text messaging and e-mail to get the word out in the case of an urgent situation like the April shooting at Virginia Tech.

But students do not always pay attention to official mailings and postings in dorms.

So on the morning of Oct. 22, Kaler, dressed in a suit and heels, crouched down on the campus Quad and went to work with a piece of purple chalk, scrawling this message on the sidewalk: “Sign up now!!!”

Chalking the sidewalk has long been a favorite way for cash-strapped students to make announcements about blood drives, student government candidates or upcoming events.

On some campuses, administrators have banned the practice, calling it ugly and damaging graffiti. But for all the sophisticated technology at their fingertips, officials at Illinois recognized that a message works only if people pay attention.

And as Kaler, a colleague and three students took buckets of jumbo chalk to the crisscrossing walkways, they did indeed attract attention.

“It’s funny to see someone in a suit chalking on the Quad,” said senior Sally Yoon, 21, who was competing for attention as she passed out fliers about homecoming. “It’s kind of a messy job.”

Kaler, 46, recognized how odd it is to use this primitive medium to publicize the latest technology, in which students, faculty and staff can receive emergency alerts to three e-mail addresses and two cell phone numbers.

Those who don’t sign up will have the messages sent only to the e-mail address listed in the campus directory.

“If you want to reach students, you have to use the method that’s found to be most effective,” said Kaler, associate chancellor for public affairs. “Talk about direct marketing; they are walking on my message as I’m writing it.”

Rae Goldsmith, vice president for communications at the Council for Advancement and Support of Education, said she knew of no other college where administrators chalked the sidewalks.

“Students are the most notoriously difficult group for a university to communicate with. They often don’t use their university e-mail. They change cell phones,” she said.

“Sidewalk chalking is a really creative way because it is using the very mechanism that students have long used to communicate with each other.”

But the idea wouldn’t fly at some campuses.

University of Iowa officials last month told student leaders that if they chalk the sidewalks, they could be fined the cost to clean it up, according to The Daily Iowan student newspaper.

Bishop added that he would fit in perfectly at U. of I., where he plans to apply for graduate school.

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