Finding Your Way Through a White-Out

By Hans Meeder

Last Sunday night, I was caught in a late night snow storm in an unfamiliar area, driving on an unplowed, unsalted rural road (GPS led me astray!).

Anyway, at one point I saw a sign, “warning-snow blowing,” and I thought it was an odd warning, given that the snow was already blowing sideways pretty hard. But I hadn’t seen anything yet.

A few hundred yards down the road, my car became engulfed in snow, where almost all I could see was a white haze all around me. Now I truly understood what the term “white-out” really means. I was creeping forward at less than 5 miles an hour, stopping and starting occasionally, and getting my bearings to the road by looking to the sides and seeing where the snowplow banks were from previous storms.

The real dilemma was, do I keep moving forward however slowly, or do I turn around and hunker down at the corner gas station I saw a couple miles behind me? There wasn’t an easy answer. I had 25 more miles to go to my destination, but the snow was getting worse, and I was making almost no forward progress.

I kept moving forward, and in a little while, was able to start navigating by following in some freshly made tracks from a large SUV. Then the snow started to subside. I came over the crest of a large hill, and apparently into a slightly different weather pattern where the snowfall hadn’t accumulated as much, and some of the snow had already been blown away.

My pace improved considerably, and I could seen hundreds of yards ahead of me rather than just a few feet. I arrived safely and just an hour behind my original schedule.

The next day, it occurred to me that my “white out” experience was analogous to our work in developing pathways systems. Sometimes it is very unclear what lies ahead and the snow is blowing sideways — like the budget cuts, personnel changes, and differing policy agendas that seem to block our vision and slow our progress to almost a halt. But it is worth inching forward. Because almost indecipherably, the weather can ease, visibility improves, and progress speeds up.

So here’s the lesson: When you’re in the white-out mode, don’t give up and don’t give in. Keep moving, however slowly. And if you’re in rapid progress mode, be thankful for it, but don’t take it for granted. Make as much progress as you can, but also be prepared as you can for the slow down and the sudden storm. In particular, work to build layers of back-up and buy-in for your pathways system, so that one crisis or budget cut or personnel change can’t totally halt your progress. The pathways system is as much of a mindset shift as it is a set of activities. So if more and more people are adopting the mind-set of career development, pathways programs of study, dynamic teaching and learning, and cross-sector partners, the more sustainable your pathways system will be, and less susceptible to “white-outs.”

Keep moving forward!