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AfterWord: Whitworth alumni in their own words

Confessions of a Whitworth Phonathoner

by Jordan Karnes, '06

Jordan Karnes
Photo by Wes Bruce

I had ideal college jobs. I worked at the Whitworth Post Office, sliding parcels into an impressive honeycomb of boxes. I worked at the library, re-shelving each book to its final decimal. I reveled in these positions, in their prime campus locations and their reputations as coveted college jobs. So how did I end up working for the Whitworth Phonathon in the final stretch of my college career, wrestling strangers from their dinnertime conversations? The answer is predictable: I had just returned from a semester-long study program and was broke.

My first night on the job, I found myself in a swiveling office chair, scanning a computer screen full of scripts and stats, wearing a fancy hands-free telephone headset I had always wanted as a kid, and navigating the complexities of automatic dialing. Look at me now, folks, [I thought;] just look at me now.

That night I talked to Becky, '78, elementary-ed major, teacher at Ridgeview Elementary School, in Yakima, former resident of Ballard, member of chamber singers, participator in intramural sports, wife to Todd and mother to Jake and Torrence.* Becky politely declined to donate. She and Todd were still making car payments.

I once had someone fake a disconnected line by rubbing tissue paper or bubble wrap against the receiver. On many occasions the intended callee told me I had the wrong number. One man hung up on me. Another said I should be ashamed to call on Sundays.

There was a time when I thought I couldn't make it any longer. It was a two-week period in which we called non-donor parents of students who had attended at least 10 years ago, and friends of the college -- those whose only connection to Whitworth was that they had given once in the past. Each night I left work feeling like a terrible person, that I had compromised my integrity. It was as if I was a solicitor not for scholarships, but shame. This is Whitworth we're talking about: Presbyterians and pinecones and pranks on the green. These were supposed to be nice people. Nice people don't hang up on you. Nice people say "please" and "thank you," or at least "I'm sorry" and "maybe next time."

The bigwigs gave us games -- incentives -- to keep morale high. For every pledge received, we got a trivia question; for every correct answer, we earned a point. Whoever had the most points at the end of the night was the winner. These games might be the only reason I ever raised any money for Whitworth. I'm just too competitive. It didn't matter what the prize was -- it could have been a pile of dirt -- I wanted it. I once won a $10 gift certificate to Chicken-N-More. That was a good night: I scored four credit-card donations.

Recent grads were my favorite alums to call, regardless of their shallow pockets. Warm memories of Whitworth were still at the forefront of their minds, and on these calls I liked to drive the message home with a hefty hammer. There were so many nails to hit! I knew their friends and professors; most important, I knew their language. I often "broke it down" for them, a technique that involved lowering my voice and using a lot of slang.

"I know what you're thinking -- I do. But this is so legit. Even five bucks makes a big difference, you know? Did Whitworth ever give you money for doing something, like being a leader? Where do you think that money came from?"

Last May as I walked home from the grocery store, a cluster of bags in tow, I got a call from a 509 area code. I rested the bags on the sidewalk and listened in half awe, half amusement as Stephanie,* an awkward sophomore, explained the exclusive benefits being offered to President's Club Gold members. She stuck to the script but did well to incorporate my college stats (Class of 2006, English major, former resident of Stewart Hall, former DJ at KWRS, former manager of Script) a mere 15 seconds into our chat. As she spoke, I thought about the four years that connected the San Diego street corner where I stood and the phonathon swivel chair where I once sat. I thought of Whitworth, and of how glad I was to have been a part of such a good community, to have received such thorough instruction.

Noting that I'd given in the past, Stephanie asked if I'd be willing to give again that afternoon. I smiled as I brought the phone closer to my chin and said, "Sure, but what's in it for you?"

Jordan Karnes,'06, is a freelance writer and editor living in San Diego. This fall she plans to attend California College of the Arts, in San Francisco, to earn an MFA in creative writing. Read more of her work at jordankarnes.com.

To meet the 2010 Whitworth Phonathon student-callers and learn more about the phonathon, visit www.whitworth.edu/phonathon.

*Names and specific information have been changed.

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