Published September 24, 2021
UB sophomore Kerry Sherman can feel the shift in campus demeanor as she walks inside the Student Union. There’s the familiar buzz of students, faculty and staff returning to campus after 18 months of isolation.
“Everyone seems to be happier about the smallest things,” Sherman says, “Just seeing your friends after class or meeting up at football games — everyone is more thankful for those things you never even thought about before.”
Now, students, faculty and staff have an opportunity to share their gratitude with the UB community through Student Life’s Gratitude Tree. Standing proudly on the second floor of the Student Union within the aromas of Pistachio’s dining area, the tree is filled with messages from students and faculty expressing their gratitude.
Notes of gratitude are written on leaves that are placed on the tree every “Thankful Thursday.” The tree has accumulated over 48 leaves, and continues to grow each week.
Leaves can be obtained from 235 Student Union or the Student Union’s website. There’s also a QR code available to scan while visiting the tree that takes participants right to the website to register.
While the tree is a budding mark of community, it started off with humble beginnings at a divisional retreat in January 2020. Inspired by the book “When Likes Aren’t Enough” by Tim Bono, Maria Wallace, director of student unions, collaborated with her team to find a space where students could reflect, share their experiences and express gratitude.
“We thought it would be great if people could visually see something that might spark their interest,” Wallace says. “We thought the Student Union would be an ideal place, since it is a very active place on campus.”
Once they found the perfect location, Wallace and her Gratitude Tree project team, which includes John Kisker and Don Erb, worked on getting their message across.
“We wanted students, faculty and staff to take a step back and pause and reflect on what others are grateful for and think about what they are grateful for in their day-to-day life,” says Wallace.
While the tree was officially installed last June, it has remained “hidden behind pipe and drape,” as Student Union officials described it. Finally, the Gratitude Tree — awaiting students’ leaves — was unveiled to the public at the start of the fall semester. Brian Hamluk, vice president for student life, and Dean of Students Barbara Ricotta were among the first to place their leaves.
“We wanted it to be a reflective experience where students noticed the tree and inquired more about its purpose,” Wallace says. “Since the reveal, I have walked by a few times and will see students standing and reading all of the responses. It provides that sense of community and gives everyone a chance to think about what they are grateful for.”
In addition to filling out a leaf in person, students, faculty and staff have the option to tag someone they are grateful for through email. The person they tagged will receive a message that someone has expressed gratitude toward them and an invitation to look at the tree. Even if someone isn’t on campus, they can fill out a leaf to express their gratitude.
Going forward, the tree will acquire a new set of leaves each semester or academic year, depending on the fullness of the tree. As more leaves are added to the tree, it continues to evolve as a representation of the UB spirit.
“I think there is beauty in people willing to share their gratitude and happiness within our community,” Wallace says. “We hope that as the semester goes on, the tree keeps growing as individuals continue to reflect on their experiences. As we returned to a vibrant campus community this semester, the timing was ideal.”
Sherman would understand. Her own leaf mentions her strong connection with her family.
“They are my favorite people ever,” she says. “My brother just left for college, which is such a weird experience not having him around. I really miss him a lot.”
But what about her favorite leaf?
“It was definitely ‘to be back at UB’ because it’s something all of us are feeling right now. The last 18 months were such a struggle and the light at the end of the tunnel is finally showing.”