Thinking Outside the Box

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Innovative challenge program pushes Paul Kaufmann '15 to think creatively

By Stephanie Smaglo | March 13, 2014

Paul KaufmannNine-year-old Paul Kaufmann is trapped inside the Internet. He has taken on the persona of Leonardo da Vinci and, amidst chatroom banter about the Mona Lisa and chicken nuggets, he and his third grade Destination Imagination (DI) team members are cleverly creating a device to help break free of the web. Today, a junior theatre major at Virginia Wesleyan, Kaufmann can’t remember exactly how they escaped, but he does recall that his team placed fourth in the organization’s global finals competition.

That was Kaufmann’s very first experience with DI—an innovative educational challenge program—and he’s been hooked ever since. The New Hampshire native competed as a DI team member all throughout his elementary and high school years and now continues to support the program as a volunteer. It’s DI’s unique teaching philosophy that keeps him coming back.

“Instead of sitting children down and saying, ‘Here’s what you’re going to do, and you’re going to do it like this,’ it asks what they want to do, what they think they should do, and how far they can take it.”

So how does DI work? Each year, educators and industry experts develop seven challenges based on particular areas of school curriculum. Focuses include technical, scientific, fine arts, improvisational, structural and service learning categories. Up to seven team members then spend two to four months developing an imaginative solution to their problem.

“It pushes kids to think outside the box,” says Kaufmann. “As opposed to, ‘This is a piece of paper and that’s all it is…’ It asks, ‘How can we make this piece of paper a tower that we can put weight on top of?’ I’ve used rat traps, paint sticks, golf balls, pulleys and cups just to turn on a set of lights.”

This year, Kaufmann volunteered as a DI appraiser—helping with scores and ushering groups to their sites—at the Virginia Tidewater 2014 Regional Tournament, held Feb. 22 at Ocean Lakes High School in Virginia Beach. He also mentored an elementary-level team called The Baguette Bros., that happens to have a VWC connection of its own. One of its members is the son of VWC theatre professor Travis Malone, who Kaufmann has worked with on various stage productions.

“Paul’s generous spirit, boundless creativity, and sense of humor demonstrate his commitment to the collaborative nature of theatre and the betterment of society through volunteerism and the arts,” Malone says.

Kaufmann’s volunteerism doesn’t stop at DI. He serves regularly at a soup kitchen in Downtown Norfolk and helps keep the College eco-friendly as part of Marlins Go Green. He is also working to get a VWC comedy group off the ground that will bring clowning performances—and smiles—to local nursing homes and children’s hospitals (Less Bobo the Clown, more Buster Keaton, he says).

Selected to participate in VWC’s Global Scholars Program, Kaufmann spent the fall 2013 semester in London studying at the University of Roehampton (read his travel blog, PK in the UK). The award program generally covers costs associated with room, board, tuition, and incidentals, and Global Scholars are chosen through a competitive application and interview process.

“It was really nice for me to have that opportunity to study abroad,” he says. “I think everybody should do it, for the global perspective. It makes people much more open minded and diverse in their thinking.”

Up next in his life travels, Kaufmann will head to Chicago to audition for the improv comedy group, the Second City. Eventually, he hopes to join the cast of “Saturday Night Live.”

He looks forward, once he’s made it big, to returning to VWC to speak to students in the College’s new academic building devoted to the arts. But he won’t soon forget the imaginative organization that helped shape his future.

“I credit DI with allowing me to be who I am,” he says. “It really helped let me know who I was.”