Tufts Celebrates its First-Gen Grads

Boston Globe: “Of all the commencement ceremonies that will take place around Boston this month, it’s possible that none will be as joyful or exuberant as the one held in a small hall at Tufts University on Friday evening. Tufts has made a serious effort in recent years to welcome first-generation college students to its campus, and on Friday the university celebrated the 58 who are graduating this year as the first in their family to earn a college degree. The ceremony was full of singing, cheering, stomping, and whoops of joy that reverberated off the ceiling of the intercultural center where it took place. It felt less like a ceremony and more like a big family party.”

“The community of first-generation students at Tufts is growing. The incoming class this year had 210 first-generation students, up from 163 last year. Among the graduating seniors Friday were seven undocumented students, the first such students to graduate Tufts. Tufts president Anthony Monaco, himself a first-generation student, spoke briefly during the ceremony, but students cheered the loudest for Robert Mack, an associate provost and chief diversity officer at the school who has quietly worked to assemble what is now a vast array of programs and services for first-generation students.”

“One of Mack’s projects has been the creation of a center that opened this year for first-generation Tufts students. It has quickly become a place to find camaraderie and learn about available services, such as where to find free books or a winter coat or how to secure funding to afford an unpaid summer internship or trip to an academic conference … For several years, Tufts has run a six-week summer program for incoming freshmen who are first-generation students to acclimate them to university life and academics. The school also started a second, shorter summer orientation, to be able to accommodate more first-generation students because interest was so high. The university also has a mentoring program that pairs the students with staff or faculty at Tufts who were also first-generation students.”

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Perfect 36: Is the ACT Like Blackjack?

Cincinnati Enquirer: “Turns out, the number of perfect ACT scores nationwide has more than doubled since 2015 and is six times higher today than it was eight years ago. In 2010, 1 of every 2,600 students nailed a perfect score. In 2018, it was 1 of every 500 … ACT officials say the test, which more than 1.9 million students took last year, hasn’t changed in any meaningful way since 1989 … The average test scores haven’t changed much, either. Those have hovered around 21 for at least the past five years … If the test is essentially the same, why are so many more students acing it? The most likely answer is a booming test-preparation industry that’s built on the hopes and fears of students and parents who are willing to work – and pay – to get an edge.”

“Schools are on board with more aggressive preparation because they increasingly are measured by student performance on standardized tests. And parents are all-in because they see the financial benefits a higher score can bring … Those factors came together in the past decade to create a test preparation industry that did about $25 billion of business in 2016, according to the Journal, a magazine for school administrators.”

“Mark Treas, whose company focuses on the ACT, said he takes a practical approach to the tests. A former blackjack player and card counter, Treas said his goal is to give students better odds of scoring well by teaching them to practice and to understand the test’s structure. A card counter has a system to beat the house. A test taker needs a system to beat the test. ‘Generally, gamblers sit down at a table and hope to win,’ Treas said. ‘You need to think of it more like a card counter than a gambler’…. Research on test prep still is in its infancy, but studies suggest the kind of practice and repetition students get from test preparation are among the best ways to improve scores. Confidence also is a factor: If students feel prepared, they tend to do better.”

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JMU Tour: Sweet Smell of Success

Feels big! That was our first impression as our shuttle bus pulled up to the Festival Student Center in the Skyline area of the James Madison University campus. It also did not look like we imagined, based on the iconic, quaint bluestone buildings for which JMU is best known. These structures were huge, cement-and-glass, and a lighter shade of beige. This particular neck of campus — one of five distinct areas on JMU — dates back only to 2000, and as it turns out is home to the school’s impressive STEM curriculum. While the unapologetically 21st century architecture is a bit jarring at first, it nonetheless rises from a magnificent vantage point, amid vast expanses of lawnscape, dotted by students taking full advantage of all this warm Spring day had to offer.

Most spectacularly, the serene beauty of the Shenandoah Mountain glowed on the horizon, directly ahead. Slightly to the left, in the campus’s Ridge area, JMU’s gigantic stadium stood empty but somehow echoed with the energy of the school’s beloved Dukes, even in their absence. The older part of campus, aptly known as the Bluestone area, sits on the opposite side of the i84 thruway, connected overhead by a footbridge and below via a tunnel. In between is the Village area, populated by a cluster of low slung, mid-century modern dorms. Last but not least is the Lake area, which we didn’t visit, fronting — you guessed it — a lake.

Well regarded today as a public, research university, JMU began life in 1908 as the State Normal and Industrial School for Women, a teacher’s college. It underwent another slight name change before becoming Madison College in 1938 and James Madison University in 1977. Known as the father of the U.S. Constitution and the nation’s fourth president, James Madison wasn’t alive to see the school’s founding, but because his Montpelier home was nearby the school was named in his honor some 90 years after his death. Madison himself attended the College of New Jersey, now a smallish university called Princeton. He also helped Thomas Jefferson launch the University of Virginia. He stood 4’11”. Don’t you just hate overachievers?

That’s a brief history of JMU, but of course what matters more is its present and future. This was readily discernible during a brisk walk through the school’s impressive Engineering and Geoscience building, where computer banks, science labs and even a bicycle shop were visible through a series of plate glass windows. Back outside, we saw but did not enter the enormous University Recreation Center, which we were told offers every manner of exercise experience, including a 30-foot climbing wall. Our guide, a senior who was giving his last tour, could barely contain his excitement about everything JMU had to offer, and we hadn’t even crossed i84 to get to the other side of campus. After passing through the Village area just long enough to see a sample dorm room, we headed over to Bluestone, which is up a rather long, steep hill.

It was worth the exertion. This part of the JMU campus not only exudes the kind of classic, quadrangle ambiance of a venerable academic institution, but also puts on full display the spirit and vibe of the student body. If one word could sum it up it would be this: happy. Granted, it was a perfect Spring day, temperatures in the 70s, with a light breeze. Sunning on blankets, tossing frisbees, swinging on hammocks, taking selfies, playing with dogs. Our jovial tour guide was repeatedly greeted with hugs and even some kisses from fellow students. Our tour group was not immune from the spirit of the place. No hugs or kisses, but before our tour began, we were told that if anyone shouted J-M-U at us, the correct response was to bend a knee, cross our arms like a baseball umpire signaling “safe” and reply, “Duuuukes!” This happened three times during our tour.

Why are JMU students so happy? One answer might be the food: the school is ranked #5 for dining options by Princeton Review. A subtle tribute to Dolley Madison? Another could be the sports, which is a big draw. A more likely reason is that JMU gives its students the time and latitude to figure out exactly what it is they want to get out of their education, choosing from among the university’s eight colleges. There’s actually a class for students who can’t decide on their major! Opportunities to conduct research and engage in experiential learning begin freshman year, certainly yet another plus.

The ultimate explanation, however, may reside in a single building: The Student Success Center. Set in a former hospital, it houses administrative offices as well as every manner of service to help students with their studies, support their health, happiness and guide their potential career choices. It provides opportunities for collaborative exploration with professors and other students, entrepreneurship, and to hone academic skills. The overall idea is to navigate their journeys through the school and beyond. You can get Dunkin’ Donuts there, too.

Toward the end of our tour, a gaggle of beaming students stopped and stood with us as our guide explained the legend of JMU’s Kissing Rock, which is that any couple who stands on it will be together for life. They laughed as he joked about never going anywhere near the rock, and then clapped and cheered when he finished his well-crafted routine. One of the students yelled out, “Best tour guide, ever!” We’ve been on countless college tours, but have never seen as effusive, spontaneous, or genuine a display of camaraderie.

For such a large school (20,000 undergraduates), JMU makes a point of breaking it down into smaller pieces, and the culture seems to be a particularly caring, supportive one. Our tour guide, openly lamenting the impending end of his time there, was quite emotional about how JMU had opened his eyes and changed his life. “I am really going to miss this place,” he said, and then asked our group to pose with him for a picture.

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UVA Tour: It Takes an Academical Village

His name was invoked no less than four times during the first five minutes of our UVA tour. Thomas Jefferson is known for many things, and his legacy endures in manifold ways, yet it is astonishing that his vision of higher education is still standing so tall in Charlottesville after 200 years. Disenchanted by the limitations of his own alma mater, William & Mary, which had fallen into decline at the time, Jefferson sought both to expand the scope of study beyond ministry, law and medicine and tighten the relationship between student and teacher.

Ever the architect, Jefferson drew what he saw. It was a place where students lived downstairs from their teachers in a long quadrangle, set on a great lawn. At the head was not the steepled church common to most colleges at the time, but rather a great, domed library. At the foot, off in the distance, farmlands and a mountain range, suggesting an agrarian ideal as much as wide open, future possibilities. Jefferson termed his concept the “Academical Village” (apparently, he also liked to invent words). A few chosen students, as well as professors and even the university’s president, occupy it to this day. That the structure lacks indoor plumbing makes living there no less an honor.

It’s impossible not to feel Jefferson’s centuries-old influence while walking its “grounds,” which other schools would call a campus, but not UVA. It’s all about the grounds. Students enthusiastically buy into other curiosities of the founder’s chosen vocabulary, referring to themselves not as freshmen, sophomores, juniors or seniors, but as first-years, second-years, third-years and fourth-years. Jefferson thought this reinforced a commitment to lifelong learning.

Even more noteworthy is a tight embrace of Jefferson’s notion of self-governance. This was self-evident during our 90-minute tour of the grounds. Our guide declared at the outset that tours are conducted independent of the admissions office and that he was not paid or compensated in any way. The school had little to worry about, as his presentation was a nearly relentless rave review, which is in itself testament to the return on self-governance. The only lapse concerned the cafeteria food, which our guide compared to a warm glass of water on a hot day. “You’re going to drink it,” he said, “but you’re never going to crave it.” Clearly, our guide writes his own material.

He also confessed some sense of isolation during his first year or so, in part because the sheer size of the school made it challenging to find his peeps, but also that the academic rigor consumed his waking hours. Ironically, it seems axiomatic that the larger the school, the more alone you are, at least at first. Our outwardly extroverted guide said he made a conscious effort to remedy this simply by reaching out to others, and also joining clubs, of which there are some 600 at UVA.

The most profound evidence of Jefferson’s lasting legacy is in the academics itself. Jefferson wasn’t kidding about expanding the horizons of academic pursuit, originally offering an unprecedented total of eight schools: law, medicine, mathematics, chemistry, ancient languages, modern languages, natural philosophy, and moral philosophy — yet notably no divinity school. Today, it’s a total of eleven schools: arts & sciences, leadership/public policy, education, business, commerce, architecture, law, medicine, and nursing. UVA also runs the Wise College, a four-year liberal-arts school serving Appalachia.

If a single idea might pull these disparate disciplines into a coherent focus or philosophy, it would be Jefferson’s penchant for design, and the very modern idea of “design thinking,” or seeking solutions based on human need and behavior. It’s an approach that informed Jefferson’s design for the school itself, and is perhaps the best explanation for why it is one of America’s most renowned universities today.

If you visit, try to allow extra time for a self-tour.At the very least, do take the time to explore Jefferson’s famous serpentine walled gardens and step inside his breathtaking rotunda. While the guided tour was outstanding, it took us inside just one building: a quick lap around a very quiet library. Consistent with our guide’s one-star review of the food, we didn’t get to see a cafeteria, and if you’ve seen one dorm room you’ve pretty much seen them all. No great loss there. But to get a true sense of the school, it’s essential to see students in their natural habitat, at least at a student center or something like that. UVA really should open its doors a bit wider.

Consequently, our main impression is that most students walk the grounds alone, by themselves; we didn’t see many pairs, much less groups of students as is common on many other campuses.

While the University has grown considerably over the past two centuries, it is comforting that it has held fast, and proudly, to the principles on which it was founded, not unlike certain other products of Jefferson’s imagination. Yet, it must be noted that Jefferson was not the only U.S. president with a central role in realizing the UVA vision. James Madison, who was in office at the time, was on the school’s organizing board, along with former president James Monroe, who sold the land on which UVA was built. Chief Justice John Marshall was yet another distinguished UVA founding father. They all would certainly be amazed to see their university today, but just as surely would easily recognize the vibrant community of citizen-scholars they envisioned back in 1819.

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Richmond Tour: Leaders in Leadership

It would be easy to dismiss the University of Richmond as just another pretty campus in Virginia. It really is beautiful. Every one of its red-brick buildings looks like it was designed by the same architect, and situated based on a meticulously curated master plan. This is all the more impressive given that the school as it stands today is built on the site of a former amusement park, six miles outside the city of Richmond, and is the result of a union between a men’s and a women’s college sitting on either side of a picture-perfect lake. Simply stunning. Richmond just might be the highest expression of what a college should look like. What’s more, it somehow manages to appear both storied and modern at the same time, a deft mix of past, present and future. And, oh, that awe-inspiring checkerboard seal. Richmond definitely wins the contest for college logos.

Of course, it would be a huge mistake to evaluate Richmond purely on the basis of its formidable aesthetic appeal, as alluring as that is. The university is a highly selective, academically rigorous institution of higher learning, the most distinctive feature of which is its leadership in leadership: Richmond’s Jepson School was the nation’s very first leadership studies college, later followed by some 30 others. Jepson is one of the three undergraduate schools at Richmond, the other two being its School of Arts & Sciences and the Robins School of Business.

Everyone is admitted as undeclared because Richmond wants its students to explore, with the first year centering on seminars where students focus on writing, presentation, and critical thinking skills. Boundaries between the three schools are fluid, and most students pursue studies in multiple fields. Yet the Jepson School seems central to the experience, as the study of leadership naturally lends itself to blend with almost any other area of academics. Not surprisingly, many students combine their chosen major with another one in leadership.

“Experiential” does seem to be the watchword, as Richmond encourages internships and study abroad, up to and including financial incentives. Students electing to avail themselves of any of the school’s 75-plus study-abroad opportunities are given a $400 cultural stipend, earmarked to cover expenses associated with exploring their host communities outside the classroom. Those choosing to conduct research or engage in internships over summer breaks are further awarded $4,000 to enable them to pursue such interests. Some 70 percent of students get involved in research. Students deciding to settle into the business school need only complete four pre-requisite courses and maintain a 2.7 GPA.

The only thing a little bit off-kilter about Richmond is its choice of mascot: a spider. It may not be the oddest collegiate icon, but it must be the creepiest, albeit in a cool kind of way. Apparently, at one time the school’s sports teams were known as the Colts. This changed to the Spiders in 1894 because of the long, spindly arms of the team’s ace baseball pitcher. Love it or not, there’s certainly no confusing Richmond’s athletic imprimatur with that of any other school. Another quirk is the sheer size of the campus, and the grand scale of its buildings relative to the number of undergrads, which is only about 3,000. Richmond has the look and feel of a far more densely populated school. Whether this is a plus, minus, or makes no difference, is for each prospective student to decide.

What matters most is that there is an incredibly attractive university near Richmond that not only promises a first-class education but also makes an extraordinary tangible financial investment in the cultural experience and academic success of its students, and our future leaders.

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College Tour: William & Mary Surprises

The most surprising thing about the College of William & Mary isn’t that it was built with pirate money (true story, look it up). Nor is it that it is the second-oldest college in America, after Harvard. That William & Mary counts Thomas Jefferson as an alumnus, its Sir Christopher Wren Building as the nation’s longest-standing academic edifice, and borders the magnificence of Colonial Williamsburg, does not completely capture what makes this school memorable and remarkable. Its somewhat quirky status as a small, public, research institution certainly makes William & Mary stand out, as does its rather peculiar-sounding name, palpably British pedigree, and that it calls itself a college but is, in fact, a university.

With all these attributes, topped by a drop-dead gorgeous leafy-and-bricky setting that seamlessly blends its triad of ancient, old and new campuses, it’s not surprising that William & Mary is populated by students who are among the best and brightest in Virginia, America and the world. What’s surprising, given all of the above, is that William & Mary is not better known and at the top of more college wish-lists.

William & Mary, with its hallowed history and small, 6,000-student population, seems more “ivy” than some, if not most, actual “ivy league” schools. It is known as one of eight so-called “public ivies,” which are said to offer an ivy-quality education at a state-school price. It also comes with a highly-selective but non-ivy admission rate of 34%. So, if you are dreaming of an ivy, but your numbers are not quite there, William & Mary offers a convincing alternative. Did we mention that Phi Beta Kappa, the oldest and most revered academic honor society, was founded by five William & Mary students during the Revolutionary War?

Adding to the intrigue is the school’s unusual alliance with St. Andrew’s in Scotland, which is like study-abroad on steroids. The deal is, you can split your studies between the two schools and earn a degree from both. Strangely, this rare opportunity did not come up during the information session the day we visited, and our excellent tour guide was aware of it but didn’t have much to say about it. What did come up in a big way was the chance for undergrads to engage in serious research projects into any subject — not only in math or science, but also the humanities.

In fact, a senior featured during our info session spoke in detail about her research on Chinese immigration to Buenos Aires, which included study-abroad in both countries, a close working relationship with a professor and the opportunity to lead a class herself. Her program is culminating in a thesis, and as she noted, the experience sets her up nicely for applications to graduate school. It is also not unusual for students to co-author and publish research papers with their professors. After touring the Integrated Science Center, with it impressive array of labs visible through picture windows, our guide proudly directed us to a glass case filled with scores of such recently-published works, on a broad range of topics, with the names of student co-authors highlighted.

William & Mary’s emphasis on research clearly points this antique school, founded by King William III and Queen Mary in 1693, toward the future. Yet, its students almost seem to wear the sense of history and tradition that surround them, both on campus and across the street at Colonial Williamsburg, where the locals actually don period apparel. Other legends abound, such as that of its Crim Dell footbridge, where it’s said that if you cross it with someone, you will be together for the rest of your lives. People tend to cross that bridge alone. Easily the greatest campus oddity is its grassy “sunken garden,” which looks like an Olympic-scale swimming pool, only without the water. It was dug in the 1930s as a make-work WPA project, with the expectation it would be filled in later. It wasn’t.

The school’s defining tradition, not surprisingly, centers on the Wren Building, where from the beginning, students including Thomas Jefferson and his classmates, ate, slept, learned and studied. As a rite of passage, incoming freshmen walk through the building’s center hallway as bells ring, and seniors greet them on the other side with the message “you belong here.” In that spirit, the school’s D1 sports teams are known as “The Tribe,” the origin of which presumably is linked to the school’s second-oldest building, the Brafferton Indian School, built in 1723 to educate Native-American boys.

As we passed through Wren ourselves, our guide pointed out a laptop computer sitting unattended on a wooden bench and noted that William & Mary created the nation’s first honor code, which is assiduously enforced and gives students freedom from worry not only academically but also in terms of their personal safety and possessions. It’s difficult to imagine this school getting caught up in any of the scandals currently roiling other prestigious institutions.

When William & Mary students graduate, they walk back through the Wren Building in the opposite direction. That’s hard to beat for poignancy and a deeply felt sense of accomplishment.

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The List: How Naviance Changes College Choices

EdSurge: “For decades, the college-admissions process has been shrouded in mystery. But these days, big data, and a popular college planning tool, are taking much of the guesswork out of applying to college. That was a major takeaway from Christine Mulhern’s new research on Naviance, a widely-used online college-readiness platform. Mulhern, a doctoral candidate in Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, provides evidence that Naviance’s college research and admissions tools are changing where students apply to college, with the ‘potential to affect higher education on a national scale,’ she wrote on Twitter after unveiling the research.”

“Naviance scattergrams show prospective college students how their peers at their high school fared with individual colleges and universities—and helps provide a sense of how they can expect to perform in the admissions process. For each institution, previous applicants’ GPAs are plotted on the y-axis and their ACT or SAT scores appear on the x-axis. Each applicant’s college decision (accepted, rejected, waitlisted) is denoted with a unique color and symbol, collectively depicting the caliber of student who is typically accepted to a given school.”

“Whittled down, the research shows that more information leads to more applications, and that students rely on their peers’ judgment in helping them determine the right fit for college. But there are some caveats … fewer students applied to so-called reach colleges, where students are less certain of their admissions prospects. Similarly, more apply to and enroll in ‘safety’ institutions, where students feel more confident they will receive an acceptance. Additionally, when high schools create minimums of five or 10 applicants, only the popular institutions appear on the scattergram. Based on what Mulhern found about students applying to colleges with visible scattergrams, it’s reasonable to deduce that the diversity of colleges students apply to could decrease with Naviance.”

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Women’s Colleges Report Applications Spike

Daily Hampshire Gazette: “Over the past several years, there has been a spike in the number of students applying to women’s colleges across the country … over the past five years, the total number of applications to Mount Holyoke College has jumped 23.6 percent, while Smith College has seen similar growth at around 25 percent, according to the colleges. However … highly selective colleges and universities have seen a general rise in applications in recent years … Contributing to Mount Holyoke’s success in this difficult moment are the sizable financial commitments the school has made — to financial aid packages, educational programming, and facilities. In addition to these attractions … there is something particular about the current moment that is contributing to the success of women’s colleges.”

“Many Mount Holyoke students are interested in social movements … and some of the most visible leaders of those movements — from #MeToo to climate activism — are women.” Other factors include “the emphasis colleges like Smith and Mount Holyoke have made in the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics, or STEM; the large networks of influential alumnae that they boast; and supportive environments on campus.”

“Hareem Khan, 19, said she had been impressed and inspired by the alumnae network of women in her home country of Pakistan. But the biggest reason for attending Mount Holyoke, she said, has to do with her identity as a woman of color. Almost a third of Mount Holyoke’s incoming student body are students of color from the United States, and 19 percent are international students. At Smith this past academic year, 32 percent of the student body were students of color and 14 percent were international students.”

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Students ‘YouTube’ Admissions Decisions

The Washington Post: “It’s usually a moment of private drama for students, their families and friends, but Justin Chae planned to share his with the world by filming his reaction to the decisions from the five colleges he’d applied to attend. Then he would post the recordings to YouTube … Social media is filled with content that celebrates (and sells) the college experience, from dorm room tours to ‘day in the life’ videos to productivity tips … Reaction videos from non-celebrities, like Chae, offer a different kind of relatability. Some of the viewers are high school juniors and sophomores who are beginning the long process of applying to college themselves. For that audience, the videos aren’t just good content, they’re glimpses into the future — not the heightened version of their dreams and nightmares but vérité depictions of acceptance and rejection as it happens.”

“Every year, dozens of students post videos like Chae’s to YouTube. In one, a high school senior sits at her computer screen openly weeping as she is rejected on Ivy Day from Harvard, Yale, Columbia, and Brown. The only college left is her top choice, the University of Pennsylvania. ‘I’m freaking out,’ she says, as her family around her comforts her. She clicks. She screams. She got in. That video, from 2018, has more than 1 million views.”

“Not all popular college reaction videos end with a dream coming true. A disturbingly world-weary high school senior filmed himself opening up all his college decisions at once. The first is Amherst. He looks at the screen, smiles and claps once. ‘Fantastic,’ he says. ‘So I got rejected from Amherst. Next college. Next college!’ The rest of the video is much the same as the student casually leafs from one rejection to the next. (He does get into Carleton College and the University of California at Los Angeles.) Another video shows a student wearing a Northwestern sweatshirt as he checks his application there. As he finds out he’s rejected, he removes the sweatshirt.”

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Top 10: ‘Best Buys’ in Public Universities

CNBC: “Some public schools are far more affordable than others, particularly for those applying out of state. Personal finance site GOBankingRates ranked 100 public universities by out-of-state tuition costs, based on data from schools and U.S. News & World Report. People assume a private school is better, but ‘these public schools are equally good and they have huge resources,’ said Andrew DePietro, the lead researcher and data analyst at GoBankingRates. In addition, not only are the schools near the top of the list relatively less expensive, but most also have a high acceptance rate, making them particularly attainable for college-bound seniors.

Here are the public colleges that made the top 10:

University of South Florida; Kent State University; University of Wyoming; Florida International University; SUNY College of Environmental Science & Forestry; San Diego State University; Montclair State University; University of Central Florida; Ohio University; and Florida State University.

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