Alumni Feature- Rachel Nusbaum (’01) | A JMU DIPLOMA AS A SIGN FROM THE UNIVERSE


I was 500 miles away from home. My head was in a fog and my body felt heavy, hard to move. I entered the office of the physician who would guide a large needle into my abdomen, into the chest of my tiny 23 week old baby, and into his heart the size of a grape. He was still so teeny and abstract that my professional genetic counselor self said “fetus” in my head every time my mom self said “baby” out loud. This procedure sounded like science fiction and as opposed to my maternal instincts as could be. I was deep in fear and grief.

Then, something caught my eye on the wall of the doctor’s office. Her diploma. It was from JMU.

I believe that the universe conspires to let us know we are on the right track. To let us know that what we are searching for is out there, it can be found. But these signs don’t come knocking on our door. We need to look for them. We need to have the faith that they will present themselves to us. We need to follow the threads that are sometimes the softest of whispers. The whispers come from inside of us too – our intuition. In our age of wearing busyness as a badge, status updates, and working around the clock, our inner voice tends to get drowned out.

Intuition has been described as immediate understanding as compared to immediate knowledge. Our intuitive response is is based on our past experiences and the associated web of emotions connected to these events. When we encounter something new, our brains call up past related experiences and lead us to a quick decision. It all happens so quickly that we may not even register because it occurs at the level of the subconscious. Scientific research exists to support the construct of intuition.

While I’m not arguing all answers lie in our gut feelings, I am a strong advocate for listening to intuition as a guide for making decisions and for when we feel paralyzed about what to do next.

Years before that doctor’s office with the diploma on the wall, my husband and I attended JMU. We didn’t meet until after we graduated. We were out in downtown D.C.; he with his fraternity brothers and I with my gymnastics teammates. It was a match made in JMU heaven. We eagerly started our lives and careers together, wide-eyed and breezy. Life was about to throw us some pretty significant curveballs, though. Within a span of five years we lost both of our fathers suddenly, my husband’s best friend died in an accident, and our son was diagnosed with life-threatening congenital heart disease.

For awhile during that time, I simply put one foot in front of the other to figure out how to move forward. I could not see much more than what was directly in front of me. Gradually, and in little glimpses, I saw that life had offered us a lot to reflect on and from which to grow. I’ve become a firm believer that we can experience true joy only when we know true darkness. Being faced with others’ mortality brings into question our own. How do I want to spend my precious time on earth? What kind of parent do I want to be? What legacy do I want to leave?

These questions nudge me along and help guide my decisions. They’ve led me to job changes, an interest in self-discovery, and big shifts in my parenting. When an opportunity arose to speak about my son’s story on a national stage, I saw it as a sign and took the leap. I poured my heart into this project. It had been four years since my son was born and I was able to walk through each stage of the journey through writing, reflecting and recording. I interviewed my husband and each of my kids about their perspectives. I found meaning and healing in crafting and sharing my story that I hadn’t been able to find anywhere else.Capture

I kept on down this path, following the threads. I found myself signing up with coaches to learn how to launch a business. I expected I would launch a consulting business focused on my professional field, genetic counseling, but along the way I felt compelled by the idea of personal storytelling. I knew from my many years as the genetic counselor of cancer patients the power of holding a safe space in which people can share their story. The diagnosis, the decisions, the pain. We find empowerment by owning and sharing our stories of struggle. This was the message, the whisper I kept hearing from my own intuition. It was the message from which I wanted to build and create. It is the why behind my business, Orchid Story.


Career paths have changed in the years since I attended JMU. It’s becoming rarer to stay at the same company, moving up the ladder in the traditional way. We want to feel more connected to our work. We want it to be an extension of the values that we hold dear. My JMU education and the relationships I built during those years have been guideposts as I’ve journeyed into using my own intuition as a tool. Finding answers within ourselves can be so empowering, especially in this noisy world we live in. Here are some practices to consider.   


Pursue your strengths. Oftentimes we are told to work on our weaknesses and improve in those areas. But, each of us have natural strengths. When we are contributing in our personal and professional lives in ways that are aligned with our strengths, the signs and opportunities around us become clearer. We have more energy to continue contributing and we make better decisions for ourselves and for our businesses.

Get quiet. This is a tough one! But it doesn’t require a lot of time to get started. Take a ten minute walk. Listen to a two minute guided meditation on your phone. Take three deep breaths with your eyes closed in your chair at the office. Ask yourself the question that needs to be answered before you start, keep practicing, and see what comes up.

Surround yourself with people who lift you up. Seek out the people who lift you up, who tend to run on a high natural frequency. At work, go for a walk or get a coffee with the person who has new ideas and sets a positive tone rather than the complainer colleague. Ask yourself who makes you feel good to be around. If you don’t have these positive relationships in your life look for new ones – take a class (online or in person) that interests you, attend a meetup group, go to a conference.


Set boundaries. Most of us feel pulled in many directions every day. Before you sign up for the next thing ask yourself if it is something that you are compelled to do out of your own desire to do it or whether you feel like you should. Anytime you hear yourself say “should” use it as a flag to stop and consider whether you really want to move forward. Exercise your no muscle.

Practice patience. This is by far the most challenging one for me. I wanted to launch my business and have off the charts traffic I could view on my analytics that night that would convert to clients the next day. I say practice patience because it doesn’t come easy or naturally to many of us. Patience for me seems to be tied to both expectations and faith. If we are able to unhook from our sometimes unrealistic expectations, we become more comfortable with letting go of specific outcomes and timelines and we put more trust in the process. If we are trusting the process, we have faith that we will figure it out.



Rachel Nusbaum (’01), is a partner, mom, daughter, and sister who writes in pursuit of connection with herself and others. Sharing the journey of her son’s diagnosis of congenital heart disease on a national stage was the inspiration behind Nusbaum’s creative business, Orchid Story, LLC ( The mission of Orchid Story is to empower individuals to tell their stories of struggle as a path to finding freedom and meaning. Nusbaum was an Integrated Science And Technology major and competed on the gymnastics team at JMU (’01). She received her M.S. in Genetic Counseling from the University of Pittsburgh (’05). She’s been a genetic counselor for 12 years in both academia and industry. She lives with her husband, Curt (’00), and two kids in Vienna, Virginia.


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