Special Olympics Winter Games 2015

Each February I look forward to the opportunity to volunteer at the annual state-wide Special Olympics Winter Games. This year I was particularly looking forward to volunteering because of all of the Leadership Institute staff and students attending. Also, having the inside scoop with the planning of the 2015 Winter Games I knew that there would be more athletes attending than any other year!

This year I volunteered at Strive, which is an indoor (jackpot!) program designed to help assess athlete ability and also promote healthy lifestyles. Selfishly, I enjoyed volunteering with Strive because of all of the one on one interaction I got with each athlete as I went around to each assessment station. Some of the athletes (and I) struggled through the plank holds and squats while others approached each station with confidence and skill. We laughed, we broke a sweat, and we were always “brave in the attempt”. I particularly enjoyed reconnecting with a few athletes that I worked with last year as well.

Each time I reflect about a SOMI experience I struggle to put into words the energy and excitement at each event. If you’ve ever volunteered before you know that the athletes always inspire us through their actions, words and attitudes. Special Olympics is such a judgment free zone. People are not focused on deadlines or projects. At Special Olympics people are always priority number one and for this reason each person there feels important and respected. There are very few other times when someone feels as safe or as included as when someone is at a SOMI event.

This type of inclusion is often attempted but never duplicated in the business world. The emphasis of “we” instead of “me” represents a lesson of exemplary leadership. I don’t think there is a better example of “enable others to act” than a state-wide SOMI event. Kouzes and Posner’s Leadership Challenge explain that exemplary leaders enable others to act by building partnerships and sharing power.

Leadership Institute Students at Special Olympics Winter Games

Leadership Institute Students at Special Olympics Winter Games

When Eunice Kennedy Shriver began the games in 1968, she developed an opportunity for athletes to feel empowered through sports. Years later, the Special Olympics organization resulted in enabling thousands of others- athletes, coaches, volunteers, staff. Not only did she create an exceptional legacy, Eunice enabled others to expand and enrich communities. She designed opportunities for volunteers to help athletes reach their potential, all the while athletes inspired volunteers to be better versions of themselves as well.

Outside of Special Olympics state-wide events, when can I recreate that feeling of inclusion and acceptance? How can we keep the feeling of “less me, more we” alive?

Step one is bringing more people into the Special Olympics community. This year I was finally able to convince my very good friend from GV grad school days, Suzy, to join us volunteering. As predicted, Suzy had the time of her life at Winter Games. She said “I’m hooked, count me in for Summer Games”. Duh. Enabling others to act does not always require intensive coaching, sometimes it just means connecting the right people with the right resources and watching them thrive.

Keeping the SOMI spirit alive requires creating opportunities for others to be at their best. The more that we connect others with meaningful service opportunities, the more everyone wins. Whenever I volunteer with SOMI I am reminded of the Gandhi quote “the best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others”.

The honest truth is that during the rest of the month of February I had a hard time keeping the spirit of Winter Games alive. During the shortest month of the year I felt absolutely overwhelmed with work events, presentations, teaching a course, serving as a impromptu therapist for college students- and oh yeah, planning a wedding. At this point in my professional career I have a pretty good understanding that task oriented projects take much more of my energy than relationship oriented projects. By keeping experiences (such as SOMI) alive in my work I know that I can be a better leader, not to mention a better person to be around.


Today is January 30, 2015. Have you kept your resolutions alive these past 20 days? No judgement here- my abstract ideas for resolutions have moved further down my to-do list each week. I have not even articulated my resolutions yet, 20 days into the year. There just always seem to be more urgent things to do than to stop and reflect about realistic self-improvement. That needs to change in 2015.

As part of the course that I teach, LDR 200L Introduction to Leadership, I assigned the following blog post topic:

“As a leader: what do you really want in 2015? What do you really need in 2015? What will you share in 2015? What will you succeed at in 2015?”

It is only fair that I take twenty minutes out of my day to reflect upon the same prompts. I’m hoping for some clarity on this Tuesday afternoon. I’m also hoping that there is an increased sense of accountability now that I am publicly posting these to my e-portfolio. Here we go….

As a leader, what do you really want in 2015? As a leader, this year I really want to increase my education. I’m not ready to jump back into classes, however, it has been a decent amount of time since I have read leadership development books. This very second  I type this blog post I can see approximately ten leadership-related texts that I have been “meaning to read” since I started my professional job. I really want to fall back in love with reading and self-improvement. One of my favorite leadership quotes is “a leader who is done learning is through”. As a leader, I hope I can use this blog as a tool to share my new ideas and opinions inspired by the books I read. My goal is to read four leadership-related books by May 2015. Will you hold me accountable? Please? Less email, more reading. That is what I really want as a leader in 2015.

What do you really need in 2015? As a leader, this year I really need some balance. Balance is one of those things that my professional mentors always tell me I need but admit they don’t have it themselves. I really need to focus and be productive while on campus, and to not feel guilty for working while at work. I really need to leave any challenges from work at work, and spend less time on the computer while at home. I really need to not pile too much on my plate so that I become run down and sick during or after major work events (a pattern I have noticed in the past year). Balance in 2015 means not allowing a tough day at work become a cranky night at home. Balance in 2015 means not letting challenges from my personal life distract me from doing my best work on campus. I’ve worked hard to be where I am at personally and professionally, and I really need to just stop and enjoy it. More balance and more enjoyment. That is what I really need as a leader in 2015.

What will you share in 2015? As a leader, this year I will share my facilitation and curriculum development skills with new audiences. In 2014 I was lucky to be a part of many brand new Project Unify Youth Leadership Development workshops and experiences. Since the past few experiences were such a smashing success for everyone involved I’m truly excited to see what new audiences we can reach this year. I will share my time designing curriculum, facilitating programs, and simply volunteering for Special Olympics because these are once in a lifetime opportunities! I feel obligated to share all that I can with these programs because the time and energy invested doesn’t even feel like work. Kid President would call this my “Space Jam“. More Space Jam opportunities are what I will share a leader in 2015.

What will you succeed at in 2015? As a leader, I will succeed at coaching our Leadership Institute staff to utilize our strengths. Technically, I supervise student employees but I have always preferred to consider working with our students as collaborative instead of managerial. Every single day I get the opportunity to work with some of the most talented student leaders on campus. Check (drop the mic, already accomplished in 2014). The way that I will succeed this year is to be more strategic about student development and cultivating growth in our staff. This has already begun with our first of the semester meetings through intentional goal setting and strengths-based conversations. When I succeed in coaching our staff members personally and as a team the results will directly impact the success of Leadership Institute programs. I also welcome the challenge of motivating and coaching some of the most advanced student leaders. Mutual growth will lead to overall gain for the Leadership Institute. This is what I will succeed at in 2015.

Spending time thinking about ways to grow and improve in the next year is refreshing. It is time to get to work and put these into actions. What are some of your goals for the next year?

The Work That We Do, And The Work To Be Done.

This past week I had an interesting interaction at the pharmacy of all places. Usually I am a fan of the drive thru pharmacy option for the convenience factor (ahem… laziness), however, the brutal winter weather had frozen my car window shut, and I had no choice but to brave grocery pharmacy at 5:15pm. The long line of at least ten other people at the pharmacy counter showed me that I wasn’t the only person with a frozen car window.  

When it was finally my turn at the counter it caught me surprise that the pharmacist initiated some casual small talk. Not only was there a long line of cold (and ill) customers behind me, but he also used my personal (and private?) insurance information as a conversation starter. “So, you work at CMU?” he said. “Yes, in the Leadership Institute,” I replied. (Pause). “Do you like it?” he asked. “Of course,” I replied, engaging more into the conversation at this point! The pharmacist paused as he rang up my tab and then asked a few questions about where the office was located on campus and what how many students I work with. I paid for my prescription and as he handed it over he asked skeptically, 

“So, do you just do trust falls all day or something?”

I could not help but smile and let out a tiny laugh. I replied, “yes, among other things- such as developing the next generation of ethical leaders”. He blankly stared back at me, seemingly trying to determine if I was serious. I thanked him and went on with my shopping. On the drive home, and even later that night this brief encounter with a stranger had me thinking about our LI students, my position and even my career. The conversation reminded me of those memes that used to flood my Facebook newsfeed of a grid representing “what my parents think I do” vs “what my friends think I do” vs “what I actually do” etc. 

The truth is, every once in a while, my workday will consist of facilitating trust falls, name games, and team challenges. You mad, bro? In all seriousness, I love my job because every initiative or activity that we do has a purpose. While the specific activity (to appease the pharmacist let’s say trust fall) is significant- the most impactful component of what we do is the processing after the trust fall is complete. Helping participants process what they experienced and how this relates to the “real world” is always the most important. Facilitating the conversation to the next level of- so you had an experience, you were able to learn a new concept about yourself or others- now how are you actually going to change a behavior or goal- is called the “now what?” phase. Facilitating the “now what?” conversations is why I get paid the big bucks. 

This quick dialogue at the pharmacy has opened my eyes to how others perceive or quantify leadership. I’m realizing that we have a real challenge on our hands that when people initially hear about college leadership they assume games or activities, instead of college leadership to be about educating students to improve communities. In my opinion leadership is not so much an activity, as it is a collaborative approach to achieving desired outcomes for the greater good. 

You don’t participate in one trust fall, and automatically become a leader. In fact, you don’t participate in just one Leadership Institute program and automatically become a leader. Leadership is a process. At the LI our goal is to design programs that develop and refine leadership abilities. We do this through experiential learning, college courses about leadership theory, and of course the continued conversations about “now what?”. Once this has been done, we repeat.  There is a real purpose to what we do, connecting learning inside outside of class, and developing the whole student. Developing the “whole student” leads us to wear many hats here: academic advisor, mentor, unofficial counselor, supervisor, motivator, facilitator, coach, and beyond.

The truth is that there are a lot of terrible things happening in our world right now. I am excited to go to work every day because I truly believe that my time and energy is spent helping college students understand how their talents and abilities can improve our world. If the Leadership Institute only existed to facilitate trust falls, I would probably be out of a job very quickly. There is so much more going on in Powers Hall than trust falls, and I now realize that we need to help people understand what we do and why it is so important. I hope one day when people hear about college leadership programs they have a reaction of excitement or at least show an emotion that validates the need for more people empowered to make the world a better place. In the mean time, there is work to be done.

Project UNIFY Youth Summit Leadership Training

What? After the success of the SOMI Fall Games Project Unify Workshop, the Leadership Institute was asked to design and facilitate a leadership training for Detroit students. On November 12th, twenty six Leadership Institute facilitators arrived at Fischer Upper Magnet School in Detroit, MI. There were nearly 300 students in attendance from thirteen different Detroit schools, with ages ranging from elementary to high school students.

Each school was paired with one or two CMU LI student facilitators and given an animal mascot (thank you, Leadership Safari). Breaking into smaller groups helped participants and facilitators get to know each other better and build team rapport. The small groups consisted of students with and without disabilities from the same school. Dan Gaken facilitated large group energizers such as a rock paper scissors tournament, team builders, and a spirit tunnel. The event lasted three hours, and from my perspective the time flew by! I even had the chance to jump in and help facilitate for a group without Unified Partners. In just a short time the students able to work together, find fun facts in common, and celebrate each other!

So What? The Detroit Project UNIFY Summit Leadership Training is something that I am incredibly proud to be a part of. In just one day we were able to bring over 300 people together to learn to create better and more inclusive communities. We were very lucky to have 26 highly talented student facilitators join us (especially leaving Mt. Pleasant at 6:45am)!

Special Olympics Project UNIFY provided tee shirts for participants that had the word RESPECT on the back. Not only were the participants excited to get a new Special Olympics shirt (who doesn’t love a free tee?), they were looking forward to wearing this message of Project UNIFY in their schools. When I asked a student why they wanted to get involved with Project UNIFY they told me “I don’t want anyone to feel alone at school, everyone can help”. I can’t think better ambassadors of “respect” in the schools than these students.

Project UNIFY Participants

At the end of the Project UNIFY Youth Summit Dan Gaken asked a few participants to would share what they had learned. A student (approximately 7 years old) bravely raised her hand and shared “I learned that we can work with people who are different than us and have fun!” Many students cheered for her and I almost melted from so much love in my heart for the Project UNIFY program.

CMU LI Unify Facilitators

Now What? Project Unify leadership trainings are so fun and rewarding that I can hardly consider them “work”. I want to challenge myself to live up to the following lessons that I learned as a result of participating in the Project UNIFY Summit Leadership Training:

  1. Inspire others by being an inclusive and adaptable leader. The entire event reaffirmed for me that the CMU student leaders’ ability to make others feel important will change the world that we live in. Without substantial background or training about the Project UNIFY Summit participants, the LI student facilitators jumped right into this opportunity. Before the event started CMU students went around to different Detroit students, introduced themselves and engaged in friendly conversation. I was incredibly impressed by their maturity and welcoming attitude- instead of using extra time to socialize with other CMU facilitators, they embraced the opportunity to make connections with Detroit students and teachers.
  2. Influence your participants, and let you participants influence you. I was lucky to have the opportunity to join Team Spider Monkey for the leadership training because there were not very many Unified Partners on the team. Facilitating always provides the opportunity to share learning with a group of people. This was not my first, second, or 50th time participating in some of these activities, but I was able to participate in them in a different way because of the Project UNIFY students. Project UNIFY students encouraged each other better than many groups I have worked with in my time. As a team we were able to reach different goals because members were less judgmental and more vulnerable.
  3. Happiness can always be found when you focus on people, not plans. As a team member who was responsible for the event it would have been very easy for me to focus on a few event planning hiccups that occurred (such as a broken PA system), however, the reality was that the program participants could care less about anything except their team members and the task at hand. They were not stressed out by the broken PA system or that the activities were different than our original plan. They were having a great time getting to know their peers and building trust within the team! I think I will be a better leader (and person to be around) if I can remind myself to focus on people, and not stress out so much about plans.

Like A Ross.

It was an absolute privilege to have President Ross take time out of his busy schedule and join our LDR 100L class last week. This is always my favorite class session of the year (and technically I am not even part of this class). Any time President Ross speaks he is captivating and effective as a communicator, however, the intimacy of having him converse with just our freshmen Leader Advancement Scholar cohort is even more impactful. Each year he shares different messages about leadership, and the mood always feels like a conversation instead of a presentation.

Dr. George Ross earned his bachelors degree and masters degree from Michigan State University, a PhD from the University of Alabama, and has completed post-doctoral work from Harvard. In 2010 he joined us as the 14th President of Central Michigan University, bringing with him years of leadership experience from multiple institutions. Simply having the title of University President would give Dr. Ross the credibility to be considered a powerful leader. His undeniable character and his likability are reasons why (and how) he is an incredibly effective leader.

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President Ross is like no other University President I have seen before. His positive influence has led us to affectionately use the phrase “Like A Ross”. “Like A Ross” moments (inspired by the “Like a Boss” song) always make someone feel impressed and/or inspired. For example, getting a raise and choosing to turn it into a scholarship (Like a Ross). Participating in the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge in front of 2000 freshmen (Like a Ross). Kneeling down at a desk to talk to Emma, our student who was Skyping into the class session last week (Like a Ross). Here are some of the “Like a Ross” leadership messages that the President shared with our class last week:

  1. “Always do the right thing”. While I do not think that President Ross was the first person to share this idea, he certainly has walked the talk in his lifetime. Prior to serving as our University President, Dr. Ross was the CFO of CMU. He shared with our class that as CFO he was responsible for one of the biggest budget cuts and layoffs of our institution’s history. He explained that although he had to tell people “no” often and make difficult choices, he kept the “right thing to do” as the focus of his work. He later went on to serve as President of Alcorn State University and while he was there he approached by the search committee to return to CMU for the role as President. It speaks volumes to Ross’s leadership that he was asked to lead the university just a few years after he was responsible for the largest budget cuts. From this message I thought about how I would like to improve my ability to maintain respect from others, even when I can’t give them everything that they want. Continually committing to do the right thing is Like a Ross leadership.
  2. Seek opportunities to learn from and work with people who do not look like you. President Ross looked around the room and commented about the lack of diversity. (Side note: the LAS freshmen cohort does have more diversity proportionally than the entire incoming freshmen class at CMU, but that is still an issue at hand). When President Ross commented on the lack physical diversity there was a slight pause from some students in the room- some probably in awe that he addressed the elephant in the room, some students probably were thinking “finally, someone gets it”! I loved that brief moment of shock value because moments when we are uncomfortable are often when we learn the most. President Ross went on to explain that there are people from all over the world on our campus, and we should strive to learn from and work with them. As an educator, I found myself nodding my head, recollecting grad school readings that emphasized the importance of global learning and diverse leadership experiences. And then I thought to myself- when is the last time that I have actually pushed myself to work with others who do not look like me? Challenge accepted, Dr. Ross. Next semester I will strategically seek ways to work with and learn from more diverse populations (and blog about it to prove it). Challenging all members of the members of the CMU community to grow and learn is Like a Ross leadership.
  3. “Other people are just as good as you are, they are just making different choices” – Dr. George Ross. Wow. How simple, profound, and accurate. I wonder what the world (or campus for that matter) would look like if people were less judgmental and more accepting? He also inspired me with the statement “don’t look down on others, look them in the eye”. This was a great reminder for our group to hear because leaders inherently have power, and too often it develops into elitism. Instead of having power over someone, leaders should empower others. Empowering people to make the right choices is Like a Ross leadership.
  4. Take risks and consider new opportunities. As a mentor and colleague to students and staff, President Ross explained that he often encourages others to take chances and consider new adventures. When he was approached to consider the role of President of University of Nebraska (twice), he realized it was time to take some of his own advice. He candidly shared the pros and cons of the University of Nebraska opportunity. I was on the edge of my seat the entire time, selfishly hoping he would share that he was going to stay at CMU forever. President Ross did share that if offered the Nebraska position that he would have a tough choice to make. He also explained that the Board of Trustees is supportive of this opportunity because of what it means that a Big Ten school is seeking the President of CMU. Making a name for CMU across the country while exploring personal opportunities is Like a Ross leadership.

I could not imagine a better person to lead Central Michigan University. Last week President Ross did not explain leadership, he demonstrated leadership. Each of us were impacted by different messages and stories that he shared, however, I do know that each of us left that class session feeling impressed and empowered. Like a Ross.

Special Olympics Fall Games 2014

My fiance Dan and I often debate about who has the “best job ever”. Dan is the Director of Unified Sports Initiatives for Special Olympics Michigan, and his job allows him to work with different people across the state to provide opportunities for those with and without disabilities to work together. State-wide events, life changing volunteer opportunities, and of course supporting the athletes are reasons why Dan has one of the most exciting and rewarding jobs ever. I serve as the Assistant Director of the Leadership Institute, and my position entails working closely with students to offer the best co-curricular leadership development programs in the state. “Aha” moments, student development, and helping each other be the best version of ourselves is why I have one of the most exciting and rewarding jobs ever. I think it is safe to say that Dan and I both are very lucky to be so early into our careers and already so satisfied with the work that we do on a daily basis.

It was only a matter of time until we found an excuse for our offices to directly collaborate. The inaugural Special Olympics Fall Games was the provided the perfect occasion for us to utilize the talent of the Leadership Institute students to make an impact for the Special Olympics Project UNIFY program. The Project UNIFY Youth Summit at Fall Games was designed to allow opportunities for students with and without disabilities to learn about inclusion and have fun! I had not been this excited about this combination since I first learned about pineapple on pizza!

Kia and Adrienne bravely volunteered as Lead Team chairs for this first-ever event. From the beginning conceptualization of this event until the very end these two were visionary, adaptable, and collaborative. We had about one month to develop curriculum for the three hour workshop, recruit and train LI facilitators, figure out travel and lodging logistics, and communicate with the SOMI office. Each week our plan changed and evolved based on several factors, but the entire time Kia and Adrienne remained positive and adaptable. I respect their ability to problem solve while remaining enthusiastic and athlete focused.

Our LI Lead Team who served as facilitators after Trino's magic show!

Our LI Lead Team who served as facilitators after Trino’s magic show!

The Project UNIFY Rally consisted of a brief presentation by the Youth Activation Committee (YAC) about how high school leaders have made their schools more inclusive and what they have gained from the program. Next, the LI team of twenty college facilitators paired up to lead small group team building activities. Seeing the CMU students, YAC members, and high school students work together to form a team name, create an ideal leader and participate in gutter ball has been one of the happiest moments for me professionally. The athletes and partners were learning about leadership from the CMU facilitators in a whole new way- feeling empowered and important. The CMU facilitators and myself were learning about leadership from the athletes and partners in a whole new way- about perseverance, support and celebration. When Dan and I were looking around the room we couldn’t help smiling knowing that we were really onto something here. Afterward we surveyed our student facilitators and about the Project UNIFY experience and they said

“I really enjoyed seeing how important the little things were to the participants. They truly were the kindest people and worked better together than a lot of teams that I’ve been on”

The rest of the weekend we (the LI team) were lucky enough to be included in the opening ceremony spirit tunnel, Golf special events, and Trino performed a magic show for athletes and volunteers! I could write a whole blog post about how much fun we had supporting the athletes at the events as well as the dance.

Special Olympics is is more than just sports. Special Olympics is a movement. Every single SOMI volunteer opportunity has left me feeling inspired and grateful. I do not think any one of us knew exactly what to expect going into the first ever Fall Games, but I do know that all of us left with full hearts. Dan and I are both lucky to have such gratifying professional positions and I look forward to our next opportunity to use leadership development as a tool to improve our communities for all.

My friend who I met 2 years ago at winter games cross country event found me at the dance! We had a blast!

My friend who I met 2 years ago at winter games cross country event found me at the dance! We had a blast!

Built to Last: Connections Conference 2014

Another incredible CMU Connections Leadership Conference is in the books! This year the Leadership Institute hosted 180 student leaders and over 30 CMU staff and faculty at the Great Wolf Lodge in Traverse City, Michigan.

The 2014 Connections Conference Committee

The 2014 Connections Conference Committee

I will be the first to tell you that Connections “runs like a well oiled machine” due to the fantastic groundwork designed by Dan Gaken and previous members of the Leadership Institute staff. This year marked the 15th year of Connections Conference! 15 years. To put that into perspective, the students attending Connections were toddlers when this event began. To celebrate 15 years of Connections, we appropriately utilized the theme “Built to Last”. We encouraged students to embrace a foundational approach to leadership, and to focus on tools and resources for lasting success. Behind the scenes I was able to appreciate the established framework for this conference and the continued success year after year.

Over the years I have been fortunate to attend the conference six times- as a student participant in the Greek Institute, 2 years as a presenter, and 3 years of advising the event. There is a consistency and familiarity with every Connections Conference. The smell of chlorine from the water park and sugar for the fudge shop are nostalgic, and always seem to welcome us back every year. Each year there are dynamic presentations that everyone is buzzing about. Students are always impressed by the level of professionalism of the event, and I am always impressed by how great our students look dressed up (it is not the usual tee shirt and jeans type of leadership program that we offer on campus). Every year, Connections “works” and everyone is sad that the event comes to an end so quickly. Every year.

In my third year as the event advisor, I have also learned that there will consistently be unexpected situations at Connections. No matter how many hours the committee plans and predicts and prevents issues there will always be some sort of hiccup during the event. This year it was a late bus. In years past it has been food allergies or technical difficulties in presenter rooms. In retrospect, I am thankful for these incidents because they lead me to my favorite part about the Connections Conference.

Hands down, my favorite part of the Connections Conference is seeing our Co-chairs and committee members in action. A late bus, participant accommodations, lost and found items- our students have it covered. Registration and check in, signage updates, and presenter introductions are duties assigned to committee members. Communicating with the bus company to arrange a new bus and driver, facilitating conversations and connections among participants during meals, assisting participants with special needs- these are all things our committee members stepped up to do without hesitation. Our committee members were not only “helpful”, they were proactive and professional. Don’t think for one second that our committee was boring or too serious. We worked hard and laughed often (the best work environment, ever). Most conference attendees do not catch on to any event issues that arise because our committee handle them so quickly. The conference delegation also does not realize how many inside jokes we had over the weekend, and how much fun really happens in Eagles Landing.

This year’s Connections Committee and Co-Chairs performed countless tasks and projects behind the scenes and never once cared about who got the credit. It was a privilege to be a part of the team. As Co-Chairs Alexandra, Anthony, and Sam have raised the bar with the level of both preparedness and energy that they developed amongst the team members. These three student leaders did a phenomenal job of developing the committee to function as a team. Sam has a natural instinct for helping others before they even ask for help. I admire her ability to make every person she interacts with feel welcome and valued. Anthony never stopped smiling the whole event. Anthony has such a better disposition about things than I do. Nothing seemed to stress Anthony out, and whether he realized it or not, he was able to balance my sometimes intense event planning mindset. Alexandra has been instrumental behind the scenes at Connections for the past three years. It has not sunk in for me that she will be in graduated and in PT at this time next year. The changes that Alexandra has developed, organized, and executed have always improved the overall event experience for all. We are all lucky to have worked with and learned from these students.

In tradition, the Connection Conference offered dynamic sessions for participants about topics relevant to student leaders. This year, without sitting in one single session I was fortunate to take away lessons of service, responsiveness, and considerate communication from our Committee and Co-Chairs. Each Connections Conference brings us the opportunity to leave the GWL better than we were when we arrived, which is why the event is truly “Built to Last”.

1000 Points For Gryffindor

As a lifelong fan of the Harry Potter movies, I’ve always admired Emma Watson. For years Watson brought to life Hermione Granger, the intelligent, brave and sometimes bossy heroine of the Harry Potter series.  Millions of fans were enchanted by a group of fictional characters who were real life friends. On the silver screen and off Emma Watson seemed to lead her life with gumption, but I never considered her an influential leader until her speech at the UN Headquarters in New York this past weekend.

Emma Watson eloquently and fiercely advocated for the end of an “us vs. them” mentality as she introduced “He for She”, a new U.N. Movement for Gender Equality. This movement invites both genders to the table, challenging us all to do our part to change the conversation about human rights. Emma explained “if we stop defining each other by what we are not and start defining ourselves by what we are — we can all be freer and this is what HeForShe is about. It’s about freedom.”

Her message was bold, moving and hauntingly true. “I think it is right that socially I am afforded the same respect as men. But sadly I can say that there is no one country in the world where all women can expect to receive these rights”.

Watson delivering UN speech. Photo Credit: @UNwomen

Watson delivering UN speech. Photo Credit: @UNwomen

Emma addressed the “f-word” head on. Feminism. A word that I admittedly (and guilt-fully) resist using because I know more than half of my audience will immediately shut down. Emma explained her recent experiences as UN Women Goodwill Ambassador

“the more I have spoken about feminism the more I have realized that fighting for women’s rights has too often become synonymous with man-hating. If there is one thing I know for certain, it is that this has to stop….I want men to take up this mantle. So their daughters, sisters and mothers can be free from prejudice but also so that their sons have permission to be vulnerable and human too — reclaim those parts of themselves they abandoned and in doing so be a more true and complete version of themselves.”

When I heard Emma’s words I had an initial pang of guilt, but then an overwhelming sense of clarity. This movement is not just about the way that women have been limited by institutions and social norms. This movement affects all of men too, therefore, we should all be part of this conversation and solution. I need to spend less energy tip toeing around topics that are uncomfortable because there are people out there who are counting on me to advocate for them.

I could go on and on about my growing respect and admiration for Emma Watson. She has used her power as an educated celebrity to give a voice to millions. I watched Emma’s address this morning, and it is no exaggeration that her message has crossed my mind at least fifteen times today. She got me thinking. Now what?

After exploring the He for She website I found a pledge for men to take in support of the gender equality movement. While an online pledge may seem insignificant, it is a tool to begin dialog about a critical issue. Click here to take the pledge! This blog post is a public commitment that I will engage in conversations about gender equality more frequently- without fear of judgement and insecurity. The first step to changing the conversation is to begin the conversation. What are your thoughts?

United Greek Breaks Service Trip

What? During spring break in March, I participated in a service-learning trip to New Orleans with forty-four undergraduate students from Grand Valley State University. The United Greek Break (UGB) trip was exclusively designed for members of fraternity and sorority life. As a graduate student, I served as a small group facilitator for the trip along with my classmates Jenny Lopez and Eboni Turnbow. Our service site was coordinated with Habitat for Humanity and we worked to build houses in areas directly affected by Hurricane Katrina in 2005.  While in New Orleans our group resided at Annunciation Mission church, and were welcomed by Pastor James and the rest of the wonderful staff.

So What? No amount of pre-trip education could have prepared the students, other facilitators, and myself for the sites and stories that James shared with us. James took our group directly to the Lower 9th Ward to show us the physical effects of the damage that still exist today. He shared with us that it took three years to forgive the government for failing to help the people of New Orleans, and that tears continue to haunt him each night. James often used the term “red-tape” when he referred to the delay of governmental rescue efforts. I do not remember the direct quote, but James stated something along the lines of being confused how our government could attempt to fight a war overseas while America’s own people were in such desperate need. I was in awe as he shared in one day alone he saw six babies floating in the flood water. James shared with us several times that “these are things you didn’t/won’t ever see in the media- not only did the government let us down, but the media did not accurately report the damage of Katrina”. I was shocked when James shared that he did not locate his daughter until nine months after the hurricane hit.

Jenny, Eboni, and I facilitated small group discussions after our tour from James to open up dialogue about the sites we visited and the stories we heard. I shared with the students that as someone who is passionate about social justice issues I was shocked to witness how horrible the living conditions were for residents seven years later. Our group of students became incredibly connected as a result of processing these difficult issues in large and small group sessions- and we encouraged students to continue the conversations throughout the week, and beyond.

The service work that we did with Habitat for Humanity was incredibly intense. Our group was split into two sites. The site that I was working on built the foundation of a home in a matter of days! I was incredibly impressed by the dedication of the GVSU students despite the long hours in the sun, heavy cinderblocks, and intense labor. We passed the time listening to the awesome local radio station VooDoo, making new friends from other chapters, and sharing ideas about how to improve the fraternity and sorority community on campus.

Now What? Facilitating the UGB was by far one of the most powerful experiences I have had while at GVSU. Students that are part of the fraternity and sorority community at GVSU are incredibly mature and good-natured. I was honored to be included in this amazing experience, and felt revitalized professionally as we facilitated the leadership curriculum.

Members of the New Orleans community thanked us daily and even blessed our vans. Despite the amazing feeling of satisfaction that I experienced looking at the work we accomplished in such a short time, the truth is that there is still an incredible need in New Orleans. After working with the residents and students to build the foundation of a house I realized that prior to the trip I was focused on the opportunity to make a difference on the community of New Orleans, without realizing the difference that these community members and students would have on me.

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ATHENA Leadership Conference at GVSU


Last semester, my friend (and roommate, and colleague) Jenny was working very closely with a dedicated group sorority women named the ‘Women’s Empowerment Week’ (WEW) committee to bring enlightening programs to GVSU’s campus. I was happy to join the collaborative efforts of the WEW committee, Jenny, and also the Women’s Center to help turn the idea of a day-long conference for sorority women based upon the principles of the ATHENA Leadership Model into a reality.

The process of developing the curriculum, organizing the logistics, and training the facilitators for a first-ever conference was intense. We began planning in the early summer months and we were still modifying some of the program content up until the day before. Jenny and I spent several late nights brainstorming, sharing opinions, and collaborating on what we were determined would be a leadership development experience unlike anything these students had ever been exposed to before.

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The result was a seven hour leadership conference for a little over 100 sorority women. Twelve of my fellow students from the CSAL program volunteered their time to serve as small group facilitators for the conference and the Director of the Women’s Center, Marlene Kowalski-Braun delivered a captivating opening. Luisa Schumaker, the 2009 Grand Rapids Chamber of Commerce ATHENA Young Professional Award recipient, was the keynote speaker for conference.

So What?

The energy of the ATHENA conference was exhilarating and empowering. The sorority women in attendance left the comfort zones of their own chapters and made new connections to other students in the Greek community. Facilitators helped students make connections to their sorority values and personal actions to the eight ATHENA principles. Each woman developed a personal legacy statement that included action plans to help their vision for a better community become a reality. We all left the conference with a better understanding of ourselves, each other, and inspired to help each other pursue our passions.

Most importantly, each woman left the conference with their own definition of what being an ‘ATHENA leader’ meant. This personal interpretation of leadership was at the core of the conference that we worked to develop. Watching the students (for seemingly the first time) make connections between their every day lifestyles to leadership principles instead of focusing solely on their positions in student organizations was a powerful and gratifying experience.

Watching my fellow graduate students facilitate the various initiatives and small group discussions will be one of my most cherished memories from grad school. These women were not simply ‘teaching’ the ATHENA principles- they were living proof of them. Here we were- collaborating, advocating, building relationships, and simply celebrating our capacity to be women leaders on campus, and beyond. Even when they doubted their own ability of knowledge base of the ATHENA model, these women were the perfect mentors and facilitators for the emerging undergraduate leaders.  I am truly grateful for their willingness to trust Jenny and I during this endeavor.

Now What?

Co-creating this conference taught me many important lessons of logistics, event planning, and cross-department project collaboration. It was also a very ’empowering’ experience for me to help bring the ideas of this type of conference to life. All of this would have been impossible without the support from the Women’s Center, the trust from the facilitators, the participation of the sorority women, the dedication from the WEW committee, and the empowerment from Jenny.

Jenny and I closed the conference with content from the book ‘She‘ by Yobi Kamada. I will always carry these lines from our closing toast in my heart-

She not only saw a light at the end of the tunnel, she became that light for others. Celebrate her compassion.
She took the leap and built her wings on the way down. Celebrate her daring.
She turned her can’ts in cans and her dreams into plans. Celebrate her goals.