Growing Up in the Leadership Institute

For six of the last seven years, I’ve grown up in CMU’s Leadership Institute. I’ve gone from a first-year Leader Advancement Scholar to a Graduate Assistant and my journey (for now) has come to an end. I grew up in the LI  – from a 17 year old kid to a 24 year old young professional seeking the next opportunity that life presents.

My experience culminates with a program that set the stage for what my life would become. At the end of my first year (2011), I attended the LeaderShape Institute, where I was challenged to clarify my core values, discuss what would be possible to achieve, and determine what impact I wanted to make on the world around me. In the most cliche way possible, the LeaderShape Institute has served as the beginning and ending of my time at CMU. As a member of the faculty this year’s Institute, it serves as a personal ending and beginning.

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Standing alongside 140 people asking what can we do to make the world better? How can we Live in Possibility? How can we build a more Just, Caring, and Thriving world that is a place for everyone? I am deeply thankful that I have been given the chance to ask myself those questions once more before I enter the professional world. How can I enact the vision I wrote down several years ago? How has that vision changed? How have I changed? What have I achieved and what is left to do?

What comes next for me is a life of seeing what’s possible, of building/maintaining meaningful and healthy relationships, as well as doing work that positively affects the lives of others. Though I may have already carried that in me, CMU’s Leadership Institute pulled it out of me. My life is immensely better because of the people, experiences, and wisdom gained from being part of the Leadership Institute.

There are so many people to thank, and to each and every single one of you – Thank You from the bottom of my heart. I will carry with me the lessons, love, kindness, and memories that you have shared with me.

A Month Has Passed…

It’s been exactly one month since I decided to try eating as a vegetarian and I’ve learned a lot. Here are a few things I experienced over the past few weeks.

First and foremost – To be honest, my choice to be try  this whole vegetarian thing was purely selfish. I wanted to be healthier for me. Though I’m sure it has positive affects on the environment, animal rights, and a variety of other things, I didn’t want to make this change scientific, too deep, or some dramatic event with meaningful lessons and all that jazz. Much of those benefits are byproducts of the last month. I admire people who choose to be vegetarian for noble reasons. My journey has no direct connection to nobility.

Secondly, I thought about food so much over the last month, especially at the beginning. What foods would I miss having? Could I really go an entire month without meat? How much salad would I consume in 30 days? My first non-salad, vegetarian meal was a wonderful homemade, spinach and ricotta ravioli topped with pesto. There was also wine (much needed wine).

Thinking about food constantly made me talk about food constantly. I annoyed myself so much (others too I’m sure). All the memes or jokes that say part of being a vegetarian is telling everyone are so much funnier now. It took up so much mental space. I felt like I had to proclaim it to the world, and really only other vegetarians care so you can exchange recipes and secretly/openly judge everyone who is. I didn’t participate in the judging, because all I wanted was Wendy’s chicken nuggets, which, I’m sure, barely qualify as meat anyway.

So what have I discovered from being vegetarian for a month?

  1. There’s more to life than salad. Though I love a good salad, there are so many other foods out there and they are just as delicious, if not more.
  2. Fastfood isn’t very vegetarian friendly, which worked out for me because this choice was health related (I still miss Cheesy Gordita Crunches – shout out to Taco Bell).
  3. Your body responds to different foods in different ways. I have more energy. I feel more focused. I have more clarity. Overall, I feel better.
  4. Food is such a big part of my life. I love cooking, trying new recipes, finding awesome wine pairing with great appetizers, and so much more. I love food and food culture.

Here are some challenges I encountered:

  1. Eating became much more involved – I thought so much more about food. I talked a lot about food. (Sorry if you were around me a lot during the last month.) It took up a lot of mental space.
  2. Cravings. Cravings. Cravings. I wanted a greasy burger for an entire week. Didn’t get one and I’m not really on board with black bean burgers yet. Still kinda want a burger.
  3. I ate a lot of oatmeal. I got so tired of eating the same things. It helped with my creativity in the kitchen. Dealing with this got easier as time went on and I tried new recipes.
  4. Sometimes I wouldn’t have enough protein and I learned the new meaning of HANGRY even though I was having normal portion sizes.

All in all, I’ve learned a lot over the last month and I feel healthier. I haven’t decided if I’ll continue on or not. The journey continues.

The Craft of Writing

Practice. Practice. Practice. Fail. Correct. Correct again. Rewrite. Revise. Practice. Practice. Practice.

“I was learning the craft of poetry, which really was an intensive version of what my mother had taught me all those years ago – the craft of writing as the art of thinking.” Ta-Nehisi Coates

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I’ve always loved writing as a form of communication. I have five journals for five different topics, but they share a common purpose –  they exist for me to get my thoughts onto a page in order to make sense of them. Over the years, I’ve learned to etch my thoughts into semi-eloquent phrases that may yield cohesive thoughts, but more often than not, I write, organize, rewrite, edit, post, notice mistakes (I hate this part), revise, update posts, and the begin again.

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After a discussion with a good friend, I decided to revisit Between the World and Me, authored by Ta-Nehisi Coates. The writing itself is captivating, but more important to me is the fact that the ideas expressed are deeply personal to me because they are reflective of my life experiences. I imagine that one day, I’ll be able to write in a way that effectively articulates my thoughts and emotions, but also reflects back what the world has given me, as well as what others have experienced.

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Writing as a way of thinking is time consuming in many ways, but for me it is time well-spent. Organizing thoughts and emotions related to personal experience relieves stress and aids me in finding clarity. In the developmental or academic context, writing helps me bridge the seemingly invisible gaps between the concepts of human dignity, leadership, human rights, communication, and cultural pluralism to name a few interests. Writing, in personal and developmental circumstances, produces clarity and new understanding.

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So, I challenge you to write your thoughts down. Allow them to flow in an unorganized fashion, draw, revisit, edit, rewrite, and then share them with someone close to you. Ultimately, I think writing as a practice has made me a better thinker, more inquisitive, and more appreciative of writers who can author books, create meaningful poems, or produce art that captivates the hearts and minds of others. Words may not always be enough, but they sure help. Write your heart out!

Building Together – Finding Inspiration in Your Circle

Community is deeply important in regards to success, social support, and development. When I look at the community of family and friends that support and build me up, I can’t help but be inspired, hopeful, and deeply grateful. These are the people I love, I support, and care about. One of my intentions is to better express my gratitude toward them all.

The initial idea for this post came last Friday after I sat down with my badass mentor, Lisa Hadden, who does all kinds of great work related to Asset Based Community Development. To quote her, “The greatest diversity is the proliferation of gifts to your community. Our communities should allow space for people to become great.” This struck me in a way that resulted in a great deal of reflection over the weekend. Who was in my life doing amazing work? How could I support them? How can I share their stories?

I thought about mentors, friends, family members, and people that I’ve just stayed connected to in one way, shape, or form. The second inspiration came from catching up with my girlfriend. We talked about proactive strategies related to social issues related to education, politics, and enacting change. She’s a boss, challenges me to really be invested in ways I wouldn’t normally be, and she reminds me that there is good in the world.

The last note focuses on a friend and brother that has been in my life for nearly 10 years. Zo was on Snapchat discussing his journey toward joining the US Navy, having a beautiful baby girl, making long term plans for success, and where his life is headed. Seeing your friends succeed as well as find their niche creates a great sense of pride. He also dropped a few musical gems in between the positive notes.

I look at my circle and see tons of inspiration – My family is doing well (parents, brother, cousins, and so on). My best friend is moving to Georgia soon. My college best friends are in their careers and thriving around the country. Lastly, I LITERALLY (not in the ironic way) have friends on every continent, except Antarctica, that are fighting for good causes, building business, sharing their creativity with the world through music and art, and so much more.

Years ago I had the savior approach many passionate people have at some point or another. “I have to be the one to do it.” “This is my burden to bare” “It has to be me” mindset that can really cause you to do more harm than good. Great friends and mentors serve as a reminder that we, as a community, make the world better. “The world needs less ME and more WE.” Happy Monday, everybody.

A Year of Generosity, Experiences, and Building.

“Hemingway said we heal stronger at the broken places, but I’ve found that where the heart is concerned, we also heal more tenderly, more open to the miraculous.” Boyd Varty, author of Cathedral of the Wild, spoke about setting intentions for the year in the last chapter of his book, The Om in Motion.

Instead of creating rigid resolutions that I often seem to fail at, I’ve decided to set clear intentions for myself. What do I want to feel more of? What do I want to do more of? How can I express more gratitude? What can I give more, be it time or resources? Am I maintaining strong relationships rooted in mutual respect, dignity, and love?

The world was rocked pretty hard in 2016. A difficult year didn’t come about unintentionally. No matter how you look at it, there were many times of despair, shock, pain, and hardship caused by natural disasters and people. Many of those things hit me at my core, but on the other side of the coin was success, change, exploration, outpours of love and support, resilience, new friendships and relationships, and the maintenance of old friendships. For me, it was a full year that began with traveling abroad and ending with family at home. 2016 was a year of saying yes to myself. It was a year of healing, soul-searching, and personal growth. 2017 will be a year for balance.

My first intention for the year is to be more generous with my time and resources. I’ve been fortunate enough to receive scholarships for grad school, receive free housing and a stipend. This has allowed me flexibility with time and resources. I hope to support causes with time through volunteering and with resources be it monetary or otherwise. I also hope to be generous with my gratitude and to be more vocal in expressing thanks to others. I want give back to the communities that have given me so much.

My second intention is to continue to having valuable experiences that enhance my learning, bring me joy, and feed my soul. There is value in participation and reflection. In 2016, I traveled abroad and domestically quite a bit. It was enlivening and enriching. I hope to read more, discuss important topics, and simply find joy in daily experiences. I want to see beautiful places and meet beautiful people.

My last intention for the year is to maintain meaningful relationships and cultivate new relationships. The concept of Ubuntu, an African philosophy, has become widely known around the world and it means “I am because you are.” In essence, people exist to be part of communities. Without other people, there is little meaning for our lives. It is important to me build trusting, meaningful relationships that are rooted in dignity, mutual respect, and love.

As you can tell these are not resolutions as they are not rigid, explicitly defined, and time-bound. To me, intentions act like the winds that fill sails and propels ships forward; the must be revisited, adjusted, and reflected upon often. 2017 will be a year of building for me and my intentions will guide me. Best wishes to all celebrating a new year or any time of renewal in life.

Travel Series Part 3 – Nostalgic. Grateful. And Ready to Go Again

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Imagine coming home after four months of exploration, being fully present, and navigating life in places so unfamiliar that all you could do was stumble around for a while until you found your way? Midge Carter found herself buying tickets for trains with no destination in mind. She hiked mountains, walked out to island after the tide rolled out, and sat at King Arthur’s Seat in Edinburgh at sunrise with 16 amazing friends. (Photos at the end).

Today’s blog is about Midge’s four-month journey around Europe. From hot chocolate in Ibiza to longing for Smucker’s All Natural Peanut Butter by the end of her trip, Midge shared with me interesting stories about not wanting to leave, but finally coming to a place where she is grateful for her experiences, but so deeply ready to leave again. (She’s not particular about much, but she is about peanut butter. – “Smucker’s All Natural Peanut Butter or NOTHING”). In France, she found herself wandering around markets before heading out for a solo-hike. “I don’t speak French so I just walked around pointing at things and ended up with a few oranges and a baguette. I hiked up this mountain by myself and I sat on the side of it looking out at the alps… just sitting there like this is the most beautiful thing I’ve ever experienced.”When you’re traveling for months at a time, you experience these peaceful, still moments where it’s just you and the world.

You also find that much of your success is related to the kindness of others. Traveling is deeply revealing – it shows us deepest selves, our strength, our ability to be alone and be happy, and our need to connect wherever we go. “There was one day when two of us met up with two friends for a hike and when we got to the top it was so windy and no one else was around. It was JUST us. It was just the most… it was one of those moments that feels so tangible because it’s so solid when you’re in it and you want to remember it.” These moments aren’t easily forgotten. We hold tightly to the moments where we felt most alive. We remember who was with us, what the air felt like, and how important the people around us were in those moments.

As the trip came to a close the emotions changed. The desire to get off the plane and escape back to a new place grows and grows. “The hardest part was that I didn’t want to be home. Especially because I spent the rest of the summer in the same town I grew up in. It’s like going from doing something interesting every day and all of sudden you’re back in the grind. It’s not like every day there (Europe) was perfect, but it wasn’t every day here.” While listening to Midge share stories of travel and her journey home, I couldn’t help but go back to the moment of landing back in the States after my first trip abroad. That feeling of I could be anywhere in the world right now, why did I come back here sets in. You think of just buying the first ticket out to wherever and going away again. It doesn’t last forever, but it does feel like it will never go away.

After a while, you come to a point where you’ve settled back in. You find that the grind isn’t so bad and you look back on all the memories made with amazing people. “I think I stopped being angry when I felt like I was doing something with my life again… And I’m at a point where I’m nostalgic, and grateful, and ready to go again,” The desire to travel never really goes away after that first trip. It intensifies and staying in familiar places too long starts to feel suffocating, but that’s when you look through old photos, plan your next trip and get on your way.

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All photos were provided by Midge Carter. Midge is studying public relations, a lover of Smucker’s All Natural Peanut Butter, and a fellow Travel enthusiast.

One Year of Blogging – Number 50

This is blog number 50! I started using The Big Picture to reflect on my experiences a year ago this month. It’s amazing to think about all that has happened in a year’s time and to see it backwards by revisiting certain posts. Some highlights are My Life or Master of None, in which I compare my life with a Netflix Series staring Aziz Ansari, What do you want to be when you grow up?, which focuses on navigating life as a young professional and developing skill to land a job you want, and the recent Office Spotlights.

For this post, I want to talk about the benefits of blogging:

  1. My writing has become more precise and focused. Blogging has been a great tool to practice writing without pressure. I can write at my own pace, revisit thoughts, and make edits after taking a step away from it. Is my writing perfect now? Not particularly, but it has gotten significantly better. Some people are gifted writers. I am not one of them, but that doesn’t stop me from practicing. Progress not perfection is my current mindset.
  2. Reflection is immensely important for learning. I have learned many lessons hours, days, weeks, and even months after having experienced some event, taking a class, or participating in an adventure. Quiet, intentional reflection leads to a deeper understanding of some concepts, a heighten sense of self-awareness, and a strong connection to what I experience. It is one thing to take in new information. It is another to process the information so it can be applied later. (It’s also one of my favorite activities as an introvert.)
  3. Stories. Stories. Stories. Storytelling is powerful! I look back on some of my blogs and laugh my heart out. I look back on others and feel a sense of contentment because of how far I have come. While I have gotten better at storytelling, I must say I have a long way to go before I have mastered this skill. Stories bridge the past with the future, which allows us to revisit moments that are important to us. This was a lesson learned from a friend and mentor, Carlos Cortes.
  4. Lastly, I’ve learned that blogging is a simple way to connect with people. There is a human element to many of my posts and often times they serve as a mirror to what others may have experienced or are currently experiencing. Making simple, yet meaningful connections that are rooted in authenticity is deeply important to me. Being able to do that through blogging is an avenue that is only just opening for me. I’m excited to see where it leads!

Here’s to one year writing for The Big Picture.

 

Office Spotlight – Dan Gaken

I listened to the Cubs fight song while writing this if that tells you anything about Dan Gaken. Last night the Cubs moved onto the World Series for the first time since 1945. History was made; much like what has been achieved under the leadership of Dan Gaken.

Over the years, Dan has served as a mentor, supporter, champion, and advisor to many students across the country. Though he gets to call CMU home, Dan has done some tremendous things for the lives of students around the United States. From the famous (or infamous depending on who you ask) ESPN speech to the HEEYYYYYY LAS yell to get everyone’s attention, Dan has stewarded the resources and energy of CMU’s Leadership Institute for nearly 20 years. He’s not old. He just started early.

Much of that time as an individual professional staff member with the help of students and volunteers. Because of his commitment and effort, CMU has truly dedicated support and resources to giving every student on campus the opportunity to discover the leader within and to gain the skills to be their best. I’ve been around long enough (not that long) to see the office increase from two professional staff to the current seven. Much of that is because of the compelling arguments, the unrecognized humble service (thanks for that term Denny), and the consistent belief that leadership is for everyone.

In the slide show, you’ll only see one photo of him at work because he as has a balanced life. He and his partner Erin have a baby girl and a bigggg puppy, Wrigley. Our team in the Leadership Institute is much more than that. We’re a family committed to empowering students to give a damn about the world and making it better. We get to do that because of the vision casted by Dan Gaken and all the work that came before we showed up. Thanks for all you do, Dan.

 

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Dan is the Director of CMU’s Leadership Institute, a Cubs Fan, Husband and Dad, and a Wrigley enthusiast.

The Artistic Lens – Lessons from a Visit to the Art Institute of Chicago

If you’ve seen any of my drawings or paintings, you’ll know that I have no hand for the arts. Even with a deep appreciation for them, my doodles and sketches don’t amount to much. That doesn’t stop me from drawing or painting. I color outside the lines (sometimes on purpose and other times not so much ha). I love it and I am interested in how artists see the world.

I spent a few hours at the Art Institute of Chicago on Wednesday with a friend and mentor. I was excited to discover new insights about creativity after taking a guided tour of the Modern Art Wing and some unguided roaming. Our tour guide, with such a bright and excited passion for the arts and museums, discussed a variety of works including those of Picasso, Jackson Pollock, and Moholy-Nagy. One of the common themes among their works is to push art forward when it needed to change. To see differently in a conventional world. Even if the world wasn’t ready or receptive, they changed for the sake of the artist and creativity.

One of the unique insights presented was that artists adapted to the introduction of technology. For example, artists found new ways to paint still life paintings when the camera was introduced. Not in content, but in presentation. They became more abstract to be specific. Our tour guide may have captured the sentiment of the artist, “You can take a picture of a tree. You know what it looks like. I don’t have to paint what is there. I can’t paint what I see.” Trees became characterized by odd shapes, vague outlines, and colors that no tree will ever be. Yet, it is still recognizable as a tree.

Artists have freedom to create representations of familiar subjects based on what they see and perceive. This practice seems transferable in its utility, but I’m unsure of how to make it tangible for other areas of my life. Though I am not an artistic, in what ways can I adapt my behaviors and thinking as new information and technology are introduced? There are many questions I have yet to answer, but this new (to me) way of thinking may prove to be helpful in future endeavors.

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A Final Journey with LeaderShape (for now…)

The past 24 hours have been a whirlwind. I’ve spent time with the staff and fellow Program Coordinators for the Institute with LeaderShape. For those who who may be unfamiliar, LeaderShape is an organization that provides both national and campus based programs focused on creating a more just, caring, and thriving world. Yesterday and part of today, I spent time with their training team and other coordinators who put on and plan the LeaderShape Institute for their campuses

This is not my first experience with LeaderShape or the Institute, but it may be my last (hence the “for now…” in the title). In 2011,  I attended the program, in 2013 and 2014 I served as a Challenge Course Facilitator, and last year (2016) I had the opportunity to be a Cluster Facilitator. This year will be a little different. With graduation looming in May, I have to think about future opportunities, the job hunt, and where I want to be. Between now and then, I will be helping out in the Program Coordinator role.

How fitting it is that a program that introduced me to a life of possibility be the program that I now get to prepare for the next generation of students who will attend. As time has gone by, I’ve learned a great deal as a result of attending the Institute. Even more than attending, I’ve learned a lot from being involved in various roles. To me, five years is a significant amount of time to dedicate to anything, let alone an organization. However, my commitment to LeaderShape and making a better world makes five years seem like the blink of an eye.

A few hours in Chicago with people from around the country discussing leadership seems to be the best way to start my “last” LeaderShape and Institute journey. I reflect on the moments of my experience and the last thing I remember being said to me was You May Begin. Today, I’ve begun and cannot wait to experience all that will happen in between.

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