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.


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.


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.


This slideshow requires JavaScript.

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

Office Spotlight – Sarah Fiorillo

From the Grad Coho (Grad Cohort) to the Grave (Grad Cave), Sarah Fiorillo has been as cool as they come. Do you need a friend that is weird, but in a cool way? What about one who challenges you to be better? Well that’s Sarah Fiorillo.

The first time I met Sarah was in a Small Group Communication class. She was in a group called Kitty Power. My group was less creative, and decided to be Incredibly Awesome. After that course, we never crossed paths again. That was until we both started grad school. Over the last year, Sarah and I have shared an office, bottles of wine, presentations, facilitator roles, classes, and roles in several murder mysteries thanks to Jeremy.

Sarah is a supportive individual who thrives in creative environments. From bouncing ideas off one another to Instagram photography, we’ve had some cool memories and lots of laughs. One semester stands between us and graduation. It’s been a good run FeFe. If you’re thinking about going to grad school, make sure you’ve got good people around you. It’ll make all the difference.


This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Sarah is the Coordinator of Leader Advancement Scholarship for CMU’s Leadership Institute. She is pursuing a career in Higher Education.

The Return of Students

It’s that time of year! Students are coming back, which means a few things for higher ed professionals.

Summer is coming to an end. All those empty tables at residential restaurants and short lines for morning coffee are about to disappear.


The hope for consistent productivity is about to fly out the window because students will begin stopping by your office hourly.

Less of this:


and more this with students:


Those parking spots right by the office?? Gone…


But don’t worry! Your favorite students are coming back! (You aren’t supposed to have favorites, but let’s be real, we all do.)


And all in all, you’re ready to kick off another great year of giving students the support they need.


We can’t wait for you all to get back!

(All gifs were retrieved from

The Institute – A Reflection on LeaderShape

How lucky I am to have shared such intimate moments with people who personify authenticity and act courageously. LeaderShape – noun meaning life-changing, inspiring, transformative, empowering, challenging, reflective, and ongoing. To spend six days with students seeking to discover the true desires of their hearts, while striving to positively influence the world with their actions is a privilege. To be challenged in the best ways and to be responsible for cultivating an environment for others to journey to their best selves is an honor.

Together, we explored uncertain places, asked questions with shrouded answers, and challenged one another to look at ourselves honestly. We revealed the truth of who we are. We were asked to determine whether or not we must change. Am I a good listener? Have I manipulated situations in my favor at the cost of other’s well-being? Am I blind to the experiences of others and if so, how can I make the world better if I don’t know how to help? What can I do? Who can I support? Who can support me? How do we solve issues that affect our world? What is my passion and how do I use it to make a just, caring, and thriving world?

The process was and will always be messy. It required us to stretch ourselves beyond what we believed possible. Inhibitors were removed by tiredness, authenticity, trust, community, direction, and intentional action. Day after day, our masks were wiped away in order for our truest selves to show up. Vulnerability. When we opened up, we invited others to do the same; not out of competition, but out of the great desire to discover what we truly feel, believe, know, understand, and question. The worry of judgment faded away as we genuinely shared who we are. After all the barriers disappeared, we became open to great change and self-exploration.

In past blogs, I’ve cited LeaderShape as a program that helped determined the trajectory of my life. The past week has reinforced this belief because I witnessed new ideas manifest into visions for a better world. One of the harmonious sounds projected by our collective voice is that the world MUST change for the better and that collective action will produce this change. I left more inspired to empower others to find their path. I left reinvigorated to make a specific difference in the world. I left humbled by the commitment to make positive change in our world. 120 students. 22 professional staff members. 1 mission – To create a more just, caring, and thriving world. Thank you to all who were part of this LeaderShape Institute experiences.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

A Reflection on Resilience

As of late, I’ve reflected on what I want my life to become. I come back to these moments whenever I have been drained by my work. I notice that I become more cynical about the world, more critical of others, and less inclined to believe that the work that I do matters. Whether you describe your connections to other people as spiritual, emotional, or something else, you may know the feeling of burnout… I’ve been tossing around the idea of living a “simple” life – Move abroad. Open up a small shop. Do that for the rest of my days after grad school. Simple is relative. So for me that would be simple, even with all the complexity that comes with that plan.

In August, I spoke with a great friend and mentor about my purpose – to help others build connections across differences (cultures, race, life experiences, gender, sex, diversity at large). Between then and now (April), I became lost in the work – unintentional about focusing on how my purposed informed my work and how my work created fulfillment for my. Trust me, this has happened more than I’d like. Developing resilience is a lifelong process. What comes to mind is the poem by which I live my life. Desiderata – a poem that has new wisdom to offer every time I read it, yet offers timeless nuggets of truth that ring true each day. “Nurture strength of spirit to shield you in sudden misfortune.” Nurturing that strength does not happen alone. It is the people around me who stand as lighthouses guiding me to shore, back to my purpose.

Though I will move abroad one day and open a haberdashery or a bread, cheese and wine shop in the south of Spain when I’m older, I intend to see my other goals to their end and live a life of purpose. The final line in Desiderata may be the most important, and that it a reminder of how special life can be and how beautiful the world is. “With all its sham, drudgery, and broken dreams, it is still a beautiful world. Be careful. Strive to be happy.”

A special thank you to the Dr. Paul Hernandez, Dan Gaken, Dr. Denny Roberts, and the Leadership Institute family for reinvigorating my passion for our work.

Advocacy and Adventure: Three Months & Seven Continents for Multiple Sclerosis

Mom and Dad

Nearly 2.3 million people have been diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis. My mother happens to be one of those millions. She has been a gymnastics (tumbling and trampoline) and cheer coach for the better part of two decades. She started her own team nearly 14 years ago. She’s dedicated her life to coaching athletes, serving the Detroit community, and empowering young people to become their best selves. She truly is my hero. She will never say it for herself, but because of her, my dad and brother, and the team of coaches and parents, thousands of lives have been changed.

So why do I share this? Why does this matter beyond it being personal to me? She was diagnosed with MS years ago. I think my earliest memory of it affecting her care from when I was in sixth grade and she spent several days in the hospital. Now, it hasn’t stopped her from coaching and I don’t think it will anytime soon, but here’s what it has done. The hard days look like dizziness and blurred vision, extreme fatigue, tingling and/or numbness for hours on end, an inability to handle anything that is too hot or too cold, and a steroid shot once a day. On good days it means a day full of coaching. It means volunteer and service projects in the community. It means caravanning with 50 or 60 people to local, regional, and national competitions. It means participating in the MS walk in Detroit with your entire team walking alongside you year after year. It means giving young people and families a positive outlet through sports. It means being at your best with the support of loved ones. It means changing lives.

I’ve shared the cause and now I’ll share the adventure – 3 months 7 continents all to create awareness for Multiple Sclerosis. In 14 months, my graduate work will be complete and I’ll have several months to decide what to do next. However, fourteen months from now, I’ll leave on this adventure. You see, MS is a disease that affects the central nervous system – specifically the brain, spinal chord, and optic nerves. To live with MS is a daily challenge of willpower and strength. It is a challenge my mother takes on daily, and does so like a gladiator entering the arena day after day. Millions of people around the world do the same. For me – three months of travel may look like the adventure of a lifetime, and I’m sure it will be, but this journey will be one of service and advocacy. For three months, I’ll visit places to advocate and fundraise for those with MS and to complete some act of service in a local community. Given that Antarctica is virtually uninhabited, I will go there as a test of mental and physical fortitude; one that sheds light on the strength it takes to endure MS for years.

Over the next fourteen months, I’ll be planning, training, learning, advocating, and doing all I can to prepare for this journey of advocacy and adventure. I hope you follow the adventure.

Spark Round 2: Well Oiled Machine

Last week, the Leadership Institute kicked off two sessions of the Spark Leadership Series. We’ve expanded from our traditional offering of one session a semester and now offer two spring sessions of the Series, which allows us to reach more students than before. We now offer a session of Spark to develop and empower campus leaders in the Tower Residence Hall. This is possible because of our commitment to providing high quality programs with the help undergraduate students.

The Wednesday session of Spark resulted in record numbers and a new environment in which students can enhance their leadership potential through self-assessment, self-reflection, practical application, and finally peer-to-peer learning. The Thursday session was the best one yet! We knew it was time to expand to multiple sessions because our annual Thursday session has had repeated success with the recent transition from the Alpha Leadership Experience to the Spark Leadership Series. The LI is offering more programs to more students than ever before because we have a team that makes it happen. Special thanks to the Leadership Institute staff and the Spark Squad.

Big things are happening every week in the Leadership Institute. Follow us on our social media outlets:

Twitter: @CMU_Leadership

Instagram: @CMU_Leadership

Facebook: CMU Leadership Institute

Do the Impossible: Spark Leadership Series (Wednesday)

The Leadership Institute staff believes that students want to be leaders and they want to learn how to do it effectively. This semester we took a bold step forward by offering two sessions of the Spark Leadership Series, our introductory program for students seeking a community to understand leadership and collaboration in groups and teams. One session would be housed in the Leadership Institute and the other session would take place across campus in the Towers Residence Hall. Three days before our newly introduced Wednesday session of Spark began we had 13 participants signed up and this type of program requires 40 people in the room for it to be effective. You can imagine the stress our team felt when deciding between trying to turn 13 into at least 40 or to deny future student leaders the opportunity to grow by canceling the session.

Well, we didn’t cancel the session and our team made it happen. In 72 hours, we turned 13 into 63 and history was made. Now more than ever, the Leadership Institute is able to empower more student leaders across campus because of the hard work and support of students, faculty, and staff. This semester by offering two sessions we’ll be able to empower 130 students to realize their leadership potential. This year the Spark Leadership Series will reach nearly 230 students on CMU’s campus.

Nearly six years ago at LeaderShape, a program offered by CMU’s Leadership Institute, I was introduced to the idea of having a healthy disregard for the impossible. Our office lives and breathes that idea each and every day. Students lives are transformed and because of that, they go on to change their communities, countries, and eventually the world. To some this may seem dramatic – dare I say impossible, but to us, it’s just another day at the office.

A special thank you to our team of coordinators, facilitators, and campus partners who make Spark happen from week to week. I have never been more proud of student leaders taken our mission one step further. Fire Up Chips!


One of the greatest challenges we face in our lives is to be honest with ourselves, especially when it is a difficult truth we must accept. It is difficult to acknowledge our faults, flaws and things we want to change. As I spent a great deal of time reflecting on what has happened thus far in my grad assistantship role, I recognize that there are things I’ve done somethings well and there are mistakes that I’ve made, which I’ve had to correct. There were times when I felt confident in my ability to lead and other times when I felt like the most incompetent person in the room. I constantly feel a need to self-assess or internally evaluate my performance and, more often than not, I start and end my reflection with a great deal of frustration for not being where I think I should be at a particular point in time.

Recently, I was inspired by my mentor and supervisor to try painting to stimulate creativity and to learn a new skill. It has been a challenging and humbling process. (Kudos to all the artists in the world who create beautiful, masterful works.) I immediately recognized my inability to blend colors, paint smoothly, write letters, and manifest my vision into reality. It was frustrating, but one day I had a realization; I had to accept that I was awful at painting. I let go of the idea that I should be a decent artist right away, especially without any form of training whatsoever. I started enjoying painting after I accepted my inability to produce the outcome I desired. I do not posses the skill needed to achieve the outcome and I don’t have the experience to create what I want through painting. However, I do posses the ability to learn, practice, and improve. It takes time and experience to cultivate new skills, learn and retain new ideas, and to become more effective at anything.

Self-Assessment and honesty with self is truly important for growth and development. People are more likely to understand and endure the frustration of failure and the learning journey by acknowledging and accepting where they are and envisioning where they want to go. Discipline, humility, consistency, and honesty with self ultimately lead to a more productive learning experience.