Growing Pains #8 – Where Do I Fit?

When I think about my life, I think about moments in time. I call the significant moments pillars in time. Sophomore year was a life defining year, it was a pillar in time that would hold up the Parthenon that is my life. I wrestled with so many emotions – grief, fear, anxiety, success, loneliness, pain heartbreak, joy, excitement, anticipation, shame, calmness, emptiness. My life felt like a Greek Tragedy. I had three family members pass away in just under a year and a half. A cousin. An uncle. A grandfather. I am a first generation student so I was feeling the pressure to succeed. I still wrestled with being black and what that meant. The year was weighing on me. I needed support. I needed community.

I was fortunate enough to be part of two scholarship cohorts. I was automatically part of a community because of the two programs. I was a Leader Advancement Scholar (LAS) and a Multicultural Advancement and Cofer scholar (MAC). Each of these programs were different. They were made up of different people, targeted different communities, and focused on different experiences. In LAS, the cohort was comprised of mostly white students. In MAC, the cohort included various races and ethnicities, but I would say that it was primarily made up of black students.

With all that carried over from K-12 and life before college, I found myself spending more time with LAS than MAC. I lived in Troutman with MAC scholars, but you wouldn’t have known that. I spent nearly every day of the first year in Barnes with LAS kids, and I moved out of Troutman my second year. I sought out to build deeper connections with LAS students because I hadn’t been shown any mirrors. I didn’t see myself in the MAC scholars’ cohort. I saw myself in LAS.


I was hypercritical of the MAC scholars program. I took every opportunity to shine light on any fault or annoyance that I found with the program. I’d complain with other scholars. The meetings ran long. The AV didn’t work. This event felt like a waste of time. In hindsight, those events were so important, especially as I clarified my values and began to understand what I wanted to do with my life. (I apologize to anyone who had to deal with that). I didn’t realize it in the moment, and by the end of sophomore year, I left the MAC scholars program and almost left Central.

All year long, I suppressed the pressures of life. I finished the year and spent most of the summer alone in Mt. Pleasant. I had time to learn about myself and “deal” with everything that was slowly crushing me. It was meditative and rejuvenating. I had time to think. Time to be still. Time to just figure things out. That was really when things started to change for me. With emptiness all around me, I had time to find the mirrors. I had time to see my reflection with clear eyes. All the stimulation was gone. All the distractions were silenced. I was finding my fit, and it was inside rather than out.

The Growing Pains series will continue each day until the full story is shared. It is an honest look at how socialization, poverty, changing circumstances, and perceptions influenced me to hate myself, my skill, and my community, but ultimately how authentic relationships, challenging questions, and a deep look inside helped me learn to love myself and love my people. You see I’m black and I love it, but that wasn’t always the case. Check tomorrow for the next chapter – Growing Pains #9: Space will be up and ready for your reading.


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.

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!

Building Your Future. Sustaining Your Passion.

In a world energized by buzzwords, instant gratification, and such an overwhelming amount of humble bragging (from myself included), I noticed that many people live by the phrase pursue your passion. I don’t disagree with this statement and I am one of the people who believes in this message. However, I think the process of pursuing your passion is much different and more extensive than people realize.

I first inarticulately described my vision for a better world as being “division-less” at the LeaderShape Institute in 2011. It was there that I was challenged to discover my passion and live with it every day. That journey has led me to a deeper understanding of my values, beliefs, and why I do what I do. I now understand that my passion is building interpersonal relationships across cultures through leadership, service, and exploration in immersion experiences. It has taken nearly five years for me to effectively communicate that vision for a better world. I want people to actively seek to understand others through interpersonal communication and shared experiences across cultures. I am still working to bring this vision to reality.

I returned from LeaderShape with a ton of passion, an idea, and no plan to effectively turn my passion into action. You can imagine how discouraging it was when my first idea failed in dramatic fashion. After returning to the drawing board discouraged and deeply confused as to how someone with so much passion could fail, I began to understand that pursuing your passion is much more than having an idea and a lot of energy. When building your future with passion at the forefront of your mind, you must keep in mind these things: 1) you need to clearly articulate what you want to achieve 2) identify the skills necessary for success, and 3) you have to go out and have a variety of experiences. I’m not saying to randomly select things to do. Your actions and decisions should be guided by your passion and vision, but don’t be afraid to deviate from that path in order to gain a new perspective, cultivate a new skill, or to simply enjoy your life.

Sustaining your passion is not about going the furthest the fastest, but rather actively making decisions that will help you achieve the outcome you desire or create the future in which you plan to live. It takes time to build something that will endure. My mother came to mind as I wrote this blogpost. She has owned and coached a trampoline and tumbling team for 12 years. In 2003, she started with 6 athletes and 5 panel mats. Now she has a 50 person competitive team and over 100 athletes who train in her facility, attend classes, or participate in clinics throughout the year. She also has a partnership with YMCA. Her passion is coaching others to develop into successful athletes and people with strong character. She’s produced national champions, national team members, and has helped athletes go on to compete at the collegiate level in a variety of sports.

Passion is enduring. Building the path to live it everyday is an active process that has to be evaluated frequently. I don’t believe all members of our generation feel as though they are entitled to everything they want, but I do believe that we want to understand the value of our work, contribute to the betterment of the world around us, and achieve our goals. We want to do this quickly, but it isn’t something that can happen overnight. We have to work through the process and build slowly and effectively. Building a sustainable future will require a constant renewal of passion and a profound commitment to continuously learning from our experiences.

“There is no need to rush in life. Just with one word at a time, your sweet life history will be written boldly in capitals and highlighted for easy access. Be sure you are passing the test of patience!” – Israelmore Ayivor

The Spark We Needed

With the air of change all around us, CMU’s Leadership Institute is working to provide students with a more holistic leadership development experience than ever before. With change comes challenge, and the Leadership Institute staff found the right people to facilitate the change process effectively. David Walter and Natalie Woods worked alongside Assistant Director Jesi Ekonen as the Spark Leadership Series Co-Coordinators over the course of last year’s Spring semester and throughout the summer to create a new program that would introduce leadership to undergraduate students. In essence, they were the Spark we needed for change to occur seamlessly.

The LI’s programs follow an unwritten progression, and Spark is the introductory leadership program, in which students participate to identify their personal leadership style, understand how their styles relate to other styles, and for students to fundamentally understand that leadership occurs in different ways for every single person. Over the course of four sessions, students understand Fiedler’s Contingency Model, which follows the Leader-Match Theory. Different leaders are strongest in different situations. This idea rings true for our team; David and Natalie have different leadership styles and possess unique skill sets that aid in the success of Spark.

Participant Quote: “Spark changed my view of leadership. I thought leadership was being in charge, making all the decisions, and having all the answers. Now I see that everyone can be leaders in their own way and that I can learn from others when I take a step back.”

A short thank you:

David and Natalie, you’ve done a tremendous job understanding, creating, and implementing leadership development curriculum that has influenced the lives of many students. Thank you for being engaged and passionate staff members who contribute to the Leadership Institute’s success.

PS. Thank you Jesi Ekonen for the support in my transition as a Grad Assistant into the Leadership Institute’s staff.


Spark Leadership Series Recap Video Filmed and Edited by Bo Parker

Reflection and Renewal

“The real voyage of discovery consists, not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.” – Marcel Proust

I found myself feeling stagnate, idle, and unchallenged after three months of being back in Mount Pleasant. I felt like I was having the same conversations, participating in the same social outings, living the same week over and over again. Admittedly, I was bored, frustrated, and overwhelmingly in need of change, challenge, and newness. However, leaving to a far away place, getting on a plane to dive into adventure would not have dissolved my frustration. Traveling to a different physical place would not have led me to the answers I needed.

One day, I was having a conversation with my friend and colleague Jeremy Heinlein when we discovered a shared dampening of creativity and feelings of stagnation. We recognized it  wasn’t rooted in our work. In fact, we both love our jobs, co-workers, and work environment. The Leadership Institute cultivates creativity, discovery, and a sense of journey and adventure through a variety of experiences. We recognized that our feelings of burnout were rooted in not doing what we loved to do as often as we needed. For Jeremy, he found that he had not been physically active through sports. For me, I hadn’t taken time to reflect on my experience. I was moving from one experience to the next without making meaning of the experiences.

Many of my experiences were new to me, provided me with challenge, and pushed me out of my comfort zone. I couldn’t see the value or significance in my experiences until I took time to critically reflect on what I learned and how I was affected. In my journal, from one day to next, there is a stark contrast in emotion, voice, and energy. Before reflecting, I wrote, “I feel like I am going through the motions. More and more I find a need for change and newness.”  The very next day, I spent a great deal of time reflecting on recent experiences and later that day I penned, “It takes stepping away in order to see the bigger picture. I hope I never lose sight of my goals and the value of working with people who appreciate me and challenge me to be better everyday.” It is easy to get lost in the daily details, which moves our gaze from the bigger picture. There is great value in reflection and it can lead to renewed passion.  It is important to have experiences, but it is equally important to make meaning of what we experience and recognize how we’ve changed after the experience has concluded.

Here are several questions I use to guide my reflection (not an exhaustive list):

  • What did I experience?
  • Who influenced my experience?
  • How did I feel during the experience? Why?
  • Now that I’ve had this experience, what do I know or understand about myself?
  • In what ways have I changed?
  • What are the connections between my experience, my current work, and my future plans?

Connections That Last

CMU’s Leadership Institute provides the Connections Leadership Conference (Connections) for students to enhance their leadership through informative and interactive sessions, while providing an environment for students create new professional and interpersonal connections. And I can’t forget to mention it happens at the Great Wolf Lodge Resort and Water Park in Traverse City, MI.

This experience was exciting, informative, and engaging when I was an undergraduate student. In returning as a graduate student and staff member, my attitudes toward the conference remained the same, but for very different reasons. There are two aspects of my experience that were deeply rewarding. The first was serving as an Institute Facilitator, which meant that a co-facilitator and I shared the responsibility of informing undergraduate students of the skills needed to properly identify the assets and needs in their residential communities, registered student organizations, and scholarship cohorts, while helping them create an action plan to use the assets to address the needs. Serving as an Institute Facilitator provided me with a new experience and increased responsibility for the developmental experience of conference attendees.

The second experience is related to building community and cohesion between our office staff. Our team does a stellar job at keeping one another accountable for maintaining a work-life balance. Connections provided a great opportunity for our staff to bond outside of our normal work environment. After our sessions concluded, myself and over members of the “Grad Cohort” as we call ourselves, and other staff members took time to explore Traverse City. I believe we have a close knit staff, but it is always great to deepen the connections through unstructured shared experiences.