Arthur Ashe, one of the first African-American tennis players, spoke these words –”Start Where You Are, Use What You Have, Do What You Can” – as an activist. At a one-day, personal development seminar held at William & Mary on the 16th, Ashe’s words nicely summarized what we students had learned that day and how simply each of us could become a catalyst—a catalyst for improving our personal lives or a catalyst for improving the world around us.
The Catalyst program, designed for students interested in challenging themselves to go deeper, wider, and further out in their definition of who they are and where they can have an impact, was sponsored by the Office of Student Leadership Development. As a student assistant in the Office of Community Engagement, I spoke with the Director, Drew Stelljes, prior to the event. He was very enthusiastic about it and encouraged me it would be worthwhile, saying:
“The new OSLD has aligned its mission with the William & Mary vision. Theory based, the OSLD is well on its way to becoming a national model for student leadership development. As our W&M vision statement aspires for our graduates to change the world, the OSLD is a mechanism to prepare students to do just that. We aspire to establish a campus culture where students examine their talents and joys and use them to address the world’s greatest needs. There is no better place than W&M to cultivate in students an intense desire to emerge as engaged citizens and effective leaders.”
After a statement like that, what W&M student wouldn’t go? The seminar featured a great speaker, Arthur Gregg, from the University of Texas. There were introspective questions such as, “Am I becoming the person I want to be?” and sapient quotes like Andre Gide’s words, “It’s better to fail at your own life than succeed at someone else’s.” Mr. Gregg spoke about the importance of active listening and appreciative inquiry when interacting with people, authenticity and integrity, and teamwork. He had a felicitous story about teamwork involving a drum major, and ended it by saying, “You can have a band without a drum major, but you can’t have a drum major without a band.” No matter how talented or driven you are, we all have to rely on others at some point. This was a good quote for me personally because as a highly conscientious and dominant introvert (personality traits we formally learned about), I prefer to work by myself so that I know things are done correctly and according to my way of thinking.
Anyone in the business school would have been happy with a second shot at a team-building exercise in which four groups of students worked together to build the tallest free-standing tower that had to hold a golf ball at the top, using only plastic straws and tape. (We business students had to do a similar exercise using marshmallows and spaghetti). Besides learning that the compression strength of a series of plastics straws measuring over six feet in length is pretty low, the importance of group communication, group decision making, prototyping, and personality dynamics were reinforced.
As the day came to an end, we began focusing on what we would take away from the seminar. Leveraging one’s strengths, thinking rationally about what holds us back, and the commitments and contributions we want to make going forward. Words of wisdom from Aristotle himself, “Criticism is something we can avoid easily—by saying nothing, doing nothing, and being nothing,” touched on one of the common answers to what holds one back—fear of criticism and failure, but if we allow our lives to be guided by these constraints, we will accomplish nothing. Life is a process. Vulnerability and uncertainty are OK. Do what you know to be best and true for yourself.
Before everyone parted ways, we were asked to write down what we would take away from the seminar or what we would commit to afterwards. You might expect me to write what I wrote down, but what I wrote is unimportant. The words of another student that I had teamed with for some of the activities and discussions were far more inspiring to me. She said that because she had been in a group with a few older students (Tribe PRIME!) who shared their life experiences, she learned that life may not work out the way you plan. You will make mistakes. But, if you have confidence in yourself, in the process and confidence that you’ll figure it out, your life will turn out the way you want.
In retrospect, this was a touching moment for me. I had shared my personal story with my group and talked about the moment when I was being evicted into homelessness: I had no idea where I would sleep that night, but despite the feelings of desperation, anxiety, and loneliness, I told myself that I would figure it out because I had confidence in myself despite everything that happened leading up to this moment. It didn’t happen right away (what happened right away was sleeping in a parking garage, lol), but I did figure it out eventually. I attended this seminar hoping to take something away from it for myself, but instead I gave up something – wisdom and confidence – to other, younger students who took my advice to heart and will use it as they make their own paths in life.