The Leaders of Tomorrow

In the Winter of 2013, I had submitted my application for the Leadership Advancement Scholarship at CMU.  Two weeks later I was one of 80 other students invited to compete for a spot in the 2013 cohort.  I came to campus on a gray winter day, took a tour of campus for the first time, and then was sent through a series of simulations and interviews with the other competitors.  Fortunately for me, I was selected to come to campus on this scholarship.

I remember competition day so vividly. I remember walking into Powers Hall for the first time, noticing the distinct smell that the old building fostered, and being overwhelmed by the number of people crammed into the lobby.  I remember bidding my parents good bye for the day, them wishing me luck, and then heading up the stairs towards the ballroom.  I remember hearing Dan’s speech for the first time.

“Raise your hands if you’ve been told that you’re the leaders of tomorrow; that’s bull shit. You’re the leaders of today.”

I remember the simulations: helium stick, gutter ball, and a survival activity, all of which required us all to show how we work and communicate in groups.

I remember the group interview. I remember thinking I was talking too much, and that the other two competitors probably thought my voice was annoying. I remember thinking Megan was intimidatingly beautiful, which is a funny thought now that we both got the scholarship.

I remember it all.

So when I was asked my freshmen year to help serve as a member of the committee to organize this day, I felt incredibly honored.  My first year on this Lead Team, I had the opportunity to facilitate the small-group activities to the competitors. I was also trusted with the duty of serving on the application review board, which meant analyzing over 200 applications and giving them a final grade with nine other staff and students.

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Dan Gaken, LI Director, delivering the introductory keynote and program overview.

After my freshmen year, I was brought onto the chair role of Competition Day, meaning I still serve on the application review board, but now work with two other chair people to organize the entire day. This means placing and training volunteer facilitators, working with departments on campus to ensure we have rooms and catering, and involving the freshmen class in a way that allows them to appropriately network with the potential new scholars.

Competition Day is truly like Christmas in the LI.  This past January was my second year in the chair position. I got to work with two of the most brilliant minds, Evie and Bellal, to host an incredible day.

Reviewing applications is empowering enough; seeing what these students do and how they impact their communities is so impressive.  But once the 80 are picked for competition, the energy they bring into the LI can be felt.  All 80 students are deserving of the award, really.  And they prove that by demonstrating exceptional communication skills. They are aware and just, and try their best to bring their best selves to the plate. Each time, it makes me relive my competition experience all over again.

It’s an honor to serve the LI in this way; I hope that the work I do helps bring in the best next handful of students the nation has to offer.  I hope that with each application review and each facilitator placed that our selections only make the program better and better.

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Myself, Evie, and Bellal, the 2016 Competition Day Chairs

#SAEHatesMe

This past year has been a big one for me and SAE.  After being initiated into Michigan Delta Omega’s chapter of ΣΑΕ last fall, I have been elected to the role of Member Educator. Within this role, I am responsible for understanding curriculum set by our National Educators and organizing different workshops and meetings that ensure every active brother of the chapter is meeting these national expectations.  It’s called the True Gentleman Initiative. This Initiative replaces a pledge process, a model used by many other greek organizations, and instead incorporates lifelong learning throughout each members time in the fraternity.  The curriculum varies depending on age of the brother, but for the most part it can be completed as an entire chapter.

In this position I work closely with our President, Vice President, Diversity Chair, Newly initiated class of brothers, and CMU’s Interfraternity Council Educator.

A big part of this position is ensuring that newly initiated brother classes acclimate to the fraternity and learn the basics so they can build a firm understanding of our values and operations. I do this through facilitating meetings where we talk about different aspects of the fraternity, including national and local history, leadership opportunities, and campus involvements.

Greek life at CMU is incredibly valuable. The way this University encourages each chapter to collaborate and do good for the community is outstanding. Greek Week, a competition between chapters that happens each spring, is one of CMU’s most impressive and constant philanthropic events ever.  Between each organization, our greek communities raised 50,000+ Dollars for “Angel Wings,” a nonprofit that raises awareness for and supports families that are battling breast cancer.  Being a part of a community that wants to make positive impact is incredibly empowering, and I hope to continue being an integral part of that here at CMU.  Our chapter came in second overall for Greek Week in 2015, was voted best chapter on campus in 2013 by our campus newspaper, “cmlife”, and has had one member spotlighted as “Greek of the Week” since that recognition piece began last fall (it was me!! I’m truly just a lucky guy).

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Me, Tess of Phi Sigma Sigma, and Austin, my Big Brother before a football game.

But it truly isn’t all fun and games.

#SAEHatesMe

The biggest challenge of being a part of Sigma Alpha Epsilon has been the negative attention brought on us by chapters across the nation. In less than a year of being an active brother, incidents like the Oklahoma Racist Chant and other stories became prevalent parts of my daily conversations. I had serious doubts about remaining a part of this organization, because I struggled to justify labeling myself amongst these men I never met. I struggled to justify being a part of something that, in some places, held racist beliefs. While I knew that the climate of ΣΑΕ at CMU was very different than that in Oklahoma, it pained me anyhow.  How do we appropriately react as a chapter? How do I explain this to my friends and coworkers who are a part of the black community? How do I live with myself knowing that the letters SAE will only ever be a synonym for racism to hundreds of thousands of people?

After lengthy conversations with our diversity chair, who is one of my best friends, brothers, and most reliable confidants, we concluded that we have to stay and fight for change.  We agreed to remain in the fraternity knowing that the best we could do is continue to encourage our brothers at CMU about how to enter an inclusive mindset. It’s been about a year since the incident, but I’m proud of what we’re accomplished so far.  We’ve incorporated diversity lessons into chapter meeting, encouraged involvement and support to the NPHC Inc., and most importantly, opened the conversation of race and privilege in a way that all of our brothers can participate in.  We didn’t want to just say that racism isn’t happening on our campus, we wanted to make sure it was obsolete.

So shout out to Bellal for being so encouraging and wise; your help has been so valued.  And thank you to our chapter, who has responded so well to our plans. This is an ongoing effort; one that can feel tiring and hopeless at times. It starts with acknowledging the problem for what it is. It tarts by having the conversations people typically avoid. And hopefully, with continued effort, it will end.

 

Agua Es Vida

It’s hot: 107 degrees Fahrenheit. Yesterday I was walking to class in a winter coat, mind you. I’ve been swinging this pick-axe into the ground for the past 3 hours.  It had been about an hour since it was pointed out to me that I was standing over a scorpion, but I was still on the lookout for more. I looked up the hill at the rest of our group as they continued to carve a narrow and deep path through the earth. There are thirteen of us plus the staff and community members; we’re all drenched in our own sweat, but no one is too tired yet. This is just before lunch on the first day of work on the Los Hautales water project in Honduras.

Pause; Rewind:

I heard about  Global Brigades when two of the students who participated in the previous year’s trip came to one of my classes recruiting for the upcoming trip. I remember them mentioning that it was a combination of service and application of knowledge, which peaked my interest severely.

After some serious fundraising, a handful of planning meetings, and an entire semester’s span of time, I found myself gripping onto my first ever international plane ticket as three of us carpooled the night before to make it to the airport on time.  I was in disbelief, and a fog, because it was 5am when we got to the airport.  I was kind of singing in my head out of excitement; In a few hours, I will be Central America to help install a new pump-style water system for a community that needs it.  For the most part, I slept at Bristol, the airport in Flint, Michigan.

We stepped off our second plane in Tegucigalpa, the capital of Honduras.  We were immediately escorted into a white van with the Global Brigades logo on the side.  We drove  on highway road for about two more hours; the views were incredible.  Honduras is incredibly mountainous.  There were times we drove near the edges of cliffs. Off in the distance were little houses, often without doors in the doorway, clumped close together.  Wild dogs trot along the sides of dirt roads, so close to traffic it was concerning.

We unloaded our things and at lunch at our stay, the Horizon, and met our group’s GB staff. We then drove to Los Hautales, which was about an hour away, to meet the Water Committee f the town and introduce ourselves.  The Water Committee is a group of the community leaders that come together to communicate and work directly with GB.  Each community that applies for Global Brigade aid must form one of these bodies in order to work along with the organization and to learn about the system.  The Water Committee must remain assembled for some time even after completion of a project, and continue to communicate with GB to report that their system is being maintained properly.  It was an honor meeting with the Committee in Los Hautales, and I found learning more about how GB supports its communities to be a valuable piece of knowledge.

The following days were physically challenging. We spent two days in the Honduran heat digging out a trench and a third-day installing piping for the water system. Once complete, this system will provide safe drinking water directly to the homes of about 200 families.  This will replace their past model for attaining water, which meant carrying heavy buckets through mountain roads for miles and miles, each day.

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Me and the trench. PVC pipe was installed and buried in this, allowing water to travel from the tank to the individual homes of Los Hautales.
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Grace spent a good half-a-day trying to pry this rock from the earth. She finally did it, and she’s an absolute boss because of it.  That thing was DEEP in the ground.

When we weren’t digging trenches, we got to network and collaborate with other students on our compound. Groups came from Georgetown, Penn State, Carnegie Melon, and Virginia University. Meeting these wildly passionate students and sharing our experiences was such a unique opportunity which introduced me to some of the most talented students I’ve ever met in my lifetime.  I was mostly grateful to connect with the students from Central, none of whom I had known before this trip.

To help the community of Los Hautales better understand and sustain their water system, each water brigade put together a presentation for the children of the community.  Ours explained the water system from start to finish, showing where the water comes from, how it gets to a sanitation tank, and then how it travels through the pipes into the homes of the communities.

Before this water system, these people literally have had to walk miles and miles of rocky mountain path to a bacteria-ridden water source to fill buckets which they would carry home with them. It blows my mind that this is how they lived.  And it fills me with complete satisfaction to know that soon they will never have to do that again. The adults in the community are dedicated to bringing this vision alive, as they truly never want to hand their child a bucket and ask them to go on a journey to fill it with water.  This will a be reality soon, and water will come pouring out of a faucet on in their individual homes.

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For the remaining three days, we operated as an engineering brigade. We set the axes down and worked for two days with two different communities. We first assessed their existing water systems. What they had was built by another organization ten years ago, but it wasn’t done so properly and now the community is suffering again.  They reached out to Global Brigades and we met with their leadership to build a “community profile” (including information on their education system, their businesses, population, and more).  From there, we went to the location of the water source, assessed the flow rate of water from the source, performed a water safety test at the tank, and gathered basic observations of the system as a whole.  We compiled all of the data into a report that will be presented to Global Brigades and will determine whether or not this community will receive further aid. My fingers are crossed for them, because currently, their pump flows water at about 1.5 Horse Power, and the water only comes through every 11 days.  They store their water in “Pilas” which are large cement water basins.

On the last day, we visited a community that had a water system completed by GB almost a year ago prior. We walked around the community from home-to-home, speaking with the residence. They shared with us their relief, now that water came through pipes and into their homes.  We were guided up a mountain and through some woods, where they showed us their water source and how it operates.

I remember one of the women greeting us into her home excitedly.  She told us we were a gift from God.  She explained to us the struggles of being a mom in a community where her children’s lives were always at risk because of the water available.  She risked everything to keep her kids alive, which meant sending them to the city where she knew they would survive. Now that there is water in the community, her son has moved back home and her family is now reunited.

Yeah, I’m never going to forget that.

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This is Calvin.  We met him on the very first day, during an instructional meeting on how to use the tools and each part of the pump system.  

Of course, packing up the night before leaving The Horizon was emotional for me.  I didn’t want to leave. I was overwhelmed by what I had experienced. I was inspired. Driving through the mountains back to Tegucigalpa was long and quiet.  All of us had expected to be affected by our service; none of us, however, could have ever anticipated it would affect us this deeply.

Water is a right.

In the fifteen minutes it takes for you to take a shower, fill a glass of water, and flush your toilet, it would take these communities an entire day. It would require walking up and down rocky mountain roads in brutal sun. It would mean needing the right weather conditions and waking up extra early to go fill a bucket. It would need a secure place to store it.

Even now, the access to clean water is limited.  Each of these homes is given one faucet; how many faucets are in your home?  I do not mean to guilt you, but I urge you to realize that even one faucet completely changed these people’s day-to-day lives. I imagine many of you reading this might be very much like me before I left for this trip.  I knew that there were communities out there that lived without roofs over their heads, nor operating water systems, but I never admitted to myself how hard a life like that could be.  Once I was talking to the water committee, I had to own this reality.  Once I met these people and worked alongside them, I could not ignore how evident it was that they knew this system would change their lives.  I could see it on their faces and hear it in the translations; water is life.

Thank you, Honduras, for showing me all of this.  Thank you GB for giving me the opportunity to help bring clean, usable water into the homes of those in Los Hautales.  Thank you to everyone who helped me fundraise for the cost of this service; because of you all, my life is changed.

To live your life without acknowledging that every single thing you do has a global impact is incredibly dangerous: This world has become too small for us to ignore the needs of those who don’t look like us, act like us, or speak our languages. Your every action transcends these barriers; so strive to do some good in everything that you do.

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After the Water Fair, there is a solid three hours of “Intercultural Exchange” during which every group presents a piece of their culture.  Alexa sat on my lap the entire time. I can’t shake this girl from my mind, and I’m so excited for the water system to be complete so that I can rest knowing her small bones will never have to bear the pain of a hike through the mountains with a five-gallon water jug simply to stay clean and alive.

 

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Tie it tighter.

Part of the LAS cohort of 2013
Credit: Dan Gaken 2013

Connections is a conference, hosted by Central Michigan’s Leadership Institute, at the Great Wolf Lodge in Traverse City.  The conference revolves around enhancing interactions between members inside and outside of groups.  It was also a weekend to network with students involved in numerous different organizations on campus.  Different workshops hit key points on how to do this; for example, there were sessions on utilizing body language to convey you messages in an impacting way, setting goals to accelerate your dreams, and asking life’s tougher questions as a way to change the monotonous script of every day life.  These sessions wall aimed to to better group dynamics by strengthening personal interactions.

Jordan and David
Credit: Dan Gaken 2013

The theme this year was: “capture the moment | focusing on the future.”  As a LAS cohort going in to connections together, we stuck pretty true to the theme.  In our institute meetings, we talked about how we appreciated how things within our cohort were going now, and we expressed desires to strengthen our ties down the road.  The session that I thought would be most useful for this goal was called “Yummy Curiosity.”  The workshop revolved around a book called “SoulPancake” by Rainn Wilson. The book advocates that stronger bonds start with stronger questions.  The book is actually full of questions, some may deem interesting, others may deem unusual; however you view them, the questions make you think.

“What’s one thing you learned that blew your mind?”

“How do you determine truth?”

“Where do you find calm in a chaotic world?”

In this session, we were each given a slip with a different question from the book. We went around the room asking others the question on the slip in front of us.  After we both answered, we traded slips and moved around the room, asking new questions.

These questions expose people a little more than usually comfortable; an extent of vulnerability is required to answer these questions.   Which is perfect for members of group who want to build stronger bonds.  Revealing that inner honest self is difficult for some, and these questions aid in that pursuit.  You can know someone, and you can know someone.  These questions help you get passing knowing people and into knowing people.

[That’s what I love about German language:  They have a word for “knowing” people’s names (wissen) and a separate word for “knowing” people (kennen). ]

David in session
Credit: Dan Gaken 2013

Connections made it evident that our cohort values each other, and that we wish to tighten our ties.  In class the following monday, we split up into groups in order to collaboratively plan ways to meet our goals as a group.  Through action planning, we wish to help our cohort find balance, build deeper and more meaningful connections, and continue to make a positive impact on central’s campus out ides of our cohort.  Our cohort seems dedicated to capture the moment we are in,  and furthermore, determined to continue focusing on the future.

David and Courtney
Credit: Dan Gaken 2013

A song to accompany this post:

The Alpha Experience

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Ten total hours of leadership training.  Endless benefits and leadership lessons.  Alpha Leadership.

Each week, we met with our same alpha lead group.  I was fortunate to be a part of the Blue “Om Nom Nommies.” Our mascot was Cookie Monster from the popular kids television show, Sesame Street. Alpha had a different theme every week, including “throwback” and day, “color” day.  The theme’s were just for fun- it was the activities planned for each day that made Alpha such a memorable experience. From an exciting day full of different team-bonding challenges to a simulation that illustrated the importance of breaking barriers, each day was packed full of useful leadership training activities. The day I drew the most from was when we defined our leadership styles.  Analyzing this information helped me understand what I excelled at, and furthermore, what I could work on to balance myself out as an effective leader.  I was categorized as “spirit,” with “systematic” as a close second.

A spirited leader, by our group’s definition, is vocal, encouraging, radiant, optimistic, and so much more.  I believe that I encompass these traits, so it’s no surprise that I was categorized this way.  Furthermore, systematic leaders were classified as analytical, planned-process reliant, and structural.  I usually identify myself as these traits above all else, so seeing that I almost fell under this category was not a shock.  According to the program Alpha used, my weakest leadership style, was “considerate.”  This caught me off guard, because I consider myself a considerate person.  The “considerate” group presented their style as patient, collected, and as the type of people who like to listen.

I plan to take the lessons I learned through Alpha under consideration every day from here on out.  I will continue to utilize my strengths as a spirited and systematic leader.  Furthermore, I am consciously making efforts to enhance my consideration leadership style attributes!

A song to accompany this post:

Believe and Be Grateful

Powers Hall

The air was crisp when we boarded the school buses Saturday morning.  Nostalgia consumed my thoughts and feelings: fall, yellow school buses, field trips, being overly tired- it felt too familiar.  Everyone was exhausted at the hour we climbed onto those buses, but I could still feel the excitement.  Being a freshman, my expectations for Eagle Village were vague.  I heard about the high ropes course, but nothing specific, or even a mention about the other elements of the weekend.  So, I sat in an uncomfortable state of eager unknowingness the entire ride.

When we arrived, we were quickly orientated with the staff and the village.  We were even more rapidly broken off into groups with our mentors, and started “initiatives.”  Initiatives are group activities that test your ability to communicate as a body.  These activities, or challenges, really, could be anything.  As I walked through the woods at Eagle Village, I passed multiple large wooden contraptions, some of them resembling similarities with medieval torture devices, and wondered, “Whelp… what are we going to do with this?”  Giant wooden logs, posted at strange angles and scraping the top of the woods, large teetering platforms, and plenty of little posts poking through the ground at different heights, all made these woods feel like an old-school playground. I was a kid again, and this was recess. Our facilitators, Jolly John and Handy Hannah, front-loaded each element with a unique creativity that sometimes had our group questioning what our over all objective actually was. Our group worked together to watch dolphins, make it through the Bermuda Triangle of Death, and cure cancer, all in one evening (We were particularly confused by the Bermuda Triangle of Death).   Each activity tested our abilities to communicate as a group.  From the moment you step onto an element to the moment you step off, and everything in between, it is important to communicate every detail with your group.  This first seemed monotonous, like really, why do I need to tell James that I’m stepping on the log… He can see me? But after utilizing the suggested tactics, such as asking for group-permission before starting and then every other step of the way, I noticed a more engaged group dynamic.  This helped us take on challenges with more confidence and group involvement.  I see this being applied to group work outside of eagle village and being highly affective.  Take a group project, for example.  It is important to ask permission from the group before starting a certain portion.  One thing our group was natural at was encouraging.  I have been identified as a leader who encourages the heart, so I felt comfortable in a support position, but I learned all sorts of new ways to express support and encouragement from my group members.  I see encouragement as vital in every day life, whether it’s applied to friends, family, or even yourself.

The next day, James and I got up in the air.  We first tackled the giant’s ladder.  It’s exactly what it sounds like: a giant ladder that reached from the floor all the way to the ceiling in the adventure room, suspended by cables.  Each rung was a slim log, spaced progressively further and further apart from each other, the higher up they were.  We were instructed to use different forms of support for each rung.  We watched group after group go before it was our turn.  In this time, we made our game plan: we didn’t care what rung we got to, how long it took us to get there, or anything else: all we were concerned with was being the most photogenic pair on the ladder for when Dan or Jesi took pictures.  This goal made it a lot funnier and easier to take on the ladder, which in all honesty, I was intimidated by.  However, we made it to the third rung, which was a pretty huge success in my eyes.  It was a nerve-wracking experience, but we made it humorous.  I almost started crying from laughter when James flopped over one of the rungs and made one of those strange noises he makes: it’s like halfway between a grunt and a hiccup… I’m not positive why he does it, but it made me laugh and made the obstacle a lot less stressful.   I think laughter is essential for making it through life. When conditions become uncomfortable or chilling, it’s good to find something to laugh about in order to loosen tension.

Giant's Ladder

When we moved onto the high ropes course, I didn’t know what to expect.  I am a gung-ho roller coaster person, so I thought the whole “being suspended high above the ground” thing woul

 

d be no issue, but then I got to the top.  Yup-  I was shaking with nerves.  James and I made it across a couple elements before our facilitator, Hanna

 

h, called to us from below and asked us to challenge us further.  I laughed at this, because to me, I thought that making it across these elements was challenge enough.  But she suggested trying to make obstacles even harder, by closing our eyes, or by letting go of our ropes. One element I remember distinctly was the two-platform jump (that’s what I call it.  Not sure if it has a real name…) Basically, between the two platforms were two other raised-pedestals.  I could barely get across them without white-knuckling my ropes.  Hannah came over and suggested I redo the obstacle, but this time, let go of the ropes.  I laughed and basically told her: “Uh, no.”  She was persistent and supportive enough to the point where I felt obligated to try again.  I let go of the ropes; I kid you not, I could not physically lift my foot in the air.  My body had been so struck by nerves that I was immobilized.  Hannah kept encouraging me from below, to the point where I no longer felt obligated to her, but now, to myself to tackle this challenge.  I finally picked up my foot, reached it across the gape between the pedestals, and planted it firmly.  I froze, split across two platforms, looking at James in disbelief of what I was doing.  That’s when I realized… I wasn’t believing in myself.  In life, I have very firm beliefs and usually a solid view of what I stand for.  Rarely do I lack belief in myself, so why was it on this course that I was different?  I started to muster up the courage to believe in what I was doing, to believe in James as he guided me across other obstacles, and believe that this was all just a test of my character.

My favorite memory from the weekend, other than playing Foursquare with Jurassic Parker, had to be the moment we all sat around the fire and shared what we appreciated about the weekend.  Listening to the upper class men share their gratitude for their mentees and vice-versa, others thank the administrative staff, and even more others being grateful for other reasons truly warmed my heart.  James volunteered to speak, and began to thank me for all that I taught him in the short tim

 

e that we’ve been working together.  I struggled to contain myself as the shivers shot through my body: the sensation, causing my hairs to stand up tall, rattled me inside.  I was in awe of the things he said about me, feeling over-sold, and couldn’t help but spring from my spot on the log, run over to him, and hug him like a brother.

Sitting in the dark, cool, night, looking at all the faces around us glowing in the fire’s light, and breathing in every ounce of positive energy that was emitted that night solidified my belief that I am where I belong.  With this group, I have already created memories that will give me a whole new feeling of nostalgia.  And with my mentor, we have formed one of the strangest, funniest, and over all greatest, mentor-mentee relationships I could have ever imagined.

Thank you LI for this amazing trip.  Thank you Sophomore Class, for taking us under your wing.  Thank you Group Three, for an awesome weekend.  Thank you James, for a lifetime of knowledge.

Mentee Mentor

A song to accompany my feelings while writing this post:

A video to accompany this post: