Finding My Voice
In addition to the little gems of wisdom that I've collected over the years, one of my goals in helping to craft this MSL adventure was to simply tell a story. While I thoroughly enjoyed my courses at Marist, the greatest lessons of my collegiate career were instilled outside of the classroom. Periodically, I will be cutting back to my memories of those days to bring you the story of my S.G.A. career, the narrative that has brought me to this point in my journey.
The first time I ran for a student government office was in the 10th grade. It didn’t end well. Still, I brushed myself off and came right back one year later to try again. Sadly, the sequel didn’t play out all that differently from the original. In both instances, I stumbled and staggered through my speeches, trying to laugh off my fumbles. I turned from the stage, shoulders drooping, so sure of the fact that my peers must have thought I was a fool. It was not until all was said and done that I realized that my toughest critic wasn’t sitting in the audience, I'd see him every time I looked in the mirror.
I'd like to say that, like many of the voices you've heard on this site, I was a careful planner with a clear perception of the course I wanted my life to take. In reality, I was the farthest thing from it. I had no, real idea of what I wanted to be when I grew up. From a young age, I had settled on telling everyone that I wanted to be a lawyer, because it was a respectable field and part of me liked the idea of being the Atticus Finch character in my own life story: Strong, respected, heroic, fearless. Sadly, Atticus I was not; my life up to that point was dominated by insecurity and governed by fear.
Public speaking was my greatest fear, my greatest struggle. As my high school career drew to a close, I knew that I would be forced to make a change one way or another. In a couple of months I would be forced to leave my home town, go off to some college (if I was lucky), and do my best to pick up the pieces. When that moment came, I wondered, would I finally start kicking to swim to the surface, or would I sink in a sea of faces all clawing for their shot to reach the surface? While I had the time, I figured I might as well try to figure things out on my terms.
Fast-forward almost six years later: I'd find myself back in that high school facing a crowd of on-lookers once again. Standing at the head of the congregation with members of the press snapping photos in the front row and my parents dressed nicely by my side, I'd brim with confidence as they called my name. That was the night I was sworn in as a member of my home town's Board of Education.
So, what the heck happened?
My home town was fertile soil for a wall flower. A relatively small, suburban township growing from a once rural community in Northern New Jersey, it’s the type of place where everyone grows up knowing everyone else's story. We’re close enough to the city to pick up on the hustle & bustle, but just distanced enough to maintain our quiet charms. That created plenty of opportunities for the ambitious to step up and take center stage, as well as plenty of room for quiet kids like me to slip silently into the background.
The first time I found myself in a leadership position, quite honestly, was an accident—an unintended fluke. It was back in the 6th grade when I signed on to be the secretary for a small community service club. By the next meeting, the President and all of her friends had had a change of heart, leaving us behind. Suddenly, I found myself stepping right over the vacant seats ahead of me and into the top office.
Despite successfully managing the club over the next three years, it wasn’t an experience I wanted to carry over into high school. Though the scenery changed, the rest of my life stayed pretty much the same. My time as club president hadn't changed my demeanor or stifled my fears. I didn’t seek out the next step in leadership opportunities with this organization, and was quite content to slip back into my usual spot in the background. Nonetheless, duty still came calling.
Chess was a passion of mine, and I was one of a small handful of members that made up our high school’s struggling Chess Club. When our President, the sole officer, graduated that year, I was the one left to pick up the pieces (literally). We weren’t booming by any means, but over the next year, I gave the role my sincere effort. We didn’t succeed in signing up many other students to play chess, but our room quickly became a sanctuary for quiet outcasts during their lunch period. The kind-hearted teacher who served as our advisor had opened his door to students that had nowhere else to eat. They came into the room and shared music, games, stories; it was our island of misfit toys.
That’s where I started to first shape my definition of leadership. In all that time spent building up to this moment, I thought of it only as a burden, a challenge. Politics was complicated and frustrating. No one seemed to have anything positive to say about the process, so my understanding of this concept (in which I had lumped government and all other forms of leadership) was an imperfect one, to say the least. Standing there, however, and seeing all of the joy and comfort a little coordination could bring to others, my outlook began to brighten. If we could accomplish all of that with one classroom, I began to wonder, what might be done with an entire school?
Unfortunately, optimism alone doesn’t win elections. As a leader, I was still largely inexperience and unproven. To make matters worse, I was a terrible public speaker. At least, that’s what I kept telling myself.
Like a self-fulfilling prophecy, I scrutinized over every sentence and backtracked right over every mistake & stumble. Just moments into a speech, I’d find myself shaking as an internal counter kept a detailed tally of every flaw in my presentation. Against myself, I just couldn’t win.
And yet, I also knew that I couldn’t let my own doubts stop me. As I saw it, I had two options at that point in my career: I could either go right along with the status quo and live my life in the background, or I could find a way to break through my fears and make a name for myself. I didn’t just choose the latter, I decided that I needed it. I knew that I couldn’t keep living my life shying away from challenges; in order to succeed I’d have to take a stand one day. Doing it now, while I had a dedicated team of supportive teachers and friends, certainly seemed like the best time.
So, I stopped shying away from opportunity, I volunteered to play as a candidate in our schools mock presidential debate, I registered for classes that had presentation requirements, and I stopped letting my fears dictate what I did and did not do. The most ambitious move I made at that time, however, was signing up for the Mock Trial club at school. Working with a trusted teacher and a great team of students, I slowly learned to face my fears head-on as we prepared for a public competition at the end of the semester.
My college essay would focus on how I overcame my shyness to participate in that very competition. Although my team didn’t advance past the initial round, the contest was the first occasion in which I didn’t find myself impeded by my own negativity. After delivering the opening statements for my team, I spent the night “in character”, defending our client with an animated charisma. My family and friends weren’t the only ones impressed by the change, I was approached by a number of attendees after the event with warm compliments. By the time I graduated high school just a few months later, I was receiving regular praises on my public presentation skills.
This feedback went a long way towards restoring my bruised confidence, and I carried it right along with me to my first Accepted Students’ Day at Marist College. As the program wound down, we reached a point where all incoming students were gathered together in an arena to regroup with their parents. Before being dismissed, however, we were treated to a final round of presentations by college officials, including a welcome from the President himself.
As he spoke, however, my attention was drawn to another figure at the front of the room. Seated just beside him was a younger individual, far too young to be another member of the administration. Just a moment later, he would rise up to introduce himself as the President of the Student Body. I watched him, captivated, as he so easily commanded the attention of that arena, filled with his peers and elders alike. Guiding us with every word, he closed by encouraging us all to get involved with our new community. “A future Student Body President”, he said, “is sitting right here in this room."
In that moment, I knew I wanted nothing more than for it to be me.
High on life, and imagining myself standing one day behind that podium beside the College President, I rushed to find my family through the crowd. When I finally saw them, however, they were not alone. They were talking to another family, a couple I recognized from our home town. As I stepped closer, I heard the mother gesturing towards their son. He was out in the center of the room, now part of a large crowd that had gathered around the College President.
“You should go out there, too.” She said, turning to greet me. “Go make sure he knows who you are!”
My confidence evaporated instantaneously.
“Know who I am? Why on Earth would he want to know me?”
My mind produced this bile almost reflexively. Those lofty dreams of being Student Body President shattered in an instant, and the knot in my stomach tightened as I came to the crushing realization that I was no closer to being the confident, charismatic person that I wanted to be than the day I first stepped up behind the mic. I was devastated. Muttering something about being tired, I just wanted to make my way to the car and go home.
The whole ride back, my mind was floating somewhere in that auditorium. I was kicking myself for shying away, yet again, and giving in so easily. Here I was, standing at a crossroads in my life that I had thought I’d prepared for. Now that the moment had finally arrived, I felt like I was sinking faster than I could swim. That’s when something unexpected happened.
A little light clicked in the back of my head, and a familiar voice rang out softly, “it could be worse.” I recalled all of the work I had put in over the past few years, the strides I’d taken to get myself to this point. The day may not have ended as I would have liked, but I was there; I was going to be a college student.
That’s when I resolved to see through what I had started. College was going to be my clean slate, an honest shot at a new beginning. I wasn’t going to start off this new chapter of my life ruled by fear. I decided right then and there to run in the first student government election cycle that Fall, and make a name for myself by serving the student body. More importantly, I would continue to push myself in the coming years and, one day, run for the office of Student Body President. If I could become someone that other students wanted to represent them, then I figured I would have succeeded in making a positive impact. Above all else, however, I set my sights on one, additional goal. By the time I graduated from Marist, the President would want to come up and shake my hand.
This wasn’t defeat, it was only just the beginning.
To see how the story unfolds, stay tuned in to #MikesCampaign