A Learned Friend

            Last month, I shared with you the second chapter in my student government adventure. Despite losing the race, I somehow found a place in my campus’ S.G.A. through the newly formed Junior Senate.

          When I first stepped into this role, and the adrenaline rush of the preceding Welcome Week & election festivities had finally subsided, I realized that I was at a bit of a loss. Unlike most of my peers, I had never held an office in an S.G.A. before. Being the “shy kid” in high school meant that my few attempts at winning class offices did not go phenomenally well. I had no prior experience in event planning, goal setting, or really leading anyone in any capacity. Nonetheless, I had ideas.

            I had a pretty solid expectation as to what an ideal leader should be and (after spending so much time as a fly on the social wall) I had a good idea as to what my constituents would be looking for. As a pre-law student, I also had a sense as to how a[n] [aspiring] lawyer would approach the situation. That is, it is the role of a legal counselor to delve into complex situations so they can effectively guide their clients through them. In my mind, the same could be expected of a servant-leader. I began to view my job through this lens; I saw it as my responsibility to know the players, the policies, and the procedures of our campus government so that I could guide my constituents through the process of making their own visions a reality.

"Compromise was the crux of this approach. To me, being a student leader meant recognizing that you didn’t always have the right answer." 

         My role would be that of a counselor for the student body, a "learned friend". I would look out for, and sweep up, those students who felt dejected and lost among the typical bureaucracy and guide them on their way to finding their desired place within our community. I would use the knowledge I had accumulated through my S.G.A. career to aid them in their journeys. I would help to set their ambitions back on the proper track. My role as a member of the student Senate was not to solely rely on my own ideas and initiatives, but pave the way for community members to actively join in the discussion and bring their own perspectives and insights to the table. It is not the role of a student leader to dominate the discussion, but expand it.

            In many cases, I found myself working with ambitious individuals whose ideas were considered too difficult, too silly, or too opinionated. These were individuals who had their eyes set on very specific issues, with their own, somewhat narrow, view of an acceptable resolution. Often, these strong opinions would prompt stern opposition, raising their own barriers to completion. The harder they pushed, the harder the “system” seemed to push back. In cutting against the grain, my leadership style was not to immediately reject or attempt to overpower their ideas, but to observe, listen, and converse. If, for example, a student came forward with a proposal to change the grounds or facilities on campus (parking woes posed as a particular thorn for many of my office hour visitors), I would sit with them and listen to their plan in full detail. Once they’d finished, I’d walk them through the offices involved, the types of approvals required, and the anticipated timeline associated with an undertaking of their proposed scale. I would then walk them through alternative routes more readily available to them, underlining existing policies and highlighting opportunities to branch off of more established foundations. Rather than convert a faculty lot into additional student parking, for example, we might revisit, or raise awareness for existing, “flex time” policies that afforded a pass to students using this lot during after-class hours.

             Compromise was the crux of this approach. To me, being a student leader meant recognizing that you didn’t always have the right answer. Instead, you needed to develop the wherewithal to not always go with the easiest answer, and negotiate the best possible fit for the given situation. It was a constant balancing act that required scrolling through a variety of perspectives and viewpoints. This, in turn, meant recognizing that my personal and social outlooks within the community only comprised a mere fraction of the bigger picture. I kept my door open to student input, regardless of the scope and scale of their requests and ideas, precisely because I knew that my view of campus issues alone was not a proper representation of the overall scene.

            No matter how whimsical, extravagant, or fantastic someone’s request might appear on the surface, there is always a deeper meaning buried somewhere in their perceived madness. Calls for drastic, physical re-hauls of campus parking layouts (like the one noted above) typically arose from issues of proximity and accessibility. In most cases, students were frustrated because they couldn’t find a spot or their assigned lot was set far off from their residence area. Working through these types of scenarios long enough helped me to appreciation that perception truly shapes reality; framing an issue from different perspectives can be a valuable tool in cracking the underlying mysteries that tend to propel more toxic and harmful repercussions. More importantly, the failure to acknowledge these viewpoints can often lead to dismissal and dejection. When someone with perfectly valid concerns falls through the cracks, their understandable (and otherwise easily solvable) confusion manifests into something far more detrimental.

"They were happy to know that their voice meant something to us, and that it could be used to make an impact, when necessary."

            That’s why I worked under the principle that every voice deserved a place at the table. Regardless of whether or not I agreed with their approach or personally championed their ideas, I saw it as my responsibility to make sure it had its day at the podium. If I could not bring one of my visitors around to my point of view, then I would guide them through the process of making a formal presentation. In most cases, a compromise would be reached or an alternative worked out before we delved any further into the process. By recognizing, acknowledging, and working through the deeper frustrations that spawned these questions and complaints, we were able to address the concerns of our visitors. Not only did they leave us with some feeling of fulfillment, but I have been told by many of the students that I worked with over the years that their greatest satisfaction came from the feeling of individual recognition they received in being treated as an individual throughout the process, rather than another cookie-cutter complaint. They were happy to know that their voice meant something to us, and that it could be used to make an impact, when necessary.  

            I like to believe that we’re doing something very similar with this site. When I began looking back on the experiences that I’ve faced thus far, and shared these stories with my close friends and colleagues, we began to notice some similarities. We’d all laugh over the fact that we’d hit similar snags in our careers, or shared a common sense of disappointment when a transition did not pan out as we’d planned. Our most memorable adventures weren’t those where we succeeded in attaining what we sought from the outset, but the encounters rife with twists and turns that led us so undeniably awry from our initial goal that we discovered something entirely different—but no less rewarding—along the way. We realized there was a great deal of collective wisdom in our stumbles and bumbles along life’s road, little hurdles that tend to get lost in the hindsight of more established memoirs and biographies but are no less impactful.  

            Compromise and collaboration were the forces that drove us forward, and shaped these stories that we now have to tell. As we looked back on the influences of these lessons, we realized it was time to counsel a new audience. These Memoirs of a Student Leader are more than just shared stories; they are our foundation in crafting an experience, a spirit of community, for our guests and readers. I hope that the insights and experiences shared through these stories will, in some way, guide you in shaping your own life’s journeys, even if the destination you reach does not precisely match the one you envisioned when you first set out. As you go along, I also hope you’ll consider contributing to the experience by sharing your thoughts with us directly. Whether it’s a simple tweet, a comment below, or a proposal for a blog contribution, we’d love to be a part of your journey.

          In bringing together our collective experiences, insights, and hopes, I believe we can extend a helping hand to the next generation of world-changers.