Purpose, Fate, Destiny: the endless costs of Student Leadership
Leadership is required of you when you least expect it. A leader is not always the person making the largest salary at their job, and it is not always the student speaking the most in their classes. Leaders are the ones with the well-being of others constantly on the brain, and that is what makes leadership truly difficult. Great leaders care about others, sometimes to the detriment of our own well-being. However, the experiences we have as student leaders, the lessons we learn, and the relationships we establish make the stress, social isolation, and mental as well as physical strains of the various leadership positions worth it. It is not easy, especially when you feel "foreign" in every sense of the word in the environment in which you "lead."
When I earned my first leadership position in sixth grade (so legitimate, I know), I felt like I was the most powerful eleven-year-old girl in the world. After several days of campaigning for the position, winning sixth grade class president by one vote made all of the posters and baked cookies worthwhile! However, something not as sweet or comforting as fresh baked cookies awaited me on the other side of accepting my first leadership role. I quickly learned that leadership was not the amazing time I’d hoped it would be. My classmates immediately began murmuring behind my back, and I steadily became isolated from my peers. Whether this gossip resulted from preference for the other "candidate", or incompatibility with my twelve-year-old leadership style, I am unsure. It felt as though I became a bridge between adult authority and my peers, and it was an eerily uncomfortable middle ground. This mentality hasn't completely dissipated for me over the years.
Leadership has been an intricate part of my life beginning in elementary (primary) school. Some of those specific leadership positions include being Student Council President, National Junior Honor Society Vice President, Class Vice President, Drum Major, and most recently in Year 2 & 3 of my undergraduate degree I have been a Resident Assistant at Franklin University Switzerland. There have been incredible positives, such as receiving wonderful opportunities from internships to connections, forming a huge network, and establishing relationships more frequently with my bosses or coordinators than my peers. But, it’s not all sunshine: the paradox of leading while maintaining authentic friendships with those you are dually expected to avidly hold accountable for any wrongdoings you may observe. Peers feel uneasy, and I feel uneasy because I can sense the underlying distrust or haste among my peers. Yet, you are not quite a "staff member", which ultimately puts student leaders in the middle-child position of the university system.
Friend, or foe? This is difficult to differentiate for a "student leader" at times. Are the people I have to document for breaking campus policies horrible people? The vast majority are not, but any mechanism of disciplinary action, especially coming from someone your age, is hardly ever received well. I am left feeling isolated, not wanting to bother others with the backlash resulting from having leadership positions over the years. I also understand that my peers are upset at receiving some sort of disciplinary action. Additionally, I have to filter every interaction in my life through the lens of an African-American woman - which I am before anything else. I wonder if my classmates who are from non-diverse countries are staring at my features when my back is turned, just as Swiss pedestrians do on a daily basis. Is it sheer curiosity, or is it racism? It feels beyond uncomfortable. Regardless of the motives behind its origins, it alienates me all the same. I think about how many microaggressions I have received from being black alone, or just being a woman, then not being fluent in the native languages of Switzerland. Each of these factors combined make it much more difficult to be a student leader; the intersectionality of it all is overwhelming for me sometimes. Whether it is making my family proud, hoping for other minorities to join leadership in the future, or knowing that having these positions are enriching experiences within themselves, leadership is a unique experience for everyone who takes it on. Everyone has their own reasons and inspirations for joining, and it is necessary to discuss the specific difficulties student leaders face inside and outside of our roles.
Every leadership position you take, in some aspect(s), is a thankless job. Additionally, "Without integrity, you will ultimately lose," says Dr. Sylvia Lafair, one of the top 30 leadership gurus of 2016-2017. She defines integrity as "the ability to look at all aspects of a situation (to integrate) and use critical thinking to ask the right questions and talk with everyone involved in various positions," and I couldn't agree more. People will never understand what one’s leadership position encompasses behind the scenes. For instance, as a Resident Assistant, people see when I have to document excessive noise because they are notified. People do not see the several hours of strategizing, checking on our Resident’s well-being, etc., that RAs do while facing the remainder of our workload and immediate monetary obligations as a college student. This leaves little time for prioritizing your health and can put you in a very dark place if you are not making time for yourself. An Academic Mentor (amongst many leadership positions) and third-year student at Franklin, Grace Bacon, can relate to the stresses of leadership. "It can kind of feel like the [academic mentor] is either much closer to the Professor or much closer to the Students and it’s a difficult negotiation between the two." She also points out that having several simultaneous leadership positions has stressed her more physically than mentally, but that she would recommend leadership positions of all capacities to students. Interviewing Bacon also echoed my view that the necessity to have a community of student leaders because we can all relate to each other. That sense of comfort and exchange is absolutely necessary, and without others sharing these experiences as student leaders, I could not imagine how desolate any leadership role would feel.
You do not at all have to have a position of leadership in order to be a leader. The Assistant Dean of Student Life and Director of Career Strategy, Ebonie Rayford, who is also in charge of helping choose Academic Mentors, Orientation Mentors, and Resident Assistants, states that "everyone has leadership within them." Leaders are born out of tough situations, sheer curiosity, ambition, financial need; there are an endless amount of motivations for taking on a leadership position. Leadership will always be an essential part of my life, regardless of if it becomes a career path for me. Leading, from my perspective, is rooted in my capacity to help others, and the opportunity I have to do that in an international setting has taught me lessons I will take with me throughout my entire life!