This weekend involves three BVU students and their campus Chaplin on a journey to Valparaiso University to attend the Impact National Conference. Students going are members of Student M.O.V.E., a service-engagement organization, and are: Jessica Thuma, Taylor Daniel, and myself (Zach Ahrens). Along with us is our fearless leader, Ken Meissner. Our goal is to immerse ourselves in a positive learning environment to help us become better servant leaders on campus and in the world.
On Wednesday we stayed in Des Moines overnight, which allowed us to fly to Minneapolis the next morning where we connected to our flight to Chicago. Traveling can be hectic, and I of course had to run into problems at the airport (Why me??). I went through security checkout with my two carry-ons and was asked to talk to a TSA officer about my liquids. I had a quarter-full water bottle I forgot to empty and a tube of toothpaste that didn’t meet the requirements. I had to trash the toothpaste and re-enter security after dumping out my water, Hmph. I was a little bitter after that, but hey, I didn’t follow the rules.
I met the most interesting characters on our two flights that I could probably write an entire blog about. For the purpose of this entry, I’ll keep it to a summary. The first was an older man that sat next to me who was in his fifties or so. He used to be an Olympic qualified swimmer until he got in a devastating car accident that left him disabled. He now travels as a self-employed audio technician for a number of organizations, including ESPN. It was so nice to be around such a friendly fella who was very open about sharing his story.
The second was a young man who sat next to me radiating the smell of alcohol. He was still drunk from the night before on a trip to meet his biological father for the second time. Security had confiscated six bottles of liquor that he was determined to bring on the plane with him. He was only 23, but he was making $55 dollars an hour doing road construction. I’ll admit, my first impression of him was a “punk”, but I tried really hard to learn something from him. He never went to college, but he loves what he does. I let that sink in and said, “Hey, that’s what it’s all about.” Not everyone needs a college degree in order to have a fulfilling life. As long as you’re happy and contributing to society in a positive way, I think that’s okay.
We arrived on campus on Thursday to register for the conference and sit in on the opening ceremony. They started off with a keynote speaker, Amber Smith. Her presentation involved The Hero’s Journey to finding their “boon”. This boon was the end result of what you wanted your journey to produce. For her, it was to make an impact by doing good. She founded a non-profit, Activate Good, which started off as an adventure her and a friend took on to spread random acts of kindness in over 20 states. She did everything from holding “smile” signs in Seattle to picking up litter in ditches. They told their mission to two other people who ended up dropping everything and joining them on their adventure.
Her concept of leadership changed from being a stand-out soloist on her high school choir. She knew she was good, but her arrogance held her back. She spoke of the importance of mentors and how her choir director left her with a lesson in humility. She allowed others the chance to solo and found to it to be a very rewarding experience. This is where the definition of leadership finally made sense and her passion for empowering others began. “Leaders are humble, they let others shine.”
A word from her keynote that really spoke out to me was Polarity. In science, polarity refers to the separation of electrical charges of a molecule (fun stuff), but her purpose for using it was to demonstrate the balance a person needs to lead. Leaders are filled with positive qualities, but they are people too. That means leaders are flawed, a concept that’s often neglected. A true leader recognizes their wholesomeness, not just what looks good on their resume. She wanted to stand as a symbol, but she found that being a normal person is just as important for helping her cause.
Amber spoke of the relationship between leadership, power, and service. She made the interconnection between the three that made a lot of sense. She used the ripple effect, or Pay It Forward theme, as the way in which volunteers can make a significant impact. Jessica Thuma said, “I appreciated her perspective on the importance of power in volunteerism.” There is only so much one person can do, but when one person can inspire others to do all that they can do; it makes a difference. This is the root of power that volunteers possess. When volunteers become leaders, they facilitate this power to influence as many people as they can.
I believe leaders have to be idealists in order to create change. Amber shared my view on this and how it bothered her when people told her to be “realistic.” For her, that meant lowering her standards and ultimately giving up on her dreams. An important lesson that I took away is to focus more on what I can do, while working towards what I want to do. Too often an idealist will disregard the former, and it ends up hurting their performance.
Taylor Daniel was moooved (2% reference) by Amber’s speech and said, “She was very empowering.” The keynote was a great start to what should be a moootivating (Ok I’m done) weekend. We are all excited to see what tomorrow has in store and what else we can learn from the workshops available. Our goal is to make some friends as we are all there because we want to become better at serving others. This shared interest will allow us to bounce ideas off each other and create networks of volunteers working towards change. There is something we can learn from everyone, and when those people are passionate about their aspirations, it’s easy to be inspired to follow your own.