During my first few years, fellow student affairs colleagues described the feeling: seeing your closet student leaders graduate college. I didn’t know what that felt like because I was only at Centenary just shy of two years. It wasn’t until May 2010 when that feeling hit when one of our student leaders Dana Wise graduated from Rutgers. I would now describe it as joy, happiness, and even some sadness (especially when they don’t return in August).
Let me explain how I got to this moment:
When I started at Rutgers, one of my main initiatives was to create and expand the community out of the Livingston Recreation Center. Sure, it was easy to promote intramurals, recruit refs, and lead the 8-10 student directors that got paid to work for our department. The real challenge (even though it didn’t feel like it) was too create a volunteer advisory council. Week in and week out I observed the staff that worked in the building from front desk to fitness assistants to intramural officials to see what students would be the best to start this council. I slowly started observing a few students, Dana Wise, Carlos Correa, and Tara Curran to be exact, because they loved being around our recreation center (aka Livi Rec).
I started up conversations to find out more about them, slowly work in what I was trying to start and see if they would buy-in. The easiest sell was Dana because we found out we both grew up in the same part of NJ - in Sussex County. As weeks went on, Dana, Tara, and Carlos started to help me build this community even though they didn’t work directly for me. They saw my vision, they cared about the other students, and were ready to make a difference.
Late Tuesday night meetings turned into programming on the weekends for the Livingston community. Our most successful event was a 3 on 3 charity basketball tournament that raised hundreds of dollars for Rutgers Against Hunger. That’s where the real community was built and where Dana stepped up as a leader. Not only did we have 32+ basketball teams, we partnered with residence life, recruited and managed 20 volunteers, and she made sure all necessary sponsorships were secured.
Leading up to graduation, Dana was a psychology major and had established a very nice resume by building a set of leadership skills for herself and becoming president of our council. So much so, that she started to have reservations about “going into” the psychology field. Of course after some long conversations, some tears, and some confidence boosting, she decided to pursue a Graduate Assistantship and attended the NIRSA national conference in the spring of 2010.
Dana did everything she was supposed to do - had a strong resume, great GPA, dressed professionally, interviewed well, and had a personal touch. However, she came home empty handed - no assistantship and no admittance into a graduate program.
She did do something right - before she boarded the plane to the conference she struck up a conversation with someone wearing a Cornell sweatshirt. That person was headed to the conference and helped put her in touch with someone from Old Dominion and while she was at the conference she secured an interview for the facilities position.
Even though she came up short, she made an impression just like I did when I interviewed at Rutgers. April came and went. So did May. She graduated thinking “the world was about to end” because she didn’t have anything lined up. After some more tears in my office, I told to keep her head up, keep networking and something will come. Sure enough, a week after graduation, she interviewed and landed a job as the marketing GA at Old Dominion from a connection she made at the conference.
Talk about about timing and waiting for the right opportunity. This just didn’t turn out to be a graduate assistantship.
Let me really break down what came from this:
- Dana was able to help out on one of the outdoor adventure trips and travel to Peru.
- She was accepted to travel to China as part of a student affairs exchange program.
- From the exchange program she met the Old Dominion’s president’s wife and basically became besties with the family where she spent Easter with them.
- Lastly, her director was the upcoming NIRSA president which would open up a ton of doors.
Plus, she lived 10 minutes from Virginia Beach while earning a masters degree. Not a bad deal while building her personal brand even more above what she accomplished at Rutgers.
All of the hard work and emotions of “finding your niche” started to pay off. I knew Dana was going to become a great professional regardless of the field she entered, so I invited her to present with me a second time at the Region 1 Student Lead-on at Syracuse University. This time it wasn’t about group dynamics or leadership, it was about standing out, remaining patient, and to take advantage of every opportunity that is put in front of you.
Now with a masters degree in hand, several life experiences later and becoming a responsible, independent adult, Dana is the Membership & Marketing Director for the YMCA in Wayne Hills - the largest YMCA in the state.
What they taught me:
First of all, Dana taught me that hard work does pay off. Even though her story has a few bumps in the road, she kept pushing herself. I also learned that my advice, mentoring, and in reality, counseling, was helping. Not just Dana, but a several others. This is why I want to use my skills of connecting, finding one's passion, and helping them standout; and spread it as far as it can go.
How they inspired me:
This council I was charged to build was volunteer on my part and the students part. This has been one of the most rewarding initiatives of my career at Rutgers. Dana, Tara, and Carlos are now some of my best friends I see regularly. They saw my vision, believed in me, and wanted to make a difference. They all made a difference not only for the community, but to me as I try to grow out my next vision.
When an opportunity is put in front of you, take it, trust it, and give it all you have.