student leaders

Finding The Courage To Pursue Your Passion: Editor Q&A

Finding The Courage To Pursue Your Passion: Editor Q&A

Meet Jaylene Perez, our social media intern and a senior at George Washington University, working towards a BA in English. From a young age and through the example her parents set, Jaylene knew you didn’t have to have a traditional career path to be happy and love what you do. Learn more about what Jaylene is doing to pursue her passions in our Q&A.

See What Sticks: How Good Notes Take You to Infinity and Beyond


note taking, pixar, creativity inc, amma marfo, student affairs, feedback Hi everyone, Amma Marfo here. Two quick things about me that you’ll need to know before we begin:

(1) I am a reader. I am a library-loving, constant tome-carrying, unapologetic bibliophile. (2) If there’s anyone you will meet who can connect what she’s reading to the world around her, it’s me.


As such, I want to dedicate my time in this space to sharing with you what I’m reading, and how it could inform a budding professional’s daily life. 

I am a sucker for a good read on creativity. These are the books that energize me in my day-to-day work, the ones that help me look at daily problems from a new perspective, the ideas that reassure me that my quirky take on my life aren't as isolating as they might seem. And in that reading, there are a few companies that are constantly referenced as being "the gold standard" for creatives. You've heard of these places- Apple, Facebook, Google, Twitter, and Disney/Pixar. So when people started recommending Creativity, Inc. by Ed Catmull (president of Pixar Animation), I knew I had to add it to my reading list. And sure enough, it was a wonderful read that provided me with many tips and tricks that I'm eager to employ in my own life. But the one I want to share here today, is the seventh tenet of their 7 Core principles: Give good notes.

Feedback is a funny thing. When you're new to a work environment, it is simultaneously necessary and absolutely terrifying because so much of our self-worth and vision of success is tied up in our being great. However, when you're more established and in greater need of it, it's harder to get because people "below" you in the organization may fear giving it. This pair of factors, combined with people who are largely non-confrontational by nature, and we're left with either empty and nonspecific platitudes, or emotionally-charged criticism that may overstep the boundaries of work. Pixar has worked for years to create a feedback system devoid of those two scourges of honest feedback, through what they call their "Braintrust," or a group of directors and advisors that watch rough cuts of films as they come together and provide the feedback needed to transform these sketches into the blockbusters we know and love like Toy Story or Finding Nemo.

Catmull eloquently addresses the fear of failure that comes with sharing a new idea in Creativity, Inc.:

From a very early age, the message is drilled into our heads: Failure is bad; failure means you didn't study or prepare; failure means you slacked off or- worse!- aren't smart enough to begin with. Thus, failure is something to be ashamed of. This perception lives on long into adulthood, even in people who have learned to parrot the oft-repeated ideas about the upside of failure [...] And yet, even as they nod their heads in agreement, many readers [...] still have the emotional reaction that they had as children. They just can't help it. That early experience of shame is too deep-seated to erase. (emphasis added)

I believe that Catmull used the word shame in the final sentence intentionally, and for an interesting reason. Helping scholar Brené Brown makes a clear distinction between guilt (a bad feeling that results from a bad action) and shame (a bad feeling that results from being a bad person). Too often, mistakes or missteps are framed to make us feel shame, when we should really feel guilt. Guilt, in most cases, comes from a temporary state, where shame is designed to come from a more permanent one. But our ideas aren't us, and the failure of an idea shouldn't be equated to us being failures. Pixar's "brain trust" was designed to divorce the two and truly concentrate on developing ideas without shaming the idea's developers. They do this by embracing candor, believing in iteration, and leaving freedom of solution. If you inject these tenets into your feedback-giving process, you're more likely to create space for development without creating offense or judgment.

Embracing Candor: Catmull is quick to point out that most ideas suck at the beginning. More to the point, he says most Pixar movies suck when the first ideas are shared. The sooner this is embraced, the better. Few ideas are perfect on the first pass; even if they appear to be, as they develop problems will start to surface. Being able to speak up to refine the ideas, without criticizing the person or people presenting them, is a gift to anyone invested in making the idea work. And when we smooth over flaws with "Great work!" or "It's...good!" we rob people of the ability to make their ideas the best they could be. Anyone invested in creating a good product (as the thousands of people who work at Pixar undoubtedly are) needs candor, or their work will go toward a less than stellar idea. Nobody wants that.

Believe in Iteration: I have written previously about how general praise, devoid of customization or specificity, isn't particularly helpful and at its worst can be patronizing. A necessary element of this is being able to give actionable criticism. Telling somebody what they've done wrong isn't particularly helpful if there's no way for them to improve upon it. I tell the students I work with often, "I can't do anything about 'this sucks.'" But if I know more about the experience they're struggling with, what the problem is, and what they'd prefer to see, I can work with something of a road map in front of me, as opposed to the veritable game of Marco Polo that the phrase "this sucks" is providing. When you give feedback, give it in such a way that the person receiving this information can realistically go back and try again with some idea of what needs to be fixed. 

Allow for Freedom of Solution: With that said, your feedback doesn't always have to provide the solution within it; in fact, Pixar believes that the power of the Braintrust's feedback is that they don't prescribe a solution for the problems they identify. In fact, the director and his staff don't even have to address the notes that are given in these meetings. I believe that this is the strongest element of the Braintrust. The key part of the concept is that second word: trust. When we bring people on to a team, we have to trust that they know what they're doing and that they arrived in their positions for a reason. So if problems present themselves, we have to trust that they have the expertise and judgment to attack these issues and come to a feasible solution. There have been times that this strategy has failed at Pixar, and they do have mechanisms to address that. But for the most part, the people who come in with ideas are equipped to solve their own problems, if given the space and faith to do so. Think similarly of the people you work with.

Most of our ideas will not garner the audience that those of Ed Catmull and his team do. But they are just as deserving of a respectful and constructive process by which to develop them. Anyone interested in a feedback process that is (literally) award-winning should check out Creativity, Inc for some of the best reading on creativity, and how to productively harness it, I've done this year.

Day 25 - Could Twitter Lead You Onto The Set Of A Documentary? It Did For This Student


In day 22’s post on Monday, I introduced Katie Bean as one of the biggest activators to help spread the Niche Movement when I launched it in early 2013. Because of Katie’s support, I was introduced to Nikki Uy. Nikki was a student at St. Joseph's University, when she was accepted into our first Niche Movement online cohort program in the spring of 2013. When I met Nikki, she was your typical student leader: - led a group of volunteers to teach ESL

- part of the school’s chapel choir

- Dean’s list

- and was part of the peer educator program.

Within the first few weeks of working with Nikki, I realized that as a junior in college she was close to finding her niche but didn’t know how to take the next step. She has a passion for speech therapy and teaching English as a second language to others. Specifically, Nikki wanted to learn how to help others tell their story by participating in our program. In reality, what Nikki needed, was a way to tell her story first, before she could help others tell their story.

I am a very big advocate for young adults to leverage digital networking and social media tools while keeping in mind that face to face conversations still is still the most valuable form of communication. On paper Nikki had a great resume from her extra-curricular experience at St. Joe’s, but she was missing a digital footprint. She was not on Twitter and had only reactivated her Facebook account to connect with others in our cohort. She didn’t have a LinkedIn profile, blog or any real significant presence online. Here was a young woman that had accomplished so much, yet if someone searched for her name online they would find nothing.

This happens to all too many student leaders. Employers look at a resume they like and then search the name online. Finding nothing is about as bad as finding a college party picture. This is why producing a strong digital identity is such a critical component of the Niche Movement, because in order to land the job you love (or start a business you love) you need to have a strong digital presence.

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As part of the cohort I was leading that spring, I taught students how to not only leverage digital networking and the tools at their fingertips, but I helped them with their digital footprint. The first thing I did with Nikki was advise her to give Twitter a chance and create an account. Nikki  created an account and together, we helped her identify Twitter hashtags, accounts to follow, and weekly chats to jump into. By the end of the cohort experience, Nikki already saw the power of digital networking and advantages of putting herself out there. In June 2013, she wrote a follow up blog post for The Niche Movement sharing her experiences of how she connected with other speech therapists, graduate students, and became reassured that there was a high demand of work in this field. In her post, Nikki said  “These sort of connections, simply through reading Tweets, have reaffirmed what I want to do with my life.” That is how powerful digital tools can be for students when they understand them and how to best put them into action.

I came to find out that Nikki was also passionate about photography, videography, and documentaries. This all made sense, especially, since she was passionate about telling other people’s story. The six week program was over, but the journey of how Nikki was telling her story and getting closer to her niche was just getting started.

In the summer of 2013, going into her senior year, Nikki went on to create a well-designed page and started a blog where she was documenting her life photo journalism style - something that was inspired by other writers and artists she connected with on Twitter.

Throughout her senior year, her story continued to unfold and she continued to make more connections. As many college students do, she spent a weekend unwinding and went on a Netflix binge. While she was watching ShelterMe, a documentary series that celebrates shelter pets with positive and uplifting stories, she was left so inspired and took to Twitter. Her initial tweet was favorited by @ShelterMeTV and they also followed Nikki. She then direct messaged (DM) them thanking them for the follow and mentioned where she was from and asked if there was anyway to help.

Unfortunately, Nikki didn’t hear back right away but that didn’t discourage her. She followed up about two weeks later with another DM. About two weeks after that, she received an email from Steve Latham, the director and producer of ShelterMeTv. He wanted to jump on a phone call and talk wit Nikki because now, there was an opportunity to help. Nikki and Steve connected and found out that they had a story they were shooting in Long Beach Island, New Jersey and they needed a video production assistant for the weekend.

Nikki pushed through her comfort zone and accepted the 3 day position even though she had little video experience and was a Philosophy major. This was an experience that Nikki would never forget. Her responsibilities in addition to taking pictures, included holding reflectors, posing for camera angles, and assisting the crew with errands up and down the island. She was working side by side with a crew that has worked with MTV, Travel Channel, and National Geographic. All from one tweet - how incredible?!


Nikki didn’t return to school her senior year all of the sudden planning to change her major and try and land a job in the media field. What this experience did encourage was for her to use her interest in taking pictures to tell stories (like she learned from ShelterMeTV) in a creative and artistic way. In her own words, “I basically found another niche.”

While Nikki’s story is an incredible one, the outcome is not that unusual for those students utilizing digital tools and willing to push boundaries. The reason why this story may seem so ‘unrealistic’ is because so many students are not taught how to use these tools to connect or amplify their message. We assume that as digital natives they know how to do all this, but that is simply not true.

Working with Nikki was one of the first times I got to see my two passions come together (much like she ended her story with a second niche). As I have mentioned in previous posts, I am passionate about social media and digital trends. In this experience I was able to share that knowledge with Nikki and her fellow cohort members to assist them in producing their digital footprint. The Niche Movement will never be the same after that experience, because now producing a strong digital presence is part of every conversation, workshop, keynote, etc. In fact, when I gave my first WOW Talk last November, I shared Nikki’s story while imploring other students and job hunters to follow her lead and start working on creating their strong digital presence.

What They Taught Me:

My experience working with Nikki taught me that these two worlds, ending employment unhappiness and social media/digital identity, were interconnected. She also taught me that when students say they are not a fan of social media, we can’t just say ok and back off. We need to find out why. Perhaps Nikki wasn’t into the shallow side of social media, but showing her the productive and purpose driven side open her eyes to a completely new perspective on digital tools.

How They Inspired Me:

In Nikki’s application, she said that she finds fulfillment in her work if she can make just one person smile throughout the day while retaining her positive personality. Well, her story has made me smile everyday. I have presented Nikki’s journey in various talks that I have presented over the last 6 months. She has inspired me to keep helping students and that The Niche Movement’s strategies can help young adults get closer to finding their niche early in life.


The Niche Movement showed Nikki how these platforms, apps, and technology can speed up the process of bringing people together and growing your network. I encourage both students and professionals to be using these tools. Everyone has a reason they get up  in the morning and something they care about. Use social media to amplify your message and connect with others who believe what you believe.

To read Nikki’s amazing story and connect with her, check out her blog post featured on our site.

Day 14 - What Can Happen When People Believe in Your Vision


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). Livi RAC during Stress Release Programming 2010

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.


Day 8 - Office Crashers: When I Asked for Help, I Got Much More Than I Ever Anticipated


Marc, Michelle and I at the H4H sponsorship banquet April 2006 My junior year at FDU took my college experience from good to great because of the new involvement I had on campus and new outlook on myself. The momentum kept strong going into my senior year. I had just completed a three month marketing internship at Ciao Bella Gelato (If you ever come across this, try it), landed a fall internship at a PR company, and was looking for ways to avoid senioritis. Quickly, things like my commitment to the golf team, unnecessary classes, and weak-tied relationships moved to the bottom of my priorities.

I introduced you to my friend Russ Bloodgood in yesterday's Day 7 post because of his influence in my senior year. However, his experience on his Habitat for Humanity trip didn’t hit me until around November 2005. At the time, I was the outgoing president of the Marketing Club, held a decent PR internship, and was involved in FDU’s programming committee. I felt that there was still something else out there that I wanted to accomplish.

Enter Michelle (Luff) Brisson. Michelle started working at FDU in August of 2005 as the new Assistant Director of Student Life, and took over for Ray and Nat’s vacant positions. She attended Millersville University for her undergrad and had just graduated from University of Vermont with a masters in Students Affairs. She was the new kid on the block and all of us involved on campus we’re excited for her new energy.

Several of my friends, including Courtney, warmed right up to her and quickly established a student-mentor relationship. It wasn’t until that November, when I went into Michelle’s office and told her about Russ’ Habitat for Humanity experience that we connected. Michelle’s response was nothing short of amazing.

Just like a great Student Affairs professional should be, she was thrilled about the idea.

She matched my enthusiasm and vision to bring it to FDU.

She also said things like “How can I help?” and “What do we need to do to make this work?”

From that initial meeting on, I knew I had at least one person in my corner to make a Habitat for Humanity trip launch. Every Friday until winter break, I spent 8-hour days in Michelle office (Michelle, thanks for letting me crash your office) researching sites, filling out applications, developing guidelines, creating participant applications, designing a marketing plan, building a fundraising strategy, etc. Over winter break, this is all I could think about. We returned in January and Michelle and I started right back up.

We spent countless Fridays interviewing the 30 students who applied for the first trip. Michelle successfully got buy in from our Provost with a $1,000 donation from his budget towards the trip. Once we had our team in place, we met almost every Tuesday evening until our trip. Michelle even helped us find a full-time professional staff member to chaperone the trip - Marc Cocchiola (A tremendous help and addition to the trip). When it was all said and done, we had secured a volunteer spot in Opelika, AL (right outside Auburn, AL), raised upwards of $7,000 in 6 weeks to fund the trip, and won the approval of several administrators to send a group of 15 students to Alabama for spring break.

Michelle’s work wasn’t done. Even though she couldn’t attend the trip, due to a conference she was attending, she helped us execute a banquet to thank our sponsors and bring together the 15 students and their closest friends and family. When it was all said and done, just like my friend Russ, Michelle had impacted and changed the lives of 15 college students. She helped us finish a house in Alabama for a lady named Ms. Penny the week we were there. She even influenced this group207545_505666134074_2239_n enough that it carried on two more years even after I graduated and she had taken another job.

Needless to say, Michelle has been a true friend and mentor to Courtney and I. She is the reason we both went into student affairs and want to inspire young adults. As I was trying to break into student affairs, Michelle was there to help me find my first job. She was there as a reference when I applied to work at Rutgers.

Michelle, her hard-working husband Ben, and their adorable three year old daughter Penny are still there for us today. They helped us paint our house the first weekend we moved in. They were there for us the day we had to put down our first dog Abby. They even let us borrow Ol’ Red, their 1994 red Ford-150 when we need to move things my CRV can’t fit.


How They Inspired Me:

When a student presents a new idea to me, I remember the enthusiasm that Michelle had with me. I make sure to give that kind of enthusiasm to every student that comes into my office.

What They Taught Me:

Michelle taught me to have patience and embrace every single moment a student crashes your office whether it be for 5 minutes or 8 hours. When they do that it means they like being around and look up to you - cherish it because you’re making a difference.


Ask for help. Finding your niche and following your dreams will often present you with a heavy workload. Chances are there is someone out there that would not only help you, but they would be thrilled to do so. In return, you may just find an incredible mentor and friend.