Although I’ve worked at the University at Buffalo for over eleven years, I still feel like a kid in a candy store. With every new researcher or project I discover, my mind spins with new ideas and wonderment. And although my role as Associate Dean allows me to engage broadly with the University community, I can’t help envying the thousands of students who by virtue of their status have complete and open access.
If you think of UB, and perhaps all universities, as smorgasbords or grand buffets, you will envision endless arrays of delicacies. In addition to degree and certification programs, students can partake in study-abroad, internships, research experiences, and service. They can cultivate leadership and entrepreneurial skills, explore career paths, and make connections with alumni, while sharing hobbies and interests through clubs, sports, and social activities.
With so many struggling to afford basic luxuries and resources, the sheer abundance of higher education can seem down-right decadent, leaving us to wonder whether it can even be sustained. But from a student’s perspective, assuming they can handle their respective course work, the most critical challenge might be how to best access the universe of opportunities that lies before them.
Tis notion of access can be trickier than it seems. Clearly, some students get it immediately, choosing activities and courses that naturally build on their strengths and interests, leveraging valuable connections, while opening doors for future opportunities and support. But many students, too many students, instead meander through the grand buffet, either focusing solely on their required coursework or stumbling through the opportunities, failing to emerge with a cohesive or compelling plate.
These are the students I wish I could get to sooner, perhaps in their middle or early high school years. Ideally I could spend some time with them, appreciating their strengths and probing their interests. I would give them a tour of the University, introducing them to star students and faculty, orienting them to emerging areas of study, noting sparks of interest and curiosity as they emerged. And if I could really have my way, I would convince them that the world desperately needs their talents, and help them explore career paths through the lenses of impact, fulfillment, and purpose.
Once they felt an itch, an excitement to begin their journey, then (and only then) would I let them loose into the universe of UB, encouraging them to fully access opportunities and resources, to explore and take risks, to reflect, and to embrace their experiences and relationships along the way.
But alas, I’ve been told that my expectations are simply too high. And I hear adults talk nostalgically about their own circuitous paths, insisting that it all works out in the end. But I guess it’s the missed opportunities framed against the universe of possibilities that get to me, and the knowledge that degrees are simply not enough.
The truth is that our students have so much more to give and receive. And higher education, and all that it affords, is a luxury worthy of our greatest dreams.
Today is my birthday, and I couldn’t imagine a more wonderful present than the exciting adventure that awaits us in just a few short days.
In partnership with Global Explorers and Nardin Academy, I will be heading to the Four Corners region of the US Southwest along with 18 middle graders and a phenomenal Social Studies teacher for 9 days of hiking, rafting, cultural exploration and service.
I first learned about Global Explorers (globalexplorers.org) at an education conference over 5 years ago, when I was captivated by their mission of “providing transformative journeys for students and educators…inviting you to unleash your potential to do good in the world by sending you on a mindset shattering expedition that will encourage you to live a life that matters.” Browsing through their portfolio of destinations- Tanzania, Peru, Cambodia, Candian Arctic, and dreaming about opportunities to share such experiences with children, including my own, has consumed more of my time than I should admit.
But when I began working with Nardin Academy (as both a parent and trustee) on their strategic planning process and saw their dynamic new mission statement taking shape, “helping students to develop their individual talents and cultivate their intellect, character and courage to make a difference in the world,” it seemed that Global Explorers could be a wonderful high-impact partnership. I am so grateful that Nardin leadership embraced the concept and that the trip resonated with students and parents. The notion of a 9-day adventure, sleeping outdoors without the amenities of home while being removed from all social media and technology, is a big ask for 12, 13 and 14 year olds. But the students have courageously accepted the challenge, and our adventure awaits. I should note that in addition to Nardin students, we will also have several students from City Honors High School, including 2 of my own children. These dynamics of differing grades and school cultures will add richness to the layers of experiences and lessons that will impact us in exciting- and still unknown- ways.
When I think about the missions of Global Explorers and Nardin Academy, and my work at the University at Buffalo cultivating Experiential Learning opportunities for undergraduate students, I am struck by how closely these align with my own sense of mission- as a parent, professional, and community member. The idea of utilizing our talents to make a difference in the world necessitates that we get out of our comfort zone, explore different cultures and ways of life so that we can live our own lives with purpose and impact. The more that we can engage young people in these types of high-impact experiences, the more our communities and world will ultimately benefit.
I am hopeful that this will be the first of many more Global Explorers trips to come. But for now I plan to enjoy every moment of this exciting adventure and I look forward to sharing some stories and reflections upon our return. – Mara
My daughter Natalie can’t be burdened before she goes to bed. Any mention of schoolwork or summer reading is quickly dismissed. She explains that there is simply no room for serious thoughts. She must keep her head clear for the unicorns and other fanciful creatures that fill her dreams.
Not surprisingly, Natalie loves to go to sleep. She tackles her nighttime ritual with gusto, cozying under her covers and shooing me away after a quick book and kiss goodnight. And she always rises with a dreamy faraway look, slowly transitioning into the world of wakefulness and the promise of a new day.
Like Natalie, I too enjoy sleeping. But sadly, no unicorns visit me during the night. Perhaps my mind is too cluttered with serious thoughts. Perhaps there is simply no room for them to play.
Over the years I have worked at readying for sleep. I have trained myself to relax, replacing anxious worries with soothing calm. And most nights I am able to drift off into nothingness, a restful reprieve between busy days.
Yet the quality of my slumber pales in comparison to Natalie’s. What I wouldn’t give to glimpse her unicorns, to stroke their downy white fur and feed them sweet treats from my hand. But even more than her unicorns, I envy Natalie’s ability to slip into the world of magic and fancy by simply opening her mind.
Is this a blessed gift of childhood, or a secret all her own? I shall prepare my mind for unicorns and hope that they will come.
Educational trends rarely excite me. By the time they’re broadly embraced, they’re often mere shells, stripped of any real meaning or theoretical power. And yet, despite my cynicism, I can’t help but celebrate the growing buzz around Experiential Learning.
Experiential Learning encompasses all flavors of applied education including academic internships, mentored research, service-learning, and cultural exploration. And while many schools and programs have long embraced their benefits, the notion of Experiential Learning is rapidly permeating more traditional bastions of education resulting in exciting new opportunities and programs of study.
From a cognitive standpoint, which is my own academic background, the benefits of applying learning within diverse contexts and settings are both obvious and compelling. And when facilitated properly, they can result in deeper and more sustained learning and opportunities for access and transfer of knowledge.
When viewed through the lenses of relevance and real-world application, Experiential Learning can be a catalyst for innovation, workforce readiness, and the types of entrepreneurial thinking and problem solving that we seek across disciplines and modalities.
But beyond its virtues as a high-impact pedagogical tool, Experiential Learning is a wonderful vehicle for supporting character development and identity formation, helping individuals to frame their own goals and interests within broader contexts and needs. Not only is this necessary for our long-term societal health, but also for the fulfillment of individuals seeking to utilize their own education and skills toward the greatest impact.
Interestingly, by embracing the value of Experiential Learning, we begin to view our roles as educators and parents quite differently. Schools and programs seek to provide rich and meaningful opportunities for students to explore and integrate, applying and deepening their learning through facilitated reflection and inquiry. And in this new paradigm, parents ideally help prepare their children to be open and ready to embrace opportunities and the learning they afford- even (or especially) when the lessons are inherently difficult or dissonant with their own experiences and ideas.
This is a role that I thankfully learned from my own mother, who seemed to understand the value of fully immersing oneself in new experiences and adventures, especially in the formative years. As I prepared to depart for my junior year of high school in Germany, I remember her dismissing my flowing tears, instructing me to not waste a single moment feeling sad or missing my family or life in Buffalo. Instead I should fully embrace every single moment of the experience that lay before me.
As I reflect on my current role as Associate Dean for Undergraduate Research and Experiential Learning at the University at Buffalo, I could offer the same motherly advice to our current and future students. Before them lies literally a world of opportunities. And our job is to help them embrace and integrate these experiences into their undergraduate preparation, positioning them for success, fulfillment, and an impactful career.
These are the wonders of Experiential Learning. It is indeed an exciting time!
What do you hope for your daughter?
I looked expectantly at my mother as she considered the interviewers’ question. I was a finalist for a Congressional scholarship that would send me to Germany for my junior year of high school. I had made it through the initial rounds, through essays, presentations, and competitive interviews. This should have been the easy part. I telepathically sent her pleading suggestions- “I hope she learns about different cultures…. I hope she comes back with special friendships….or memories to last a lifetime.” Any of these would have been appropriate, expected, and fine. But I knew my mother and accordingly held my breath.
“I hope she is humbled.”
Humbled, are you kidding me? At the time I was pissed. But I was also sick with mono, willing myself to make it through the interviews before collapsing in the car to sleep through the long drive back to Buffalo.
I ended up winning the scholarship and spent my year in Germany. It was a complicated year, at times wonderful and at others overwhelming, and according to my mother’s wishes, I was humbled. My adolescent narcissism was unable to survive the cultural transplant. There was no one to feed and nourish it, and instead of the adoration I had anticipated the mild curiosity with which I was received had been short-lived. And of course in my absence my family and friends had gone on without me, unscathed and obviously no worse for wear.
My humbling didn’t stop there. Despite complete confidence in my abilities and promise, I fell from grace as often as I approached it, trying to navigate the sharks and other carnivorous creatures that seemed to be continuously circling around my feet.
My humbling lasted for years, and although there is clearly still much more ahead of me, I feel as though I have finally gotten it- really gotten it. Like a character in a Greek tragedy literally destined to undo himself, we are all trapped by our own insatiable needs for appreciation, recognition, and esteem. In addition to being fickle, these are the worst kind of false friends, leading us on a path of self-destruction instead of the fulfillment we crave.
How wise of my mother to front-load my journey, breaking through my adolescent haze with a wish that although I was unable to understand let alone achieve, would stay with me as a trusted foil, slowly breaking my dependence in search of something more trust-worthy.
Clearly, I am no longer pissed at my mother for the wish she bestowed upon me so long ago. Ironically, like so many of her lasting impacts, she has absolutely no recollection of her words. But as I behold the young professionals around me who are fighting valiantly to gain appreciation and recognition for their own impressive talents and contributions, I cannot help but wax maternal and wish them the gift of being humbled.
I guess I have issues with organized fellowship of most kinds. I blame it on being raised by parents who are intellectually suspicious of group-think and all the trappings of conventional conformity. So when I was asked to help start a Lean In Circle it was my love for making things happen rather than my endorsement of the model that led to my initial enthusiasm.
Surprisingly, I bought the book and made it through the first couple of chapters before I had enough. It’s not exactly that I didn’t like it or agree with its basic premise. It just didn’t seem sufficiently profound or complex to warrant the numerous chapters, examples, and associated exercises. So when my colleague and I invited some women from across the University to come together for our first Lean In session, I was mildly curious but not especially optimistic about the potential impact.
What transpired over the subsequent six or more sessions is noteworthy not in its earth-shattering outcomes, but instead in the rarity of what we quickly created. Our circle was comprised of women from various sectors of the University, all with varying levels of expertise, job security, and organizational influence. Although we loosely followed the Lean In model for the first few sessions, we focused primarily on sharing experiences, challenges, and news all with the promise of confidentiality and unconditional support.
In hindsight it’s perhaps surprising how quickly the trust and intimacy developed, with the two hour sessions flying by. Although not everyone could make every session, we all admitted to looking forward to our time together, and benefiting in unexpected yet meaningful ways.
Personally, I appreciated the opportunity to learn about other units, getting an up-close view of the complexities and pressures that were different yet related to my own. I also enjoyed hearing from young professionals who were more idealistic and less jaded than I, with so much commitment and possibilities still ahead of them. But perhaps most beneficial for me was the expansion of my own professional network. Within the first few sessions I was able to contact my fellow members as trusted colleagues and friends, gleaning their experience and wisdom, enabling me to be more effective while gaining more satisfaction from my time at work.
When the year was coming to a close the question was posed as to whether we should continue with our circle. For me, the formalized meetings no longer seemed necessary since the members had now become my friends who I would naturally seek out for conversation, support, and collaboration. So it was suggested that perhaps we should scale up our efforts to support more women who could benefit from the type of experience and discussions that we had come to enjoy.
This was the most interesting part. What should have been an easy email inviting women from across the University to come together to explore peer mentoring and related support, instead felt somehow risky and dangerous. All of us who sent out personalized invitations reported experiencing the same trepidation upon reviewing our contact lists. Suddenly, we worried about reporting structures, interpersonal politics and dynamics, and unanticipated consequences that our efforts might invoke.
This sense of danger and foreboding stood in such stark contrast with the natural collegiality and comfort that we had quickly found within our own Lean In circle. On one hand what we had created was exactly the type of environment that filled a significant need within our own professional and personal lives. Without any formalized changes to our respective job descriptions, reporting structures, or compensation packages, we achieved significant gains in satisfaction and a renewed investment in opportunities for growth and expanded impact. These are exactly the type of outcomes that Sandberg emphasized with regard to advancing women toward positions of greater influence and power.
Clearly, all women deserve safe spaces in which they can explore challenges and frustrations, gain perspectives and advice, and experience the support that comes with being valued and appreciated. From my own experiences I know that work feels completely different when you are surrounded by friends who are always happy to collaborate, support, and assist you regardless of the circumstances or changing environment in which you find yourself. In this type of culture you need not expend all of your energy on being strategic and preserving your own sense of security in the face of ever-changing threats and dangers. Instead, you can enjoy your work, finding satisfaction in your contributions, while exploring new opportunities for growth and challenge.
While Lean In circles are obviously not the only way to cultivate such a culture, they are certainly worth exploring as we consider our own growth or the dynamics within the organizations and structures that we lead. While I maintain that the affordances of Lean In circles shouldn’t be viewed as particularly radical or complex, they are unfortunately not as ubiquitous as we might think or even hope. Accordingly, any discomfort or trepidation should be interpreted as symptomatic of an obvious and compelling need.
It begins with a spark, a current of energy that radiates outward, illuminating the darkness and igniting our collective possibilities.
It exists among us in people of all ages and backgrounds. Although some have achieved prominence it is not about money or power in the traditional sense.
Brilliance is an inner light that shines with clarity and purpose, emanating from within while radiating outward, catching and amplifying the light of others, brightening our world.
To behold it, we must be open and ready. For brilliance is most often quiet and understated.
A taxi driver from Ethiopia who sends his children home every summer to remember what’s important; a homeless woman who feels blessed to sleep in a park that is peaceful and safe, asking of nothing and appreciating the gift of life
Sometimes brilliance is bold and dramatic. A friend who funds medical projects in Africa, or Rotary clubs that together eradicate polio around the world
But regardless of the scope or focus, brilliance includes a heightened sense of purpose and meaning that serve as a driver, activating courage and strength, and mitigating fear.
People who shine brilliantly possess an inherent respect for others, and an ability to experience joy and gratitude that nourish their soul and provide all that they need.
To be clear, the world does not cultivate brilliance, nor does it recognize it as such. In fact the very word is defined as a one-dimensional strength, impressive and rare, but somehow different, as if too much.
Perhaps the notion of brilliance is inherently scary. If we were to acknowledge that it exists and represents a superior state that cannot be bought by money, power, or influence, it would be too jarring to address.
In many ways we are unprepared for brilliance, finding it easier to modulate our light, keeping our expectations low and seeking satisfaction in good enough.
After all, those who dare to shine often find their light weakened or snuffed out by others who fail to nurture their flames.
It is ironic that brilliance is viewed as threatening when it has the power to elevate us all.
By merely recognizing brilliance we connect with what is important and are rewarded with a sense of warmth and promise, a clarity that can guide us toward our own growth and fulfillment.
But how can we nurture brilliance, in ourselves and others?
First we must develop our sensitivity- noting shifts in our own levels of radiance and the radiance of others, as conditions change and become more or less conducive.
As we begin to notice changes we can glimpse the sources of our light, feeling out the edges and boundaries and appreciating our impacts and possibilities.
It is critical that we start with ourselves. For t is only when we are shining brightly and able to sustain our own brilliance that we can cultivate it in those around us.
Yes, brilliance is highly combustible, spreading from person to person, eventually lighting up the world.
And although it begins with any one of us, we simply cannot be brilliant alone.