“Real world” struggles prompt question of leadership

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Carly Davis

Graphic above by Phoenix Agyepong.
College students find themselves caught in between youth and adulthood, creating a sense of stasis. Without the power and opportunity to create significant change, students are stuck learning and listening without an outlet to direct their frustration with the world.
In the wake of Ruth Bader Ginsberg’s passing, an ongoing pandemic, protests against racial injustice and continued environmental crises, the issues that come for free with living in 2020 feel stifling. And due to their position, college students are constantly discouraged from joining the conversation around fixing them.
In order to join the conversation, students can seek out leadership opportunities to position themselves for success in helping others. Getting involved in the campus community often means helming a club or organization, but leadership can involve more than being in charge.
“Sometimes leadership looks like being the one  out front and guiding people. Other times it means leading from the core. And there are times when I’m guiding from behind,” Dr. Monica Smith, Vice President of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, said. “I always think about the obligation I have to be genuine, to lead with integrity.”
Treating leadership as a platform rather than an opportunity for power differentiates a caring, effective leader from someone who abuses their position. It’s a privilege for your voice to be elevated, especially when you’re voted into that position by your constituents.
“All of us have the power to impact change because it’s in our voices, and we are born with that,” Smith said. “What’s lacking is the knowledge base and the skill set. And those can be learned.”
Augustana prides itself on churning out effective student leaders, especially through the Emerge program. The seven-week course, limited to first-years, teaches leadership skills by showing students how to get to know themselves first.
“Learning a little bit more about where I’m at helps me to grow as a person ―to say ‘is the direction I’m going’ and ‘how can I help myself get where I’m going to be?’” Haley Wills, first-year, said.
In the program’s duration, Wills and other first-years listen to various speakers and learn to break down what makes a good leader. Each student finds their own strengths and weaknesses and learns to use those to help others.
“The program allows [students] to form these foundational skills that become easier to rely on,” Madison Fouts, an Emerge coordinator and junior, said. “It’s like picking up tools from the top of a bucket rather than trying to scrounge up the bucket in the first place.”
Fouts joined with Emerge as a first-year and has since worked as an upperclassmen leader and now as a co-coordinator. “We want to give them tools that will be helpful in the real world, not just in the college setting,” Fouts said.
And as the “real world” grows increasingly tumultuous, those leadership skills gain value. Students who know how to communicate and de-escalate conflict will have an advantage when it comes to navigating a reactive society.
“We don’t even know what [the world]’s going to look like in a month, two months, whatever, so it’s scary. But I think being in Emerge and being at Augustana in general is already helpful with that fear,” Erika Dahlstrand, first-year, said.
As a prospective secondary education major, Dahlstrand first joined Emerge because it seemed interesting. “I think I’m learning a lot of cooperation and patience,” Dahlstrand said. “Doing what you need to do, not just for the good of yourself but for the good of other people as well.”
Despite restricting their numbers to allow for social distancing, the Office of Student Life still decided to put on the program in 2020. Now, more than ever, establishing the characteristics of good leadership matters for students.
When college-age Americans realize their capacity for change, it enables them to explore what leadership means to them in an active, concrete way.
Students understand political stakes on a different level when they become actively involved in their communities. They see the real effects of legislation and how the social issues they study in classes ― poverty, redlining, over policing, environmental injustice, etc.―impact a community in real life rather than on paper.
The real difficulty in incorporating what you learn about leadership into your life happens outside of school. You need to have money to donate, time to protest, and the education to form comprehensive beliefs that you’ll use to justify your actions to any online stranger who criticizes you.
So when a college student wants to join the conversation and initiate positive change, they are facing a system determined to make them work within the confines of the system itself.
The rallying cry of “the system is broken!” surged in popularity when the COVID-19 pandemic         exposed structural flaws in the U.S., but was quickly followed by a different argument: that the system wasn’t broken, but rather designed to benefit some Americans at the expense of others.
“The system’s working perfectly as it’s intended to,” Tavian Cervantes, senior, said.
The COVID-19 pandemic demonstrated that parts of the United States with less money and influence did not receive the same support as other areas.
Similarly, the populations in those areas are largely made up of disenfranchised groups who have a smaller role in the democratic process than other Americans.
Voting days are not federal holidays, and because of that, it limits a worker’s right to vote. Homeless populations are often barred from voting as they lack proof of residence to register. In the majority of U.S. states, felons lose their right to vote, some permanently. Participation in democracy is rooted in suppressing marginalized populations across various barriers.
The political conversation itself requires a comprehensive understanding of current issues, and that means Americans have to constantly educate themselves.
Authoritarianism ―the practice of enforcing obedience at the expense of personal freedom ―thrives in a population where people are too tired to try. The institution relies on tiring out its opponents rather than taking them on. “The age that we are in now, with social media, s*** goes viral for breakfast,” Cervantez said. “We’re immune to it at this point.”
“I think that the climate that we live in now with social media and how you’re constantly seeing s*** that’s wrong, and constantly hearing about s*** that’s wrong… to get a movement going ―who has the energy for it? Who has the time for it?” Cervantez said.
Political fatigue is nothing new, but it has been exacerbated by the 2020 news cycle, in which a Rochester, New York mass shooting with two fatalities last Friday was just the icing on the cake of the weekend news.
But to say that 2020’s hard-to-navigate landscape appeared out of the blue would be disingenuous.
“For as long as I can remember, I’ve always heard about something happening,” Wills said. “I felt like our world has always been coming to this point. It’s been little by little, chipping away.” That gradual degradation lives at the heart of political fatigue.
By continuously following current events, a person begins to feel worn down. It’s tiring to constantly educate yourself, consuming upsetting news and forcing yourself to fight against it.
But the new normal isn’t just dealing with your problems. It’s actively addressing future concerns instead of ignoring them.
Leadership largely involves fixing current problems, but taking a proactive approach is vitally necessary.
With political involvement, there’s a pressure to become the perfect leader who can enact revolutionary change. Those expectations lead to disillusionment and burnout when you suddenly can’t fix every problem.
“Everyone doesn’t have to recreate the wheel,” Smith said. “Everyone doesn’t have to start off on this new path. There’s power in numbers, there’s power in your voice. So find an existing cause and connect yourself to it.”