I went to Shanghai this weekend believing that I would meet the Dean of Admissions from Barnard College and nothing more. What I had not anticipated was an invitation to a leadership workshop that would be held by current Barnard students at a nearby high school later that day. It was an opportunity I could not turn down, because I wanted to see what I could improve on when it comes to leadership…despite my ‘already-evident engagement’ to the leadership realm throughout my own high school career.
Despite having submitted my application to Barnard a few months ago, I was still apprehensive about women’s colleges, especially because I grew up in a co-educational environment. To be working with a group of only females, especially those I have never even met, was…a rather daunting prospect. Throughout my life, my friends have been mostly boys; the people I typically work with, from Student Council to Model United Nations, have been mostly boys too. The only exception is my a cappella group, in which most of the members are girls; that being said, the male members tend to take on the leadership aspects of the group too, such as conducting and teaching us how to sing.
Don’t get me wrong: I have absolutely nothing against women’s colleges. I actually think it’s empowering for women to be given opportunities to get involved in the communities where they are recognised for what are believed to be ‘patriarchal,’ if you will. So with this perspective of women’s colleges in mind, why did it worry me so much to even apply to one such as Barnard? There is only one answer: I was unfamiliar with the working environment of only women, and was afraid to step out of my comfort zone. The workshop I attended cleared my doubts, and…wow, did it change how I see myself as not only a woman, but also a leader who is a woman.
It was my first time being with a group of (mostly) Chinese female students from Shanghai (alongside some American and British students who are studying in China). I went into the workshop with my initial ‘perceptions’ of the stereotypical Chinese girl, if you will: demure, soft-spoken, hardworking…basically not as outspoken and ‘extroverted’ as I appear to be. Sure enough, many of the girls who were in my group did have these qualities: some were extremely shy and was afraid to give the ‘wrong’ ideas, while others had fantastic ideas but were afraid to use their voice. There were some exceptions, in which the girls were very eloquent and possessed some sort of charisma that made them very convincing public speakers. Needless to say, it was an eclectic mix of girls in one room. There was also a rather diverse combination of talents and goals. One of the girls was very artistic, and she designed a lovely poster as a part of their project (which will be briefly explained later). One of the girls who I worked with is a talented writer – she writes poetically and concisely, and I was very impressed by her ability to take a simple idea and make it glamorous. Another girl wanted to be a musical therapist, which is a huge “wow” factor for me because I’ve never met anybody like that; how she wanted to use this interest in her project was all the more interesting, and it was just great to see how even the little things that we overlook or consider ‘irrelevant’ can be incorporated to something huge.
The goal of the workshop was to get into small groups to create and present a community project of our choosing. The community projects could involve the environment, the local community, the school community – the options were (virtually) unlimited. After discussing some issues that we noticed in our own societies, we decided to do something simple and have a “Free Hugs” event in order to spread happiness and to convey the message that since we all live in the same community and the same world, we shouldn’t treat each other like strangers. In terms of planning the project, the work was divided into four main components: the ‘elevator pitch’ that is meant to give an overall picture of the project as a cohesive whole; the timeline that basically organises our creative and implementation process; the community involvement criteria that outlines who would be involved in this project and why; and the poster that would promote the project. Although each person was technically ‘meant to’ work on one component that they were ‘stronger’ at, we eventually decided to draft our respective plans first, and then proofread each other’s worksheets. Thus, we would make sure we were on the same page. That worked…really well.
Although I had to leave early to catch my flight back to Hong Kong, I can definitely say that I managed to bring home with me many lessons about myself, leadership and working collectively with girls instead of the boys I’m comfortable working with. We’re sort of more competitive sometimes that we usually fight for what we want to do, but when there’s a time constraint we tend to put aside what we like and try to expand our horizons. The girls I’ve worked with were particularly open-minded, and the ideas they came up with had the balance between practicality and creativity; when I worked with the boys in my school, they tend to be extremely pragmatic. The girls in my group also liked to collaborate with one another instead of doing their own individual thing, which I admittedly found quite surprising because I had thought that students in Asia, regardless of gender, are so competitive that collaboration would be more of a hindrance than an asset.
As for me, I’ve figured that I…talk too much. Sometimes, I didn’t really let the other girls talk, even when they had said that they wanted me to be the group leader. The thing is, even though I did end up trying to play the role they gave me, I didn’t reinforce my philosophy that everybody could be a leader. Maybe if I had kept my mouth shut a little bit, they would’ve had their chance. Well, let bygones be bygones. It’s a time to recognise weakness, as much as it is a time to recognise strength.
At the end of the day, everybody can be a leader because of who he or she is and what he or she is capable of. Sometimes, we can’t overlook what we have that could potentially be our assets. Being a leader isn’t purely about being the public speaker or the organiser or the communicator; it’s about being who you are, and believing you can be the leader you want to be. Existential? Doesn’t matter: it worked for me.
I am a leader because I am me (the same cannot be said for my grammar). And I believe.