The independent news organization of Duke University

Dear Unconventional, Aspiring Student Leaders

When I arrived on campus in 2014, I looked at student leadership and saw successes and failures, do’s and don’ts, pride and humility—but I did not see a mirror of myself. I knew that I embodied many of the dreams and made many of the mistakes that others made, but I couldn’t imagine someone like me—read: socially independent, first-generation-American, woman of color in STEM—leading others. It wasn’t until I was pushed by my village—my network of close and extended family, friends, and cheerleaders—when I finally realized how many peers had similar fears about leadership: daunted by the prospect of being the first while also under pressure to ensure we aren’t the last.

Needless to say, when it comes to unconventional, aspiring student leaders, there is a dire need to lift as we climb. Looking back on my university experience, I realized that my younger self would have benefited from some guidelines as I entered into unchartered territory. With the help of several female colleagues of color in leadership, from the graduate level to undergraduate affinity groups to large interest-based organizations, I write this letter with a few lessons learned along the road.

Lessons

On opportunities: There will be so many opportunities that come your way—do not run yourself into the ground saying “yes” to all of them. When trying to make a decision, ask yourself the following questions: Is the reward (i.e. new skills, new network, new tools) greater than the risk (i.e. energy/time requirement, financial investment, opportunity costs)? If you look back at this moment in five years, what will you regret NOT doing?

On leadership: Leadership implies a relativity towards other people—you cannot lead without bringing others with you. Surround yourself with a diverse team that is strong where you are weak, and listen with the intent of learning, not responding. Be ready to disagree often and fail fast, and learn to constantly ask the questions: How do our daily habits affect our long-term goals? What can I be doing to better enable the strengths of my team? 

On establishing your brand: You will not be remembered for what you did, you will be remembered for how you made people feel. In other words, exercise poise, maturity, and compassion in everything you do. Your brand is your biggest asset, and while you won’t be able to control every situation you are in, you can always control your reactions. 

On protecting yourself: You will make mistakes, and that is okay. Protect yourself by being the best version of yourself instead of focusing on being anyone else. Keep a circle of supporters that serve different purposes, recognizing that no one has to be everything to you. And finally, know how you like to recharge. A couple of my favorites are Rest (naps are nothing to be ashamed of), Creativity (write, draw, sing, dance…just make something), Physical Activity ( hit the gym and release some endorphins) and Focusing Tasks (jigsaw puzzles and coloring books can be lifesavers and give your brain a rest).

What you can do now

Know where you are: Write down your personal, mental, spiritual, and emotional strengths and weaknesses. Then, write down where you’d like to see yourself in one year, and work backwards to get there.

Send that email: Know of a student/professor/TA/group/person doing interesting work? Send that email. Learn from them—learn how they got there, what inspired them, what challenged them and where they are going next. If you’re still inspired after getting to know them, offer to join or help.

If it’s not working, quit: It’s okay to say no, and it’s okay to pivot. Re-evaluate what you are currently doing, and ask yourself if continuing is the best course of action. The definition of insanity is doing the same thing repeatedly and expecting different results, so if what you are currently doing is making you miserable, over-tired or uninspired, it may be time to try something new.

Being a great leader is about investing, bettering and believing in yourself so much that others begin to believe in you too. 

I hope at least one person reading this can see themselves in me—an unconventional, aspiring student leader—and push farther than you ever dreamed you could. If you need extra inspiration, take a look at the amazing breadth of leaders on this campus, and know that your greatness doesn’t need to start after you pick up your diploma. You can even multiply your impact by being an idol for those coming after you. 

And to the women of color reading this letter, know that you are bold and courageous. You have vision: you see the invisible, you hear the inaudible, you believe the incredible, and you think the unthinkable. If you need extra courage, get to know the incredible women in leadership at NAACP, The Rival, SOCA, Mi Gente, The Bridge, DukeAfrica, The Chronicle, NASA and GPSC that generously shared their thoughts and experiences with me to write this letter. 

I’d like to thank Katie Colleran and the Center for Leadership Development and Social Action for their support.

Lesley Chen-Young is a Trinity senior.

Discussion

Share and discuss “Dear Unconventional, Aspiring Student Leaders” on social media.