I think we all could feel the unrelenting pressure and stress of the spring semester—from January until May, constantly rushing and never stopping to take a breath.
Almost everyone I spoke to felt as if they were constantly underwater, struggling to figure out how they were going to balance the myriad of things on their plate to get through the remainder of the academic year. With the mountain of obstacles facing each person, it seemed like there was a desire for a monumental shift to change the way we were feeling. We needed a moment large enough to shake us awake and to help us to begin swimming.
I found that, as the semester drew to a close, I was no exception to this feeling of being overwhelmed, unable to make a move without sinking a little further. The entirety of this year had been full of ups and downs and I found that I needed to do something drastic to inspire a change in myself, to be better equipped to handle the daily rigors of living, to feel like I was able to create change in the space I was inhabiting.
I had the opportunity to study abroad in Ireland for the May term. I thought to myself, “This is perfect.” I was creating literal distance between me and my normal environment and carving out time in my schedule to actually process everything that had been going on. It was the exact drastic change of scenery and experience I was looking for (and that I felt others were looking for as well). This experience would provide me with the resources I was looking for to make sense of the moments that coalesced into a semester that I felt had just swept me away in the current, rather than having me actively choose where to expend my energy to get one from place to the next.
But, of course, rarely when we plan things out do they work out as we wished.
This experience abroad was packed full of activities from dawn to dusk, sweeping students away into literature, culture, and the historical weight of what shaped a country. We woke up early in the morning and did not return until late at night. So, to say that there was no time for me to unpack my semester back in the States was an understatement, but I quickly lost the desire for processing after realizing what a small part of something larger I was. I was not there for me—I was there to absorb, learn, and take in the moments of day-to-day life in a place that graciously allowed us to visit.
A crucial aspect of this program included a large amount of time spent outdoors—and if you ask literally anyone who knows me, they will say I am one of the least outdoorsy people they have ever met. I was originally dreading these activities, but knew I wanted to dive head-first into this experience I signed up for—that included every single aspect and every single outing. The favorite outdoor activity was (because why not?) hiking up mountains. The first few days spent climbing and jumping and pushing past exhausted muscles were long, but incredibly rewarding. There was something that felt real and immediate about remaining present while climbing, making sure I did not misstep, and controlling my breathing (because wow I did not go to the gym enough to prepare for this program).
It was not until a week of these climbs, after an eight mile bike ride, a forty minute climb, and like three bottles of water, that I took a moment to process the clarity that these excursions had given me.
I had been under the impression when I began this trip that I needed something incredibly monumental to help me feel as if I was back on track, to process through the feeling of being pulled along without control, without a voice. I thought I needed time and space. However, standing on the edge of a cliff, with the ocean crashing against the rocks below, the wind zipping in from the edge to greet you, surrounded by the tired but proud smiles of the people who had made the same climb you did with their own burdens—I realized something.
I had been wrong.
I had been searching for something monumental. I thought that was the key—large, drastic strokes. But that is not what life is about. And these mountain climbs were too beautifully and symbolically in line with these realizations to ignore.
Each step I took, each breath I drew in, was intentional and focused on moving me forward. Everything was in the moment. Each joke made with my colleagues and each helping hand extended to one another aided in the feeling that we could climb this. And each time we caught our breath at the top, we would always say the exact same thing.
“This was worth it.”
These tiny shifts made the difference. This realization itself sounded like a big moment—but in all actuality, it was a small shift in perception, in the thought that each of the little things are actually what impacted the result. And this is because life in general does not exist in only big, earth shaking moments. It is about the small shifts, the moments in-between that make a world of a difference. It is about the times you realize your footing is surer because you have walked a path like that before and have learned from it. It is about the times when you finally realize you have made peace with the thing dragging you down, allowing yourself to feel that weightlessness.
And while not everything in life has to be tied back to leadership, I feel like there is a message here that fits into the very thought of what we are trying to learn as leaders—at least, what I am challenging myself to learn.
Leadership does not happen in bold strokes. It happens every day, in the small moments. The times where things feel the hardest because you are standing up for what you believe to be right in a space where you have not felt the need to take a stand in the past. The times where you feel pure joy because you realized, through a small moment, that you have learned and changed—and you like the person you are becoming. Leadership happens with collaboration, with learning, and with small shifts in time where you begin a different sequence of events.
It was a long, grueling spring semester comprised of small moments that I kept lumping into a large, looming weight constantly on my shoulders. Each step I took up a mountain, I realized I had to let go of a little more weight, and a little more baggage, until I could allow myself to climb. And it was then that I realized I could not drop the burden I had been carrying in one fell swoop because it was not one thing—it was many. And once I began to take it apart, I realized there was good tied up in what I had perceived to be bad. And I stopped thinking of all of this as baggage.
I thought of it as experiences. As things I may not be able to control, but I can control how I respond to.
And this was a small shift, a small moment that meant nothing to anyone around me, but would prove to have a ripple effect in the way I navigate the world.
We create change in the space we inhabit through the small acts of kindness and dissent we offer up, the moments we challenge a norm or support someone in their vision, in the moments we take charge and the ones where we support another person’s time to lead. And, by recognizing these small efforts that will build to feel like big change, we can look back at each place we placed our feet to move forward, each summit we had to climb, each moment of powerful leadership in their own way, and we can say—
“This was worth it.”
Madyson Turner is currently a senior pursuing her degree in Political Science and Sociology of Law, Criminology, and Deviance with a minor in Leadership.
She has been a part of the Leadership Minor and Enrichment Programs since her first year here at the University and has found it to be incredibly life-giving. She hopes to continue to learn from these classes and keep meeting people who are constantly attempting to understand leadership as it connects with their lives.