Sometimes education is a blessing and a curse. In Lima, I admire los Cerros De Huaycán with mountains that surround the landscape. However, I cannot ignore hearing the man at the intersection catcalling the woman in the street in Spanish. In Paris, I marvel at le Champs-Élysées with its great diversity of high-end stores. But I cannot avoid the Algerian family of five asking for money in French, the young girl in her hijab with her forehead to the concrete, her arms outstretched with a cup seeking donations. In Berlin, I see der Brunnen der Völkerfreundschaft, the Fountain of the Friendship of Peoples of Alexanderplatz and am welcomed by the people. However, I cannot help but remember the Berlin Conference of 1884 that divided Africa. In Johannesburg, I appreciate the Greater Kruger Safari that lies away from the bustling, but I cannot look past Mandela’s House, the Apartheid museum and remember the effects of colonialism. I believe having a healthy respect for history is important, however, many times history conflicts with present day reality. Despite the beautiful places I have seen and amazing people I have met, I still see remnant and elements of racism, sexism, classism and ableism, not only abroad but also on my campus, that leaves me heartbroken, discouraged and at times in tears.
Over the course of my life I question and wonder who the leaders of tomorrow will be to take on the problems of today, rewrite history and lead us toward a more empathetic future. In my experience the best leaders I know do one of two things, sometimes both. The first is that they create a space where people feel positivity, productivity, acceptance and love. The second is that they, with their presence alone, can enter into a preexisting space and shift the atmosphere of the room with a contagious aura. These leaders are the ones who engage and unite people around them, mending the hearts of the broken and giving inspiration to the masses. On April 7, 2016 the Gates Millennium Scholars Program held its annual leadership conference in San Diego, California on leadership, mobilization and organization, among other topics, for its Campus Based Leaders from around the nation. Each of leaders I met were working this year to create a Campus Based Organization, an initiative for Gates Millennium Scholars to commit a year or more to being leaders serving their campus community, planning events and creating a space on campus where fellow scholars are able to feel welcomed, accepted and appreciated.
During the conference I was able to meet four of these extraordinary leaders among many: Silvana at the University of Central Florida, Rory at the University of Denver, Giovanny at Temple University and Gabriel from Brown University. The four leaders I met, Silvina, Rory, Giovanny and Gabriel, are among a larger collective of students in the Gates Millennium Scholars program, one that provides 10-year full academic scholarships for undergraduate and graduate school. The members of this group comes from underrepresented minority communities from diverse backgrounds who have overcome tremendous obstacles throughout their lives, struggled and achieved academic excellence and who embody respect, rigor and responsibility to their communities to give back, pay it forward and leave the world a better place.
From an outsider perspective, the idea of having a safe space on campus seems contradictory. Isn’t college a safe space already, a protected bubble from the real world? Not for everyone. For many students on college campuses, the pressures from the real world are still alive and well in the backpacks of students everyday as they walk to class. If ignorance is a disease, education is the cure. However, for many students across the nation, this cure comes with some side effects. The CBL program understands that college is a challenging place that leaves many students feeling isolated, alone, away from home, without family and under pressure to perform in a new setting at an incredibly high level. Thus, it provides the chance for students to network with one another, be mentored by older students and alumni and establish on campus support for one another.
This semester I took BIOMS 5660: Social Issues in Community Engagement by Cancer Scientists where I learned that the way that the body reacts to drugs is just as important, if not more so, than the illness being treated. Have you ever read the advertisements that come on the television promoting a new miracle drug or supplement? The results sound great at first. The commercial begins with the camera zooming into a shot of people smiling from ear to ear, laughing, conversing and enjoying life in the sun. The people walk down sun-sprayed sidewalks and hike up glistening mountains with rain dew falling from the tips of leaves. The camera pans to a couple riding a bike, children holding balloons and enjoying a good time with blue skies, fluffy clouds and crisp bright green grass around them. In the first few seconds, fantasy turns into reality. That is until the narrator begins to list all of the side effects associated with taking the drug. Suddenly, things like difficulty breathing, high blood pressure, enlarged prostate, trouble swallowing, hives, rashes and bleeding make us question which is worse: the disease or the cure. At an institution of higher education, education is a blessing. However, it can also be a curse. The CBL programs works to craft a new narrative.
What if we could make it so that students felt so at home on campus that when they left college they felt homesick? What if we could instill a love for learning that was free from judgment and prejudice from professors and students? What if the cure for ignorance did not have a side effect? What if we could make students feel included in their communities at home and at school? It requires more than just students. It requires advisors, alumni, administrators and individuals willing to donate time and money into student success and achievement. It is possible to create safe spaces on campus and the Campus Based Leadership initiative is a model that should be established on every university system that wants to support its high achieving student population.
Jeremiah Grant is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. Jeremiah can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Gates & Ladders appears alternate Fridays this semester.