Smack in the middle of one of my most stressful and busy school weeks of the semester is exactly where the Leadership Institute scheduled what turned out to be one of the most fun and exciting weekends of my college experience thus far. It’s not surprising that, although I was swamped with homework and tests to study for, I had an amazing time at the Great Wolf Lodge in Traverse City, MI the surprising part is that we were there, not for the waterpark, but for a leadership conference called Connections. Connections is a leadership conference offered to all of Central Michigan University’s students that takes them away from the hustle and bustle of campus to help them better connect with one another as peers and also with themselves as individuals and leaders.
The conference is made up of sessions headed by an abundance of very credible speakers, combined with a couple assigned institute sessions and an amazing key note speaker during the dinner gathering. I enjoyed that the Institute sessions were comprised of the different organizations we essentially came with. For instance, the Leader Advancement Scholars attended the same Institute session together while the Residence Life members attended their own Institute session as well. I feel like this gave us time as a group to really interact outside of the usual setting campus provides and see each other as individual leaders. It was refreshing to look at our group’s weaknesses and see that people in the group really do harbor a passion for turning those weaknesses into strengths so that we can become closer as a cohort. That was certainly a high point of my time at the conference because it was a feeling, a perspective; I could take back to campus with me and apply to my everyday life in Barnes Hall and CMU as a whole.
While the Institute sessions were awesome, I feel that the real meat and potatoes of the conference were the individual speakers we had the privilege of choosing to see on our own. Due to time constraints we were limited to only viewing four speakers and I have to say, although disappointed that I couldn’t listen to them all, I know I made an excellent decision by visiting the ones I did. My first session was led by Mr. John Hinck, who spoke of recognizing what your dream is and then taking the necessary steps to make it a reality. I learned a lot from my time in his presence, but one thing that really stuck with me was that he said we should focus on growing and grooming our character versus our outward appearance. People these days are far more concerned with what people think of them outwardly, but what I got from his session is that if you are doing your best to be a good person on the inside, then you will have no need to worry about the outside appearance of others, much less of yourself.
The second session on my agenda was titled Situational Leadership Through the Eyes of Disney, yes, the fact that Disney is in the title did have some pull on my decision to attend this session, nevertheless it was a very insightful and eye opening session. The curriculum for the session really pushed the participants to take a look at themselves and then give an accurate self-assessment, while comparing yourself to Disney’s own fun and loveable characters. What I truly loved about this session didn’t come from the content though, it was the way our guide had us interacting; this method of group work helped me to make a few new friends and true connections. I thought that was probably the most valuable session I attended simply because of the connections I was able to make in it.
The next session I attended was all about taking that next step, you know, going that extra mile when making connections and even just in maintaining the connections you have already made. It was called Beyond the Degrees and led by Mr. Bo Parker, who I always find to be a very engaging and fun speaker. He was joined in leading this session by Mr. Brandon Wulf, who I found to be equally as engaging and funny. I took many notes in this session, but the one thing that hit home for me came out of the very first exercise they had us perform upon entering the room. We were instructed to make as many connections as we could in about five minutes. Naturally everyone walked around the room and introduced themselves to the people they did not already know. I told people my name and said nice to meet you, and then we parted ways in search of someone else we could meet. The entire time this was going on I could not help but notice that these little intros we were performing were not effective in establishing any sort of real connection with another person in the room. I could barely remember the name of everyone whose hand I had shaken, let alone be comfortable starting a genuine conversation with them outside of that room, there was no real connection. That exercise alone taught me to really see people when I speak to them, especially if it’s a first time meeting. That session pushed me to challenge myself to turn my normal “Hi!” in the hallway into a true inquisition of people and to focus more on what the other person is saying which means less of preparing myself for the next question or answer.
My last sets of speakers for the week were the ever lovely Mrs. Erin Smith Gaken and Dan Ekonen. Let me just say that even if I did not take anything away from that whole session, I am just glad I got the opportunity to see Erin and Dan out of the hustle and bustle of campus and truly being the spunky and starkly realistic people they are. However, I did take a lot from that session and what I would most like to share about it is that everyone on the planet may follow a different moral compass and lead a different type of life, but we still all have the ability to look at ourselves and make the decision to do what we feel is personally right for any situation. Yes it takes courage and sometimes hard thinking, but it is certainly possible and that’s why everything we do is a choice. This seemed a little daunting to me at first and I realize may seem a bit off-putting on this paper, but I think if you flip it around it can also be one of the most empowering things. Everything you do is a choice; you have the power to choose to make things better, to change the world until it is the way you feel it should be. I find that to be one of the most freeing sensations!
Connections conference is something I feel everyone should have the opportunity to experience, because it doesn’t just motivate you to be a better person for that weekend, it truly focuses on the Now What part that comes after every great experience. I have been back from connections for about a week now and I can honestly say that I don’t feel lost from the experience; in fact I have seen it at work in my daily life numerous times since arriving back from the conference. This is such a fantastic thing to me and I hope that I can apply the concepts I learned there so successfully in my life on campus that those around me feel like they too have experienced a small part of the connections conference. Now I hope I can embody the notions taught to me at Connections and that through example I can effectively spread those notions through the Central Michigan University community.