Saturday, March 3, 2012

Remember the Ice Breakers you hated in college... I loved them!

In the summer of 2001 I attended orientation at St. Bonaventure University.

Pictured: Teen Defiance
I wore a white t-shirt my friend Dustin made me with the Weezer =w= on it.

I did not want to be there.

I grew up around Bonaventure and I wanted to get the hell out. I was too cool. I was meant for the big city. I was going to lawyer everyone about everything constantly.

My orientation leader was named Kara and she did a fine job, but in my teenage angst in homemade t-shirt, I was not into it.

Flash forward one summer. I was an orientation leader.

Flash forward six months. I was named Orientation Coordinator and I was charged with helping hire my new supervisor. I thought it was awesome. I was excited to be a part of it and thought I was so cool for having my position and being so important to the very fabric of Bona's.

(Author's note: I really thought too much of myself back in the day. I know this. For all the good I tried to do, I know I must have driven people crazy. I know sometimes I still do. Working on it (...))

I had no idea at the tender age of 20 that through that interview I would meet one of the most influential and supportive people of my life and my aspirations of lawyerin' the law out of everyone would float gracefully in a drunken waddle out the window.

Flash forward a couple months. Spencer and I checked in at the Seattle Hyatt for the Annual National Orientation Directors Association Conference. He had started the job less than a month beforehand. He had never worked in orientation and from his first day on campus he told me, "you teach me about the program, and I'll do my best to learn it."

There were a few hundred people at the conference, but in my mind it was thousands. Everyone was nicer than the person before them (Except for one lady the first night that had the gall to ask what I was doing drinking at the President's social when I wasn't even 21 and I wasn't a professional staff member... that bitch!). The second day of the conference I turned to Spencer, wide eyed and ecstatic himself, and I pronounced my plans for life.

"This is it," I said, "this is what I'm going to do for the rest of my life."

It was all over. I had had my epiphany.

Flash forward six months. Saratoga Springs, NY. NODA Region IX Conference. Spencer and I had met so many people in Seattle and so many of them were in Saratoga. We were celebrities. We were a part of it... I was enrolled in a program called ROLI. It was the second year of the program and I was in a group led by a man named Aurelio. My stiffest competition (for attention) was a kid called JoeGuy. I was intimidated by his confidence, so I threw myself into becoming his friend. I had lunch with a woman named Robin who was, still to this day, the nicest person I've ever met in my life. The type of person everyone wanted to be around. The type of person that inspires people by saying hello. The type of person I thought I was, but really was eons away from and still hope to become.

I didn't know at the time that Aurelio was the founder of ROLI. I didn't know he would eventually hire me as his Graduate Fellow and start my career.

I didn't know that Robin was the Vice-President of NODA, a nation wide organization with thousands of people. That lunch led to her reaching out to me the next year to offer me a column in her, From the NODA Vice-President. Apparently being published in a national review at 21is a big deal. I was just doing a favor for a lady who inspired me over terrible hotel food.

I know this is probably a boring story for you if you're still reading. I understand for those who gave up already (my throngs of readers are fickle at best).

I'm sitting in the back of a room in Burlington, Vermont. The Assistant Dean of Students at Cornell University is giving a great presentation to 40 students during the morning session of the second day of ROLI. I'm in the last four hours of my two year appointment as Co-Coordinator of the program.

Spencer is four feet to my left. I brought him in as one of my mentors for the new students. JoeGuy is four feet in front of me. I brought him in as one of my faculty members. He gave our opening session on a ROLI alumni's perspective, utilizing the program to enhance you're position and future. I smiled throughout the presentation and started writing this blog in my head.

I have been a part of NODA for 9 years. I have been a ROLI student, faculty member, mentor, and no coordinator. I have been to 7 regional and 4 national conferences. In our opening ice breaker everyone had to introduce themselves and share one word that described how they were feeling. Joe went right before me and and used the word I had been planning on using through the other 48 people.


I've always known, but I've never truly acknowledged how influential this has been for me. I have grown up, both literally and figuratively, through this organization and through these people.

This will be my last NODA conference for the foreseeable future. I don't work in orientation anymore and I'm happy to be where I am. But reflecting on my time here and with these people, I am filled with gratitude and I am humbled.

The kid in the homemade Weezer t-shirt was terrified to be humbled. He expressed his gratitude, because that was what he was supposed to do and people would like him more for it. The kid who hated his orientation never would have guessed that he would be where I am. It isn't big enough. It isn't flashy enough. I don't get attention. I don't get credit. The limelight is extinguished.

That kid was a fucking idiot.

For all the good things I've tried to do throughout my life, I know I've done harm, I've done wrong, and I've done things poorly.

The first time I acknowledged that I was 21 years old. I had a panic attack one night. I was alone in my bedroom. I called my dad at 4am, a man I had rarely spoken with personally. He got me through the next few hours, which got me through the next few days. I hadn't slept, gone to class, answered my phone, or eaten in four days when I went to Spencer who made fun of me for looking like shit and then asking what I needed. He didn't ask what was wrong. He didn't ask what happened. He asked how he could help.

I spent two days on his couch watching movies. Spending time away from the place I loved where everyone knew me. Where I was important. Where I was so involved that the President of the University had my cell phone number and I cut the ribbon of the new athletic facility, and had the second biggest office on campus. Where I was sad, lonely, and miserable.

That kid walked into a Seattle hotel on a rainy October day and he fell in love with an idea. He spent the next three years feverishly chasing that idea by embracing everyone. Yes, I'll help. Yes, I'll lead that group. Yes, I'll run for this. Yes, I'll drink that. Yes, I have plenty of time, I can do anything.

That kid was an idiot, but he wasn't dumb. I know, now, at this point in my life, that if it weren't for the ambition I had as a teenager I never would have put myself in that position to break down. I needed to be broken and I needed to learn those lessons. Just like you need to fall in love. Just like you need to be heart broken. Just like you need to be humiliated and triumph and shine and fall and you need to live life. I was so scared that everyone would figure me out. I had it all together and everyone knew I was that guy.

I don't want to be that guy anymore. I just want to be happy. I just want to make my wife happy, be with my friends and the people I love and sincerely try to help the students I work for.

I see myself in all these students. The good parts and the bad. I hope they find a Spencer. I hope they find someone who will challenge them, call them out, and support them unconditionally.

I lost the focus of this rambling a while ago, because my heart is pounding and I'm awkwardly smiling while I type. I am so happy and so lucky to have had the opportunities I have been given. Even the ones I squandered and the missions I failed miserably. I'm actually more thankful for those, because without those, without Spencer, without the kids I'm looking at and the mentors I'm working with and the inspired students I'm watching grow by the minute.

I'd still be that guy. Fun... not effective.
Without all these things I never would have found myself. I would probably be either a lawyer making a shit ton of money. Going home to an empty apartment with a gigantic bank account and an even bigger drinking problem. Either that or I'd be in a gutter. I'd have ridden it until it broke and then broken down with it. I know that about myself. It is what I feared most of my life, but wasn't strong enough to acknowledge until it started happening. Then, only by the grace of goodness, was I picked up and sent to Rixford, PA to sit on a couch and play with a chocolate lab.

Without those things I would never be here, never have my life, my wife, my friends, my family and I certainly wouldn't be proud of who I am. When I was living that life I wasn't proud of who I was, but I am now. The good, the bad, the shameful, the glory, the bullshit. It was all worth it... just so I never have to live through it again.

This is my very long, very arduous thank you to orientation. For what it has taught me. The lessons I've learned, the people I've met, the places it has taken me, and, most of all, for humbling a little shit in a homemade t-shirt.

I wish I still had that t-shirt.

1 comment:

  1. Tom,

    I aspire to be like you.
    I'm not on a direct path just yet, but I'm pretty sure I'm going to go into Orientation. I can feel it.

    Thanks for inspiring me and my life :)