Gillian is an alum of our Spanish Language program in Ecuador & the Galápagos. For her college essay she reflected on her relationship with the idea of leadership, and how a supportive environment can lead to a deeper recognition of self. This fall, Gillian will attend Kenyon College to study Spanish and integrated humanities.

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Huddled together on an in-ground trampoline, the group of us decided to play a game called “Superlatives.” It was the last night of our trip, and after a month of getting to know one another, we thought it was a good time to put each other in some cheesy, fictitious boxes. We began with the classic high school yearbook characterizations: who was most likely to get married first, who would start a family, who would disappear and live off-the-grid. Privately, I assumed my name wouldn’t come up; though I had loved every moment of the trip and felt more like myself than ever, in a moment of doubt I fell back into my old mindset. I was stuck in the loop of thinking I hadn’t really made an impression on the group and thus didn’t expect to be recognized. That was when the next superlative was introduced: most likely to become president.

I had never really thought of myself as a leader – if anything, I was the person who took initiative as a last resort. When, slowly, the group began to say my name in response to the prompt, I was shocked. Me? Surely Daisy or Ben would be a better candidate, right? They’re so driven, outgoing, charismatic. And yet, one of the guys piped up, “Yeah, I’d listen to you!” and the others followed suit; it was decided. We moved on to the next category.

This moment touched me more than my new friends could ever know. I felt seen in a way that, in the past, I had never seen myself. All other fourteen students on the trip, none of whom had known each other beforehand, brought their full, authentic selves to Ecuador with them, and their willingness to cultivate a free, supportive environment was hugely impactful for me. For the duration of the trip, I had felt more “myself” than in any other environment; I was content, self-assured, and fully comfortable. This moment of recognition from people I had grown to love and respect was the culmination of a month of personal growth. Since then, I have tried to implement this feeling of freedom and confidence in my leadership into other spheres of my life where, previously, I was not as comfortable stepping into the role of a leader.

I’ve since reflected on the idea of leadership throughout my life. As a kid, I liked to go with the flow, hated conflict, and when I was called a “doormat” by one of my middle school friends I agreed with her. It was difficult for me to separate the mental image of myself I had constructed from my outward-facing persona. When my teachers and peers referred to me as a leader I struggled to see what they did. This way of thinking is not unique, though; I think it can be
challenging for young people to see themselves clearly or to recognize their potential, oftentimes causing a spiral of self-centered doubts and criticisms to accumulate so that the lens through which one sees themself becomes murky. However, I believe that this navel-gazing behavior does not come from a place of vanity, but from a desire to find where one fits in the World.

This summer forced me to reassess my relationship with leadership, opening my eyes to a new definition of what a leader could be. I learned that it is not merely a title to bestow on yourself, but a reflection of others’ trust. I am grateful that my friends from the trip showed me that kind of trust; that people appreciated when I was assertive and unafraid to take up space, and that I was someone they could rely on. While I do not plan on becoming president any time soon, I now feel like it’s okay to lean into that part of myself; I am eternally grateful for my friends’ vote of confidence.

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