When I began at Oberlin, the college had briefly adopted the ill-fated motto Fearless. By my junior year, it had been so mocked by students that the administration had renounced and abandoned it. Despite the shift in institutional marketing, however, the motto continued to characterize my experience at Oberlin — a place to face your fears. For me, the most prominent was public speaking.
I’ve had trouble my entire life speaking in front of groups, formally and informally. In my first two years at Oberlin, I stumbled my way through the necessary encounters (for its small size, Oberlin has a way of offering up numerous unavoidable opportunities to speak in front of large groups of people). In seminars, I spoke twice a class, and in larger lectures, perhaps twice a semester.
It was as a member of the Student Union Board my junior year that I was forced to truly face my horror. The 16 person board, created to develop policy for the student union, was governed by Robert’s Rules of Order and met biweekly in a formal lunchtime boardroom setting. To me, little was as intimidating as verbal confrontations over egg salad sandwiches.
For the first half of the year, I sat quietly by for most of the meetings, unsure when to speak up and nervous to impede the course of conversation. I was concerned about making a mistake, upsetting other members, or the criticism I might face. Over the semester I became fed up with my inability to make meaningful contributions. I realized that if I wanted to do more than merely occupy a seat and eat lunch, I would have to overcome my fear of speaking and learn to hold my ground. If I wanted to use my position to make the change I saw possible, I would have to begin by opening myself up to risk.
For the second half of the year, I decided to take a different approach. Rather than my fear, I focused on making contributions I could be proud of. I drew on lessons from classes on crafting public policy, my experience with group decision-making in Oberlin clubs, and positive-thinking skills I’d learned when running track and cross country.
By the end of the year, I was speaking out at each and every meeting. I advocated proposals on new membership orientation and food service in Wilder; I defended others’ ideas and pushed back when it seemed appropriate; I worked to advance the conversation every chance I could. I learned valuable lessons, and learning them in a room in Wilder allowed me to make mistakes in a safe setting.
More than learning to merely speak up, I began to realize that I had the potential to be a part of conversations about matters more consequential than campus affairs. I could more easily see myself achieving my aspirations of contributing to positive change in the world.
Toward the end of my junior year, I was selected as a Dalai Lama Fellow. Over the summer I attended the annual Ethical Leadership Assembly with the other fellows, where we discussed nearly every aspect of ethical leadership. Buoyed by my experience with the Student Union Board, I felt comfortable speaking extemporaneously in front of 30 of the most inspiring people I had ever met. But even more broadly, my tenure on the Student Union Board helped me to know with certainty that I wanted to enter a world of pivotal dialogue with a firm, clear voice, and gave me confidence that I could.