Thursday, May 29, 2014

The Value of Community

I knew when I was first accepted for this position in last August that I would be returning to a rich and vibrant community in Putnam County, Indiana. It was easy coming back, and I remember telling Bob Steele and Linda Clute that it felt like I was coming home.

When I was deciding between graduate schools barely a month ago, I think I went back and forth between options every day. Maybe every hour. The programs I struggled choosing between were almost identical in every way, but when I reflected on what I was looking for out of the next few years, the answer was obvious. I wanted to be a part of a community.

So here I am getting ready to head out to Denver, CO by way of mountainous week-long road trip to find that community while attending the Korbel School of International Studies at The University of Denver. Now that it’s my last day at Prindle as a Graduate Fellow, I’m not sure that any place will compare to right here. I was told this many times as a student, and I've remembered it often during my short time working at DePauw: this is a special place.

DePauw, Greencastle, and for me, The Prindle Institute have become my home and family. This place pulses with ambition, promise, compassion, and curiosity. I've seen it in the eyes of so many people. In this rural, poverty-stricken county in central Indiana I have met business women, creative entrepreneurs, future senators, incredible artists and musicians, caring citizens, best friends, and close friends. At first glance, this may seem like any other small town, but it’s not. It is special.  

Community is what I've been searching for, and here’s the cliche: it’s been under my nose this entire time. I know that going to Denver is absolutely the best decision for me, and I have the people from DePauw and Greencastle to thank for helping me make that decision and supporting me for literally every mile of the journey. Thanks to them, I have a place to stay and a job to work at when I arrive; I have a crazy yoga hobby to cultivate; I have a little piece of the Midwest always with me in Denver, Colorado. Thank you from the bottom of my heart.

Until next time,


Friday, May 23, 2014

Finding the Value of Work

“Choose a job that you like, and you will never have to work a day in your life”-Confucius

How many times have you heard this advice? I grew up thinking that the only career path I should pursue, is one where I love the work that I am doing. While I still strive to find these positions, I believe that work has inherent worth and that finding a job you love is a luxury that the millennial generation sees as normalcy.

This is a timely matter to discuss with college graduations having just passed throughout the month of May. A trending conversation topic, there was a recent Opinion piece in the New York Times that discussed the inherent value of work and the millennial generation obsession with, “do what you love”. There is such a tone of entitlement in those words. What about a statement like, “work to earn a living that will make you comfortable?” Many of my family members previously or currently work in the service industry, in jobs where they work days and evenings and weekends just to pay bills and earn a week’s worth of vacation at the end of the year.

Are we devaluing that work in advising everyone to follow their passions professionally?

Service jobs, tough jobs, need doing. They are available, and they are a source of income. Doing what you love is not an accessible notion for those just trying to get by. It’s not even necessarily the best option for the more privileged demographic of college graduates. Why?

Several reasons. Doing what you love doesn't always pay the bills. I don’t know of a job that exists that fulfills all of one’s passions. And just because you love something, doesn't mean you want to work in that field. Trust me on this last one. I love the outdoors, but I quickly found that working in the environmental field turned my interests into an emotionally draining chore.  

So, why do millennials follow the, “do what you love” notion?

A recent study suggests that Generation-Y (I identify this as late teens to mid-twenties entering the work force) values job fulfillment over salary benefits and security. Since this generation is the first to grow up with the internet, they have been exposed to more of the world’s problems and strive to be a part of the movement that can solve them. There’s also the idea that instead of getting married and identifying themselves through hobbies and home life, millennials identify with their jobs and create communities around where they work and with whom they work.

At some point, we need to reassess our personal values when it comes to work. I know I've had to do this several times throughout my very early and brief professional career. Family is of the utmost importance to me, and someday I hope to provide economic stability and security to my parents and close relatives the way that they have done for me. Although I still search for jobs that are fulfilling, even more so, I eventually want a job that will reasonably pay off my student loans so that I can spend less time worrying about finances, and more time cultivating meaningful relationships.  

In Professor Gordon Marino's words from the NYT Op-ed, "sometimes we should do what we hate, or what most needs doing, and do it as best we can."

Friday, May 16, 2014

Making the Uncomfortable Common

Long, late night, “front porch” conversations have been a cherished experience in my life. I learned storytelling from family members grasping for details and the thanksgiving turkey, I learned humility and mentoring through long car rides with coaches and role models, and I learned about myself by leaning back and listening to friends and strangers around the glow of a campfire.  I like asking and tackling messy questions. In the right environment, with the right people, conversations flow from religion, sex, racial discrimination, to education, leadership, morality, sexuality and beyond.

As I wind up my tenure as the Prindle Graduate Fellow, several of these topics swirl in my head as possibilities for blog posts. I would like to use the next few entries to reflect, ruminate, and even rant over the collage of ideas I've gained from the year.

Bear with me, please.

At the very end of winter term, I was invited over to a DePauw student’s house for a game night. Of course, when you put a handful of young women together who love philosophizing over life and mix in a glass or two of wine, it’s hard to get past a few rounds of Catchphrase. 

Instead, we discussed one of the (unfortunately) most uncomfortable and hush-hush topics in our society: sexuality. I thought this was restricted to one-on-one conversations only! With initial unease and eventual humor, we discussed the fluidity of sexuality, and why so many of us were raised to see sexuality as a moral dilemma. As if heterosexuality was right and homosexuality wrong. To quote one of my best friends, “How can consensual love ever be wrong?” I believe it is the hate and civil and human injustices stemming from ignorance that is morally repugnant.

Why do we find sexuality so difficult to talk about? The majority of the problem could be finding a safe space to discuss these issues. I define a safe space as a judgment free zone; an area of compassion and empathy where individuals can speak freely without fear of criticism or interruption by others. How rare these can be. It is just as rare to find friends who fill this space.

It’s also uncomfortable to discuss topics like sexuality because our society sees difference of any kind as painfully awkward instead of exciting or intriguing. In order to change a worldview like this, we need to ask for more than institutional equality. Legalizing gay marriage only puts a Band-Aid on an open wound. The problem may seem fixed, but subversive discrimination still hinders children from being themselves or distracts any individual in the LGTBQ community from focusing on work because of the side comments or glares made by their confused and ignorant coworkers. I’m not an expert in this field whatsoever, but it’s a topic I give voice to because of how strongly I feel about it.

Sexuality and other taboo subjects are always difficult to talk about until someone speaks up. I have incredible respect for the people I know who have come out to me, or expressed their insecurities about their sexuality, religious background, lifestyle choices, etc. That is difficult to do.

I feel the need to bring up sexuality and difference in my capacity as the Graduate Fellow because they are timely matters of justice and ethics. The Prindle Institute, its staff, and interns should create safe spaces to make these conversations possible, and speak up when others are too afraid. I hope others feel the openness of this physical area and these people, and foster similar environments in their daily lives. 

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

In Honor of Earth Day

It has been quite a while since I studied Environmental Ethics in Jen Everett's class my Freshman year at DePauw. Although I cannot with confidence state the founding principles of John Muir or Aldo Leopold, I think I have a perspective on morality and the environment today that I could never articulate as my eighteen-year-old self. In honor of Earth Day, I would like to share my personal environmental ethic.

I grew up in the natural environment. With my dad working for the Kentucky chapter of The Nature Conservancy, most of my childhood memories revolve around long hikes in the woods, catching salamanders, and exploring the diversity and wonder of many of Kentucky's cherished streams and rivers. I am glorifying the landscape because it is in fact more beautiful than I can capture in words.

Every weekend during the summer months, I remember canoeing down the Green and Rockcastle Rivers, creating slip-n-slides out of mud on the banks, and only regretfully finding out later that they were embedded with poison ivy.  At the age of thirteen, my parents bought a large farm in west-central Kentucky, where I spent almost every weekend surveying the forests and creating lean-to's from native cane in the bottomlands. I didn't think I was experiencing an atypical teenage lifestyle, if anything I was merely feeding my inner introvert instead of socializing with my peers.

Unbeknownst to me, those weekends and months surrounded by greenery fostered a relationship with the natural world, one that exists strongly for me today. I base my moral judgements about natural resources, environmental policy, food choice, etc on this relationship to nature. The responsibility I feel for the land comes from deeply knowing the profound beauty and simplicity of the area. Since it cannot talk for itself, as its loyal friend, I speak for it. Perhaps if this land-human relationship were fostered with our youth, more would grow up to be advocates of the environment.

My interest in conflict resolution, mediation and sustainable development utilizes this ethic nicely. If a solution to an argument can only be reached with compromise, then dilemmas facing off between environmental conservation and economic growth need to benefit the natural environment and human needs equally. Now, the definition of need versus human greed should be clarified, but you can contact me personally if you'd like to delve into that conversation.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Finding the Meaning of Service

Muddy shoes, snow days, 6am yoga sessions, Lay’s Dill Pickle chips, and long van rides could easily sum up my spring break in Pendleton County, West Virginia. As a part of the Prindle Alternative Spring Break last week, nine DePauw students and myself volunteered for Habitat for Humanity in the eastern Appalachian Mountains, where sheep and cows easily outnumber the human population. The experience exceeded my expectations in every way.

The whole crew (from left to right): Julia Sobek, Kendyll Owens,
myself, Anna Nakada, Linh Tran, Kevin Yean, Hoai Pham, Jazzkia Jones, Katelyn Utz, Cassidy Melendez

The work camp where we called home for the week reminded me of a mid-range hostel tailored for kids. T-shirts from past Habitat volunteer groups lined the walls and a basketball hoop served as the centerpiece of the communal dining/rec room. We shared the space with two other student groups, one from the University ofWisconsin-Parkside, and a larger group of high school girls from Sacred HeartCatholic School just outside of Philadelphia. Personalities and backgrounds varied so much within our own group and between our group and the others, but it was poetic how we all came together for service.

Our group consisted of freshman through juniors, international students, females and a male (thanks Kevin), majors of all kinds, and almost none of them knew each other before coming on the trip. Having a common interest like community service made it easy for all of us to get along and quickly become friends.

The DePauw University group at our Habitat house
repair near Cass, WV
We worked specifically at a residence about an hour away from the work camp tucked beneath Bald Knob
near Cass, WV. According to the current homeowner, the house was a rural schoolhouse through the 1930’s, and has been with the Seabolt family since the 1950’s. The home needed more love and sweat work than we could give it in a week, but our group managed to finish the plaster work on the bathroom walls, put in the tile floor and shower, start on the ceiling ventilation system (in the bathroom), and finish up roof work around the chimney. I was struck by something several of my students commented on at the end of the week: although we were not improving the structural integrity of the house, we were making small improvements that made one person very happy, and that happiness and gratitude made our work worth it.

Habitat’s mission and organization was impressive to be a part of. They manage to organize large groups of people and teach construction skills to “green” workers with only a few construction managers on all the sites for the week. Our site manager Dave taught me patience, humility and stillness. He was able to help all ten of us with our constant questions and never complained or seemed frazzled by all of the work and minimal resources set before us.

Kendyll and Anna using a jigsaw to cut the
bathroom flooring
I initially set up the trip with a curriculum in ethics and poverty, but it wasn’t necessary. Conversations on moral obligation and service, leadership, values, and the face of poverty came easily while working in an area where these topics easily presented themselves through dilapidated houses that dotted the surrounding hills and volunteers with an eager intent to make a difference.

Only a week later, service has a totally different connotation for me. It doesn’t have to be donating to a charity or volunteering long hours for an organization, it can be as simple as bringing a smile to one person’s face. 

Habitat workers and volunteers whole-heartedly believe in the power of one person: one person doing the right thing, paying it forward, and affecting others in a way that creates a ripple effect and leads to large-scale, global change.  I think I lost this faith for a long time to cynicism or pessimism: wrapped up in all the ways that I couldn’t make a substantial difference. I cannot thank my students and fellow volunteers enough for giving this positive conviction back to me. It was a spring break that I will never forget.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

With Great KNOWLEDGE Comes Great Responsibility

I was fortunate enough to be able to travel to Denver, Colorado last week to attend the University of Denver’s Transformational Voices: An Afternoon with LeadingGlobal Thinkers hosted by the Josef Korbel School and the Sie Cheou-Kang Center for International Security and Diplomacy. The day featured lunch and an afternoon of panel discussions, which included 6 of Foreign Policy Magazine's 100 Global Thinkers of 2013. I was blown away by the caliber of the visiting speakers, and the wide array of topics that they discussed.

The speakers ranged from a political scientist, to a NOAA scientist, to economists, a filmmaker, and a social activist (full program HERE), but they all discussed an interesting moral dilemma within their professions: what responsibility do we have when we gain new knowledge?

I think I first encountered this in my own life several years ago as an overzealous and idealistic freshman at DePauw. I took several environmental science courses my first two semesters, as well as an environmental ethics course, and I felt a strong sense of moral obligation to the information I learned. I encouraged conversations with my friends on recycling and water conservation, stopped eating meat at fast food restaurants, and went through stages of not eating anything that was packaged in a plastic wrapper. Since then, my habitats have continued to evolve, guided by my moral compass and developing interests, however, parts of me feel like I have become complacent with the amount of work I apply given the amount of knowledge I have received.

Given the information base I have in social and environmental science, should I be personally striving for carbon neutrality while constantly berating my local representatives with suggestions about changing key local/national government policies? Is that annoying and idealistic, or just attempting to be an involved citizen?

Stephanie Herring, a climate scientist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), as well as filmmaker Steve Elkins, and political scientist Erica Chenoweth briefly discussed this messy question during last Thursday’s panel at the University of Denver. Dr. Herring told the audience that she believes there is a moral obligation to do something with the ground-breaking information she researches, she just does not know what that something could look like.

I don’t have an answer either, but I have an opinion (and lucky for you, this blog to post it on). I believe everyone with the fortune to be able to reflect on these issues should strive to be global citizens, understanding that the small acts we do can acquiesce into something influential, both for good and bad. I have no definition on what it means to be this global citizen (I assume it largely varies by the individual), but that only makes it a more sticky and interesting topic for discussion. Why do we feel a sense of responsibility when we acquire new knowledge (do you?)? What does modeling a global citizen look like? Is there a learning experience that you felt has changed your daily routine or a particular habit? 

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Goals-based vs. Values-based: My Frustration with Fixes and Checklists

A little over a year ago I decided to get a tattoo. The tree I now have inked on my right hip serves as a reminder of possibly my best and worst personality trait: my desire to fix things. For me, the tree shows the delicate balance and dichotomy of meaning to do good (living branches stretching upwards) versus the surprisingly destructive effects of wanting to fix things like character tendencies or feelings (dead lower limbs). But I continually question where this attitude comes from, particularly in the last few weeks when so many of my conversations seemed to flirt around this idea of quantifiable resolutions and fixes.

I was perusing through some of my favorite online fitness magazines this morning when it smacked me in the face. As an avid gym junkie, woman, and American, I have been slammed with media and cultural ideals telling me that there are ten ways to a perfect spring break body and five easy steps to get toned fast. Media representation will surely be a future topic, but I’m more concerned with our fixing culture, and how we think we can achieve some semblance of perfection through lists with some desired end goal.

During a Prindle reading group last week for Ken Bain’s, What the Best College Students Do, a professor made (what was for me) a revolutionary statement. She said that we need to stop making lists where you can check things off. Instead of being goal-oriented, she suggested being value-oriented. What is the value of a value-oriented list?

Setting end goals like losing five pounds, or getting all A’s is like a horse running with blinders: you see a destination and only the one path to get there. What do we accomplish for ourselves by checking off this list?

I propose instead, that we should set immeasurable goals. Ambitions that can always be worked towards and involve creativity and a network of paths towards a feeling of success. A list like: be more involved in the community, make decisions that make me feel healthy, and give more compliments. Easier said than done, but that’s the challenge, and I believe that a list like this will create habitual change instead of a one-stop fad diet.

What is the intrigue of a checklist? Are there benefits to having lists with end goals? How can they be harmful? I’m fascinated by this obsession of fixing things and making lists for ourselves, and I always hope that I can turn my attention towards the process and values learned when trying to achieve something, rather than an end goal.