This year the National Student Leadership Program took place on the Yale campus in New Haven, Connecticut. Humid rainy days spent among the school’s old-fashioned buildings entirely reoriented me from my usual mid-Manhattan mindset. Initially I was washed over with melancholia, as the drastic difference isolated me from my comfort zone. I found myself yearning to retreat into solitude and inch out of every social interaction that was imposed on me. As the days went on, however, we were encouraged to break down the value of interpersonal relationships with regard to leadership. I realized that even though the other students differed greatly from me, it would be in my best interest to network and find common ground.
The program was heavily focused on guiding us on our way into the workforce, so it was interesting to see how my fellow Generation Zers digested the information we were receiving. Almost all the students surrounding me were the affluent, Middle-American children of conservative families, most of whom lacked perspective on the economic disparity so prevalent in our country. When asked to identify the everyday problems they faced as part of a mock product-pitch activity, many spoke about the hardships of not being able to decide which of their yachts would be appropriate to use based on the fluctuating tides.
I admit I began the program resentful. With most of the girls in Louboutins and the boys in Vineyard Vines, it seemed that while they enjoyed my company as a peer, they had no place for me as someone of a different class. They thrived during lessons about income statements and balance sheets but fell asleep during lectures on financial aid. In my own $3 dress shirts from our local Goodwill, I felt disconnected.
About halfway through the program, however, Canadian public speaker Joel Hilchey conducted an activity that changed the dynamic entirely. All 80 students were prompted to stand in a circle on the perimeter of the room, each individual representing a different annum in the human life cycle.
Mr.Hilchey began the exercise by illustrating on the visual aid we’d created just how few of us actually represented our conscious lives so far — how many years we have to develop ourselves; how much time we have to change. For me, it offered perspective on just how malleable all of us are. At 17-years-old, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed, vulnerable and confused about the ominous world that awaits whatever it is we have to contribute. To be reminded of our lack of experience set all of us up to enter the activity with an open mind.
We were each provided with a blank checklist, and as Mr.Hilchey read a list of statements we were encouraged to check off the box that corresponded with our experiences.
“I often see myself represented in the media.”
“I am the dominant race in my environment.”
“I have never felt unsafe being affectionate with my significant other in public.”
“I have been told that I am beautiful, smart, and capable by the adults in my life.”
“I have never struggled with mental health issues.”
“I have always had food on the table and a safe home life.”
As we completed the checklist, occasional scoffs and chuckles escaped into the room. Some of the students found the idea of not having these privileges so unfathomable that they couldn’t contain themselves. But once it was time for us to trade checklists with one another, the general attitude shifted entirely. The room fell silent.
Mr.Hilchey repeated the statements, but this time we were encouraged to step forward if the answers checklist we had received did not correspond with what he was saying. Although those of us who are underprivileged remained the minority, it turned out the majority of kids, regardless of their class, suffered from mental health issues and lack of positive affirmations from loved ones. For every statement, there were at least three students who stepped forward. At the end of the exercise, Mr.Hilchey thanked us for being so candid and asked that we reflect on the experience.
“I had no idea that I would ever meet anyone with such plights,” said one of my peers, who had previously been gloating about the mileage on her 2019 Audi SUV.
“We are so much more privileged than we think,” said her friend, welling up with tears. Although everyone had the same general takeaway, everyone felt the need to contribute their reflection; understandably so, as recognizing privilege is a pivotal moment for most of us.
“I had never even considered it a luxury to be represented in the media,” claimed a blonde, blue-eyed boy in boat shoes. He was astonished.
“Isn’t it amazing how that never occurred to you. A real fish in water,” responded the brown girl sitting next to him. There was no charge of hostility in her tone, however. Everyone treated each others’ reflections with validity and respect. In this place, so far away from home, there was no call-out culture to stifle anyone’s learning curve, no punishment for ignorance, simply education.
I left this turning point very proud, both of Mr.Hilchey as a facilitator and of my peers for not allowing guilt to manifest into defensiveness. Everyone was at some sort of disadvantage, whether it was struggling with anxiety or struggling with poverty. The activity built a network of empathy that allowed us to understand each other and dialogue with more sensitivity. I left with a sense of faith in my generation. If all it took to spark awareness in some of the richest, whitest, most conservative kids in America was one activity, then we are working with a very promising foundation of future leaders.
Although we often see the polarization of social and political opinions in today’s climate, we are also gifted with the first highly intricate and expansive communication forum known to man. With tools such as the internet, we are raising a generation that is predisposed to communicate across multiple media platforms. If we can use that elevation to promote empathy-building in a similar vein as the activity we practiced at the NSLC program, our generation has the capacity to understand each other to an extent no other generation has.
After having reflected on the experience, we all left with a deeper understanding of what it means to be an individual amongst a widely diverse mass. We understood that we had time left to grow, and to unlearn some of the narrow or problematic mindsets we had grown accustomed to. Some students even changed the demographic of their product pitches in our business simulations to accommodate people of more diverse backgrounds.
I entered the program with preconceived notions, just as everyone else did. I believed the kids around me were too conservative and stubborn to see beyond their lack of empathy. But in reality, they didn’t even realize they lacked empathy, and once they did, they grew. There will always be injustice and disparity in class, but there doesn’t always have to be a disparity in perspective. I discovered that we the youth have the capacity to understand each other without conflict, and I declare that the pursuit of this understanding will change the world for the better.