I changed schools when I was going into the 8th grade. My new school had something called Jr. Beta Club, an academic service organization for middle school students. I had never heard of it. I had no real idea of what it did. But, my teacher and my classmates encouraged me to go to the first meeting, where they would be holding elections for club officers. Once there, I was encouraged to run for a position, and I did. I ran for Vice-President, and, guess what, I won. I have absolutely no recollection of my speech. What I do remember about that meeting is, when giving my impromptu speech, I thought, “What am I doing? I don’t know how to be a Vice-President.” When I won, I thought, “Oh my goodness, what have I gotten myself into?” Regardless of my fears and self-doubt, I was committed to doing my best and serving my fellow Jr. Beta Clubbers.
At the age of 12, I did not think I could be a leader. Leaders were some kind of all-knowing, untouchable people that I had only seen on TV. But even though I did not realize at the time, like most young people I did have valuable leadership skills that I’d learned from my family, from my friends, and in the classroom. What caused me to act on my leadership skills that day was the support and the trust that my classmates and teachers provided me.
My stint as a Jr. Beta Club Vice-President, for which the biggest responsibility was coordinating the creation of a scrap-book, gave me enough confidence to run for class office when I reached high school. My leadership in high school translated to college, and eventually, I became student-body president of my university. Although my leadership experience technically increased with my age, there were still many times when I felt the very same feelings as I did when I was 12. “I have no idea how to do this. I’m not a leader. What have I gotten myself into?” Along with the fear and the self-doubt, the support and trust of my peers and superiors remained constant, as did my commitment to return that support and trust and serve them.
I recently graduated from college and am a new member of the Youth Policy Team in the Department of Labor’s Office of Disability Employment Policy (ODEP). While I do not occupy a position of traditional leadership (President, Vice-President, Director), I am still a leader. My new job requires vision to complete projects and openness to new ideas. Similar to my other leadership experiences, I have felt uncertainty and fear, and the support and trust of my team members has been absolutely critical to my successful transition from college to the workplace. I know that I must also support and trust them so that the ODEP Youth Team can create the best work possible. The development of my leadership skills through my family, my school work, my leadership experiences, and my professional development in the workplace, serves as a constant reminder that any youth can succeed if he/she has strong support and trust placed in their strengths and abilities.
Ed. Note: The author, Maria Town, is a Policy Advisor at DOL’s Office of Disability Employment Policy. She also was the Emory University Student Government Association President.