One Saturday morning in September of 2012, I (unwillingly) boarded a bus full of strangers, holding a sleeping bag, headed to the woods in Charlottesville where I had never been. My mom had heard of this “new student leadership program” thing and signed me up – even though my answer was “eh” when she had asked if I was interested. Needless to say, that weekend was the start of something truly special. After my first NSLP, full of ropes courses and new friends and leadership (I know – my three favorite things, why did I not want to go?), I decided I wanted to be a part of this family of fun-loving, passionate college students who were all wearing these cool baseball shirts and all seemed to have so much love for each other. I quickly signed up for Mountain Lake, fell in love with these people again – this time, on the top of a mountain – and anxiously awaited spring semester so I could apply.
On March 26, 2013, I took an astronomy test, and then sprinted across campus – headed for the Amelia Room. Just 10 short minutes later, I was initiated into SEAL, the family I fell in love with, and the organization that has since changed my life. I stood alongside 11 other new members (shoutout to spring ’13, best new member class ever), and was overwhelmed with hugs, with delicious meatballs, and with a welcoming that told me this is where I belonged. When I joined SEAL, I was a timid college freshman who thought that she was going to be a first-grade teacher one day. I talked only when I thought my opinion was actually necessary, and I didn’t know how to go out in the world and befriend people. I thought “leadership” was strictly a title and not a way of life. I thought this organization would be just that – an organization. I had no idea that SEAL would change me, and become the cornerstone of my college career.
Fast forward seven semesters to yesterday, April 26, 2016. 3 years and 1 month (exactly – down to the minute) after I said hello, I said goodbye to the organization that changed my life. I sat on a couch next to 6 other seniors. I faced 23 beautiful souls and 1 advisor who have shared this journey with me. I thought about the 30 SEALs and the 4 advisors I have said goodbye to since my time in SEAL began. I looked one of my best friends in the eyes and burst out in tears. In that moment, I was reminded just how much this organization truly means to me.
I struggled with the idea of writing this thank you letter in the first place because words will never be enough to tell SEAL – and tell the world – just how much I was changed. Each year brought new SEALs, new advisors, new challenges, and each year, I grew more and more into myself. My sophomore year, I facilitated for the first time, and realized how much there truly is to the word “leadership.” I heard about this new leadership studies minor and yearned for it – but knew that there was no room in my schedule for the next few years. At the end of my sophomore year, I was elected Chair of SEAL – and there began the best and hardest year and experience of my life. I won’t bore you with every little bit of myself that I poured into that year (I already bored you with that last April), but I will tell you that I fell in love with leadership development and came to the true realization that leadership is not a title – it’s in all of us. Leadership starts with trust and teamwork and we each have the potential for so much if we only take that first step out of our comfort zone. I ended junior year knowing that teaching was no longer for me – but not really knowing what was. I was lost, confused, but I found solace in one place. I found solace in the Amelia Room, I found solace at the table in the corner of the library with the paper flag waving, I found solace in the hearts and souls of the humans I was so blessed to share SEAL with.
When my senior year of college began, it all clicked. I understood how much I thrived when I was at the front table in the Amelia Room. I understood that I was happiest when I was in the woods, tied into a harness, asking processing questions to new students and watching their lightbulbs turn on. I spent two straight days over Charley’s brunch and course catalogs in my advisor’s office, dropping my education concentration and adding my leadership studies minor – the minor that caught my eye all those years ago. I’ve spent the last eight months learning about leadership – my days in classes learning the history of leadership theories and facilitation models and how effective organizations and businesses are run, followed by my afternoons, evenings, and weekends alongside SEAL – leading leadership conferences, running 5Ks (like, hosting the event…we don’t run), and climbing (or belaying, in my case) ropes courses. I’ve realized who I am. I’ve realized what I can do in this world and what my purpose is. Next month, I graduate with my Bachelor of Science Degree in Liberal Studies with a Leadership Studies minor. In August, I move to Pennsylvania to spend a year at a camp, under the sunshine, in the woods, tied into a harness and hopefully getting one step closer to working in adventure education and leadership development, the fields that I have come to realize how passionate I am about. I wouldn’t be where I am today, I wouldn’t be who I am today, if it wasn’t for SEAL.
My SEALs are my best friends. They find me crying on the the parking lot pavement and take me to get chicken nuggets at midnight. They sit on my porch for hours so they are the first things I see when I come home. They take stalker pictures of me on campus, and later turn these pictures into buttons and wear my face proudly on their backpacks. They have coffee with me and tell me the good and bad things about my leadership. They goof off and climb doorways with me when we are supposed to be being good role models. They bring a cake to my apartment because I was sad that I didn’t get cake for my birthday. They find out I haven’t gotten out of bed in a day and come to my apartment just to get me up, make me breakfast and change a lightbulb. They take care of me at my worst and guide me back to my best. They are either in the library, headed towards the library, or just now leaving the library to go somewhere else where a SEAL is probably waiting for them. They laugh when I smile in the front of the Amelia Room, they hug me when I cry in the front of the Amelia Room. They write SEAL chows that I hold on to for years to come. To this day they call me to ask me SEAL questions that have nothing to do with me, just because I always seem to have the answers. They trust me, they love me, and they’ve saved me in every sense.
I know I came to college for knowledge that will help me in my career, in my life post-college. But what I didn’t know was that I came to college to join an organization that would lead me to my purpose. I’ve learned how to stand up for myself. I’ve learned how to impact others and how to inspire them to step out of their comfort zone. I’ve realized it’s okay to dance crazy in front of a hundred person crowd, because if it’s the right crowd, they will join in. I’ve learned that the right group of people will stand by you through it all, that the right group of people will show you how to believe in yourself. SEAL, you are more that some students who educate about active leadership. You are the family that taught me to be who I am today, and that is something I will never be able to repay you for.
So thank you, SEAL. Thank you for being you, letting me be me, and for changing my life.