Thursday, April 5, 2012

Action & Empowerment

Hi everybody! It’s been a few weeks since I last posted about TEDxUNC. A lot has happened on campus since then: spring break, first-year decision release, Wristwatch2012. Last time, we talked about access, the compulsion we humans feel to act when we see someone in need of help, and the enduring presence of hope that things can always get better.

I try to write each of these posts with an eye to the post that will follow (leave it to the lit major to have a story arc in mind at all times!). From access, I arrived at the pairing of action and empowerment. Since January and certainly since crafting the last post, I’ve made an effort to be more conscious of the empowering moments I encounter on a daily basis. It’s been a bit like being told “don’t think about a pink elephant” – suddenly all you can think of is a herd of pink pachyderms and since then, I’ve seen the opportunities for action and empowerment around me more and more.

But what exactly does “action” entail? How does one achieve a state of “empowerment” and what does that mean?

Greg Van Kirk talked to us about his five guiding principles of social entrepreneurship, which started with a seemingly simple premise: once you determine your desired outcome, the next step is to set something in motion. “Inspiration comes from action, not the other way around,” he said. I’d previously thought of inspirations and action as a chicken and egg sort of dichotomy, but this new viewpoint makes a lot of sense: it is part of our human nature to want to contribute, but deciding where and how to start can sometimes be really, really overwhelming. Sometimes, we just have to do something and figure out the details later.

Our students at Carolina are definitely active: with over 600 student organizations ranging from academics to athletics to service to culture, there is always something going on around here. One of the things that stands out to me about this is that whatever an organization’s “category,” there’s almost always a service component to its activities. It’s one of many things that illustrate the Carolina Way: a commitment to the greater good that is such a part of our identity as an institution and a community.

Perhaps most of all, it’s those individual connections we make with each other that bring a new level of meaning to our actions. When I talk to students about why they should apply to or enroll at Carolina – or even (scratch that: especially!) about college in general – it’s that personal moment of connecting as one human to another that makes that interaction meaningful and memorable. Kate Otto’s Everyday Ambassador project is a great example of this; if you’re not familiar with EA, I recommend starting with Carolina student Chenxi Yu’s experience in rural India. When I think of campus organizations whose primary focus is on this idea of empowerment through the action and advocacy of individuals, I think of my own experiences with Safe@UNC, whose initiatives provide resources and support for students, faculty, and staff and enable us to become resources for one another. This all brings me back to Greg Van Kirk’s closing charge to us as we sat together that January afternoon: “empower yourself so that you may go and empower others.”

Here at Carolina, we strive to provide an environment that empowers our students to take action in their own lives, both in and out of the classroom. A harsh truth about working in higher education is that if a student is the same person upon graduation that s/he was upon matriculation, we as faculty and staff have not done our jobs. We’ve talked about how it’s both okay and even necessary to fail, and that is certainly true, but in this area, failure is not an option. Your college search is a chance for you to consider those campuses that will empower you to grow – personally, academically, and professionally – and launch yourself towards the person you want to become. Likewise, our holistic review process seeks out the stories behind the transcripts and numerical statistics to learn about the experiences and the potential of each and every applicant. We don’t build our class out of test scores or weighted GPAs; we build it out of people. And it’s the people that make Carolina…well, Carolina!

Wherever your journey takes you, you have the power to act, to empower yourself, and to empower others. So often, we find ourselves discouraged by the size and scale of the issues we confront – what can I do, if I’m just one person? But sometimes one person – one act, one moment, one step – is all that’s needed to set something amazing in motion.

 I’ll leave you with a final thought from Greg Van Kirk complimented by a little Newton’s First Law of Motion: “Social entrepreneurship is a journey. You have to take the first step.” The first step is the hardest part. The laws of physics teach us that objects at rest will remain at rest until an external force acts upon them, but once an object is put into motion, it will remain in motion. It all comes down to inertia and converting potential energy into kinetic energy.

Be your own external force. Do something. Go somewhere. Make things happen. You can do it. And you will.

Melissa Kotačka 
Assistant Director of Admissions 
Follow and/or tweet at me: @makunc 
Watch all of the videos from TEDxUNC 2012 online.