March 15, 2020
“Be the change one wishes to see in the world.” This quote, often attributed to Mahatma Gandhi, can be found on stickers attached to laptops, water bottles, and mini refrigerators across New York University. But how exactly does a person go about making social change in a complex world? With limited time and resources, making a tangible impact is challenging. On Tuesday, February 11, 2020, a crowd of 200 students and alumni met at the Kimmel Center for a presentation on the topic of making a positive impact in any career.
The event began with remarks from President Andrew Hamilton. President Hamilton noted that NYU, a private university in the public good, graduates thousands of fine students each year who have a passion for serving others. An alumna who fits this description was the evening’s keynote speaker, Jessica Gonzalez-Rojas (WAG ‘03). Gonzalez-Rojas gave an informative speech on her path to social change as the former executive director of a non-profit to her current campaign as a candidate for New York State Assembly. The event also featured a panel of socially-conscious alumni including Cory Greene (STEINHARDT ‘13), Hannah Immerman (CAS ‘10), Samantha Pratt (STEINHARDT ‘15) and Sascia Yuan (CAS ‘10), who are each contributing to the public good though their professions.
For those of you who could not make the event, here are five key takeaways from the presentations:
Embrace the twists and turns of your career path. It’s likely that the career you end up with is not the one you started. The path may be nonlinear, but that can be liberating! Exciting opportunities for enacting change can happen at any time. Rather than letting past job titles and workplaces dictate your next steps, focus on the experiences and projects that have brought you joy or success.
Consider following Jessica Gonzalez-Rojas’ (WAG ‘03) advice to set an intention for the coming year. She gives each year a word to orient her actions. In 2020, her word is “courage.” When she weighed her desire to serve the public as an elected official against her demanding role as the executive director of a large non-profit, Jessica took the courageous step to leave her non-profit position and run for New York State Assembly. Try applying a word, value, motto, or intention to your year and see how that provides a helpful framework for making life decisions.
2. Find a mentor, teacher, or champion.
Your mentor does not to be in your field of choice, but should be someone with skills or qualities you wish to emulate. Think of someone you know who is making an impact. Is that person a counselor, teacher, activist, or public servant? Perhaps this person works for or volunteers with a non-profit. Find someone who is both making positive change and willing to give you guidance. Though it’s not important to meet frequently, a mentor or champion should be someone who will give you clear and honest feedback.
Samantha Pratt (STEINHARDT ‘15) knows the value of a dedicated teacher. As a high school student she showed significant academic promise but knew that attending a prestigious university would be an economic hardship for her family. A teacher told Pratt about a scholarship that would finance her entire college education, which set her on her path to NYU for her bachelor’s degree psychology and Harvard for a master’s degree in education. Today, Pratt is taking what she’s learned back to the classroom. She is the founder of KlickEngage, an educational technology start-up which provides teachers with tools to assess the psychological needs of students. Find a mentor or champion who will help you achieve your goals.
3. Let your history guide you.
Think of the experiences in your life that have shaped you. Did a class open your eyes to a new way of thinking? Did a sport or hobby get you on a college-bound path? Have you faced a barrier that, once removed, let you live up to your potential? Allow past experiences, whether they were breakthroughs or setbacks, guide you. If you experience a challenge, perhaps you can work on a solution for others in that position. If you had a breakthrough, make it possible for someone else.
Cory Greene (STEINHARDT ‘13) knows about setbacks. Before attending NYU, Cory was pushed out of high school and sentenced to eight years in prison. His experiences in the criminal justice system in New York fueled his passion for assisting marginalized youth of color. His non-profit, H.O.L.L.A!, works with formerly incarcerated New Yorkers to understand the prison industrial complex, and strategize how to organize. Greene’s personal history is essential for making meaningful change with H.O.L.L.A!
4. Learn from everyone.
While senior members of your profession can make excellent role models, remember that you can learn from anyone. Colleagues who are early in their career may know terms and tools from undergraduate studies. Listen to junior employees and peers, as they can have fresh perspectives. Seek solutions from people outside your profession.
While at work, think about who you talk to most. Strike up conversations with colleagues outside the ones in your usual orbit. Open your mind to the possibility of learning something new from someone unexpected. Just as your path to social change will have surprising twists and turns, the people who will provide valuable insights and opportunities might not be the ones you expect.
5. Pay it forward.
No matter where you are in your career or life, there is someone who could learn from you. Mentoring can be one of the most gratifying ways to give back, because you can see the positive influence of your effort in real time. Seek out junior employees at your workplace, young family members, or other people you know who might benefit from your attention. Share what you’ve learned.