Student Spotlight: Mindy Kao
When I reflect back on my decision to pursue a Minor in Leadership Studies, I cannot help but feel an overwhelming sense of gratitude. I say this because, in pursuing the minor, I not only gained a wealth of knowledge and understanding about leadership, but I also grew to know myself and my place in the world, and it opened doors to opportunities that I otherwise would have never had. In short, the program exceeded all expectations.
My journey with leadership studies began halfway through my fourth year at Tech. At that point in my college career, I had finished over half of my curriculum, completed a co-op with the Center for Transportation and the Environment, studied abroad in Australia, and held numerous campus leadership positions. Despite this wealth of experiences, I couldn’t help but feel as if something was missing. I realized that although I had accomplished many tangible goals, I still sought a greater sense of purpose and desired to know how to better impact the world around me. That fall, I decided to begin studying leadership in the hopes of getting closer to the answers.
A year later, during the fall semester of my fifth and final year, the Leadership Education and Development (LEAD) Office held a leadership retreat for all leadership minor candidates at Camp Twin Lakes (CTL), a camp for kids with serious illnesses, disabilities, and other life challenges. While we were at CTL, I met several people on program staff and was struck by their authenticity and dedication to growing kids in their confidence and capabilities. Not only did they provide a special population of kids with the opportunity to engage in activities usually made impossible elsewhere by their condition, but they were also deeply invested in building their confidence and independence. This intentionality continued to make an impression on me long after the retreat.
The next semester, I was pleasantly surprised to see that CTL was to be one of the sponsors for the leadership minor capstone course projects. Having gotten to know some of their staff and their mission at the retreat the semester before, I knew that I wanted to work with them. This eventually led me to applying for a position to work on the farm that summer. Thankfully, I got the position and immediately accepted.
The decision to work at camp had been an atypical one. As an undergraduate environmental engineering student that was planning to pursue a master’s in city planning, this decision seemed totally unrelated to my career. However, I had always had an interest in farming; growing up, my dad was constantly dabbling in farming, and I had once tried to start my own vegetable garden. Agricultural issues, such as GMOs and sustainable farming, always interested me, and I read books like Michael Pollan’s Omnivore’s Dilemma to gain a greater understanding of those issues. Thus, when the opportunity to work at a farm presented itself, I decided to take a step away from all of the career-focused decision-making that I had done thus far and do something that would hopefully be more personally fulfilling.
So after graduation, I began my summer adventure at Camp Twin Lakes, where I would help lead camp programs at the farm and assist in the daily care and maintenance of the farm. It took no time for me to feel at home at the farm and form close bonds to the other people working there. Not only did I meet countless inspirational kids, but I also met passionate doctors and nurses, proud parents, and selfless volunteers that believed in camp as a place for these kids to leave behind their diagnoses or challenges and be a kid. Some days were difficult, but they were made easier with the endless encouragement of those working at the camp.
Finding the words to describe the personal impact of my experience at the farm is always difficult. I undoubtedly achieved what I set out to do and learned an incredible amount about farming while also serving the camps that came throughout the summer. But there is a more abstract quality about it that hooked me, which I can only describe as the collective, unbreakable commitment to bettering the world. Being immersed in an environment where each and everyone’s sole purpose is to serve and grow kids affected me in a much more profound way than any of my other college experiences. To be my true self without concern of expectations or failure, to build meaningful relationships, to learn and grow daily, to understand myself- those were all personal outcomes that I gained through camp.
So when I think back on that initial decision to pursue the Minor in Leadership Studies, I cannot help but feel incredibly thankful. Through my experience, I have found that when you take a step towards greater self-awareness, you open yourself up to unthinkable opportunities. Though I had not known it then, studying and gaining leadership is not so much about building some outward skills so that you can have greater influence over people. For me, leadership brought me to understanding what I value most in life and gave me the courage to seek those things out.