Sometimes, the difference in the “after” is so profound that it’s hard to remember the “before.” The Bush Fellowship definitely fits into that category.
The first time I applied for the fellowship, I made it to the finalist stage. I didn’t get the fellowship, but I was a changed person through that rich process--the creation of space for reflection, the conversations with partners, the exploration of possibilities, the thoughtful feedback, and especially the validation of the Bush Foundation as I advanced through the stages. I thought I had been “thinking bigger” in that first application, but the transformation of that year is what freed me to really “think bigger” the second time around.
And this time I got the fellowship. I knew this was a big deal, of course--I wouldn’t have thrown so much into its pursuit if it wasn’t. But as the Fellowship Launch Weekend came to a close, I sat in quiet in the hotel. I hadn’t realized how big this was. I hadn’t realized how big I was.
And from there, my thinking just got bigger.
I’m only six months in to the Fellowship, and I recognize the learning will continue to evolve over the next eighteen months and well beyond. But some lessons have been key to my growth thus far.
First, the fellowship is life-changing, but one has to let it. I had intended to squeeze the fellowship into my already overly full load, to continue on my current life path with the goal of making that path wider and improving my performance on it. I was working full-time in a career in higher education, and leading the nonprofit I founded as the board president. My fellowship goal was to shift from nonprofit leadership to broader community leadership, and I was planning to do this will keeping all other aspects of my life the same. But as everyone left the hotel after the fellowship launch weekend was over and I waited quietly in the lobby for a later flight, I realized if I was going to move into community leadership, I had to leave other things behind. I resigned from my job of 17 years and am using the two years of the fellowship to prepare myself for a future I’m not yet certain of. That’s an intimidating jump for a parent with a mortgage, but when else would I have this kind of opportunity? To get every last ounce out of this fellowship, I need to open myself fully to its possibilities.
My second key lesson was to trust the Bush Foundation. They know what they’re doing, and if they picked me, it means I’m capable of all I had envisioned. And more. I couldn’t simultaneously place such value in the intensive six-month application process that fostered so much growth for me, and then also doubt the decision that came out of that process. The Bush Foundation has a deeply thoughtful approach to transforming this region, and we are a part of that work.
A related lesson is that I came to trust myself. I’m a highly capable person, and I will land well--somewhere, and sometime. I remember as an adolescent every time I was stressed about a project or test coming up, my mom would say, “Oh, you’ll do just fine. You always do fine.” But I might not have! Every new task carried an equal chance of failure if I didn’t put the effort in or didn’t have the skills. But she had a distance from the situation that I did not. I would do fine, because that was who I was. I’d put the effort in. I’d work on the skills. And I’d bring in the values and talents and perspectives that helped me do fine every time before that. And this situation was no different. So yes, I quit my job, and yes, I’m trying new things where my talent is not yet proven. But I trust myself. I’ll do fine.
The next lesson that has been most core to my growth came the first day of our fellowship launch retreat. “Lead with your whole self,” the speaker said, and I have not been the same since. The very aspects of our identity that we tend to cover up or compensate for are often the aspects that make our voices most needed in leadership. For me, that has meant becoming very open about my working class roots. In part, I recognize their value: I have a perspective to offer that many at decision-making tables do not, and I also had to work that much harder to get to those tables in the first place. But the other reason is even more profound. If my goal is to diversify leadership in my community, I need to help those currently in leadership positions become more comfortable with difference. My openness to bringing my class and gender into the discussion will make it easier for others to bring their nation of origin, race, or religion into the discussion. And as representation is critical for new potential leaders, working class or first-generation youth cannot be motivated by my presence if I hide that part of my identity.
And the lesson that I’m learning now is to give myself a break. We were awarded the fellowship because we have the potential to carry out critical transformations in our community. THIS IS INCREDIBLY HARD WORK. Progress is not always steady, and losses can hit hard. I remind myself that I’m playing the long game here. It’s okay to have down days, and I need to give myself the space for that. Sometimes those down days are what allow me to keep my pace on the other days, the 80% of the time when I feel like I’m on fire and unstoppable. It’s important for me, as a person who thrives on enthusiasm and productivity, to recognize the value of stillness and quiet and sometimes negative emotions. I’m so very grateful that a requirement of the fellowship is developing the skills to sustain our leadership long-term. I haven’t mastered those skills, but I have firmly learned that it’s important that I do. That’s progress.
Six months in. So much transformation already, and so much more to learn.