Career Pathways: Who are the people in your neighborhood?

Thursday, September 19, 2019 - 12:00 pm
Donita Volkwijn

I once joked with a friend that I had no personality of my own, rather that I was made up of a Frankenstein patchwork of all the people I’ve met. The tendency to wander in my storytelling? Let me introduce you to my late grandfather. The courage to opine on things not even remotely in my ken? Let me introduce you to my father and mother, my college professors, and the characters that set out on all sorts of adventures in the books I love. The obsession with equity? Let me introduce you to my sister and me as kids, counting out peas to make sure we had the same number (she loved them, I hated them). I can point to the genesis of many of my foibles and personality traits by introducing you to the people who have influenced me throughout my life.

This latest cohort meeting has left me musing about who shapes our beings and how. The exercise in which we invited our mentors and guides into the room, felt at once new and familiar, since I’ve always lugged around voices in my head. As an immigrant child, there was a lot of loneliness and fear when I went outside the circle of my family. I never quite fit in with the other kids and my awkward overtures at making friends were not often met with success. So, when I went to lonely places, I would bring along the people who gave me comfort. Initially, it was just my family or characters in books, but over time, a teacher here or a friend there would be added to my “heady” community.

Imagine then, the wonder I felt the first time I discovered an entire group of people who “got me”. One of my first opera gigs revealed a community that shared my ideals, principles, love of the art, love of the process and joy in the music. Each person built on the talent of the other and the result was that together, we created something that was of us but also so much more. When the gig was over and I had to say good-bye a short six weeks later, I was devastated. I wondered if I would ever again be part of something so magnificent, and even more disconcertingly, if I would ever be as good a singer without this community to challenge and support me.

When I first met this cohort, I knew immediately that we were destined for a similar fate. The power to move and change was in the room the first time we gathered, and we’ve already begun to see what we build when we operate in concert. Yes, as individuals, we’re rather wonderful, but as a cohort, we are formidable. It’s beautiful and exciting and it’s ending soon. I know the fear of going back to being just one or two, often in places in which our voice is the only one raised to fight the good fight is looming. How can we leave the joy and comfort of people who make us better and, more importantly, can we become the leaders we see reflected in each other’s eyes if our community is once again dispersed?

What helped me as I progressed in my singing career was that once I recognized that first sense of belonging, I started searching for and building more of the same. Sometimes I was still a community of one, but I had more people to carry with me to remind me that I belonged. I also found that as I walked into rehearsal halls, I would increasingly see people I had (very tearfully) said good-bye to not 2 months earlier. After much screaming with joy, we would inevitably start to “introduce” our previous community to our new one and add to our growing ecosystem.

As we contemplate how to say good-bye to each other in November, I’ve already started introducing you to the other people who’ve shaped me. You’re already in my stories, in my presentations and in my heart. I know the next time I’m in a room in which I feel alone, I will be bringing you all with me and you will hold me up when I am faltering, cheer me on when I succeed and continue to make me a better person. I propose that we all take each other with us and introduce this community to the world. I’ll start.

Hey world, let me introduce you to the Career Pathways Cohort 2019. Prepare to be astounded.

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Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion
Leadership Development
Professional Development