When I received a mass email in early October from the Office of Student Life, saying “You can attend a leadership conference in Calgary for FREE!”, I was immediately captivated.
The Office of Student Life and Student Housing and Residence Life at UTM was going to sponsor two undergraduate students (one off-campus and one in residence) to attend the Canadian Conference for Student Leadership in Calgary and represent UTM.
The email went on to promise, “At the conference, you can expect to network with other institutions, share ideas, become inspired, have fun, and leave determined to make a difference at U of T Mississauga.” It seemed too good to be true; I looked up the Canadian Conference for Student Leadership website, saw the schedule of events, and looked at the keynote speakers scheduled to deliver seminars over the four-day conference, hosted by the University of Calgary. Two of them caught my eye. One was Connor Grennan, the author of the book Little Princes: One Man’s Promise to Bring Home the Lost Children of Nepal, which I had seen many times at Chapters; the other was Craig Kielburger, the lively founder of Free the Children, whose story had enthralled me back when I was a 13-year-old doing research for a grade eight speech on child soldiers.
I’ve always been interested in social justice, human rights, and changing the world. Once a shamelessly idealistic child, lately I had been caught up in the whirlwind of school life and had forgotten to feed my soul with a little inspiration now and then. I totally needed it, though. I knew I had to apply to represent UTM at the conference. I was mesmerized by the whole idea of it. Within half an hour, I had found the online application, answered the three questions—“What do you hope to gain by attending the conference? How will you bring back the knowledge to the UTM community? Please describe an extra-curricular experience you’ve been involved with and explain what you learned from this experience that help to make you a good leader”—and submitted my application.
When I discovered about three weeks later that I had been selected by Greg Hum, the Coordinator of Residential Transition Programs at SHRL, and Dray Perenic Price, the Student Development Officer at the Office of Student Life, to represent UTM along with resident student Tanveer Singh, I was very worried; I was swamped with essays, assignments, and upcoming tests. How on earth would I be able to make it to the conference?
But I did. Somehow, all the work got done and on November 17, Tanveer, Dray, and I were on a plane to the conference.
The conference itself was amazing. The cold was not as enjoyable, but it did add to the overall experience, which turned out to be incredible; I resolved to share it with the UTM community as soon as I returned from Calgary. (Of course, one way of doing that is to write about it in The Medium.)
On the first day, we listened to speeches from the mayor of Calgary and the president of the University of Calgary. We also had a leadership café, where we munched on hors d’oeuvres while discussing different ideas about leadership, such as “What is leadership?”, “Is leadership glorified?”, “Can humans be leaders like superheroes can?”, and “Can you name a person who has had a tremendous impact on you as a leader?”
On day two, leadership workshops were held throughout the day, and W. Brett Wilson presented a keynote. At any given hour of the day before 5 p.m., about five different workshops were being held at the same time in separate rooms in the Grant McEwan Student Centre, based on four different areas: health and wellness, community engagement and service learning, emerging leadership, and refining leadership. Students were given the opportunity to choose which workshops to attend, based on brief descriptions. Students themselves also conducted the workshops. The first workshop I attended was called “The Journey of an Emerging Leader” and was hosted by Siraat Mustafa of York University. He talked about mastering the art of “owning your message” and maximizing your impact as a leader. I also enjoyed the workshop called “Refining Today for a Better Tomorrow”, hosted by University of Guelph students.
On the third day we attended more workshops, listened to Connor Grennan’s speech, travelled to Banff by bus, and explored the little resort town, all while basking in the natural beauty of the Rockies.
On day four, we listened to Craig Kielburger speak and said our farewells to the people we’d met.
The main question going through my mind throughout the conference was: What makes a good leader? For me, personally, I felt that applying for a position of authority at your university and getting it was not enough. I met a lot of student leaders at the conference who had done just that, and had either done the job well or had just decided to go along for the ride and reap the rewards that authority brings without really working for it. Surely leadership, I thought with disappointment, isn’t just having a good title behind your name. It has to be more than that.
I decided that leaders could be anywhere, in or out of positions of authority; they were only true leaders if they inspired others, and always did the right thing no matter who was watching, and did what no one, perhaps even they themselves, wanted to do, because it had no glory or fame behind it. Someone at the conference said, “If we take out the glory and the fame, that’s when we filter out the true leaders.” I couldn’t agree more. I think our ideas of leadership are broad, and leaders come in many shapes, sizes and forms, but there will always be fundamental qualities of good leaders, such as trustworthiness and the ability to inspire others.
And I was, without a doubt, inspired at the conference by the keynote speakers, and especially by the other students I met. Connor Grennan and Craig Kielburger gave wonderful speeches, and their stories are inspiring more people every day. And the student leaders who do what they can with what they have, while maintaining a good attitude and striving to make a positive difference to the world—no matter how small—could not have been more encouraging to me as a fellow student.
What is leadership? I guess that question will continue to be debated. However, I think it’s most important when people aren’t debating it at all—they’re just doing it.