Friday, May 5, 2017

For the Graduates: Look for the Mentors

This is graduation weekend at Michigan State University. There is a special class of seniors graduating. Yes, when you've been in education for any length of time - secondary or post-secondary, each year there are special seniors graduating. But because there are special seniors each year doesn't diminish the special-ness of this year's seniors...rather, witnessing the growth of a freshman into a senior - this is our fuel - to look for the special-ness in the next group - while cheering on these seniors now "fully embracing" adulthood. :)

I teach a professional development course where my students develop, improve, and refine their job application skills through practice: writing resumes, searching for a job posting that fits their skills and interests, writing for a cover letter, and interviewing for that job. Each month, we have a networking breakfast where students have short (8-minute) conversations with an animal science professional or alumni to learn about their job and career path. My goal is to "take the edge off" the job search process - to make entering "the real world" seem less daunting and scary.

In addition, my students take the Clifton Strengths Finder assessment from Gallup. Many of them have taken the MBTI personality test in ANS 101. I utilize Strengths instead of MBTI in this class because the premise is that strengths drive engagement, and if employees are working to their strengths, they will be happier, more satisfied, more productive employees. However, most students of us don't think about our strengths...and few of us know how to recognize them.

Reading course reflections reiterated this. Several students commented about how it was nice to have "someone else" point out their strengths. Strengths are a combination of skills and talents that we often use so much in our daily lives that we don't recognize that particular way of operating as a strength. Students find it encouraging to have these 'quirks' affirmed as a strength - as something unique to be celebrated - because too often we only focus on our weakness. "We are constantly being reminded of where we fall short - not what we do well."

With that long introduction, my seniors, I want to tell you this:

You are about to enter the lion's den. I'm sorry; I could try to sugar-coat it...but "the rest of your life" is going to be a bumpy ride at times. NOT ALWAYS.

You might have seen some different articles floating around the Buzzfeed universe from your older friends about how 23 is the worst year of your life. I can't speak for everybody - but it was for me, too. There's no amount of preparation to get you through it. We can talk about things to consider in job application packages and budgeting - but, that is only a part of the hardness.

Most of you are out on your very own for the first time. Some of you are living in an entirely new community. Even if you stay in the same community - same university where you went to college (like me) - it's still hard! Because the people who made that place for you - they graduated, too. They are in different cities and towns...and the underclassmen (who now are upperclassmen), well - they just don't get it. They still get to take naps every day at 2pm and pull all-nighters, while you are trying to get used to being in an office 8-9 hours a day.

Oh - I think this was supposed to have a positive spin. Don't most of my writings?

Yes - because in this furnace of 23, you are going to transform into the professional that you were designed to be. The foundation was laid as a student - but, you are still clay. In college, you probably put some shine on (painted with glaze to make you a desirable candidate). However, those of you create pottery know that NOW your form has to first dry out and then be fired to be made firm. As potters will tell you, during the firing process some pots crack; some didn't have a strong form and the heat causes them to crack.

Let me tell you this: you will crack. Why? Because you were not designed to be a pot and hold water: you were designed to shine. But to shine, you have to endure flames through trial-and-error, disappointment, heartbreak, suffering...and there will be times that you may feel you are on the brink of being reduced to ashes.

How do you endure the flames? At this point, I want you to look for a mentor. Your mentor is the one who calls forth life from the suffering, beauty in the ashes, potential in the clay, purpose in the pressure. Your mentor sees you both as who you are - and who you were designed to be. They can stand seeing you in your mess because they know that you are more than a mess. They see your strengths - and they remind you of them when you feel like you're mostly a ball of weaknesses and faults.

I look back upon my journey - the last 20 years and I recognize my mentors and their importance in my life. There will be mentors who stay with you through life - and those who come in for moments: both are valuable.

High school: Deb Hall, my county extension education director - who recognized an entire person of potential beyond the shy, reluctant-to-speak freshman Jessica. Because she encouraged me to step out and speak up, I did. My involvement in county, area, and state 4-H activities would not have happened without her. Without that involvement, I would not be where I am - I would not be who I am. ...and even today, I call on her for advice - and she speaks such encouragement and truth to my heart. She sees my strengths when I can't.

College: Dr. Robert Martin - my college advisor - undergrad and grad school; Dr. FC Parrish, Jr. When I met with Dr. Martin, I always felt like I had the potential to change the world. That I brought light to someone's life...that I could be more than I currently was.

F.C. - man, he changed my life. He taught the Animal Products course - a course I never would have considered taking (until I dropped a super-boring Agronomy class and needed something and my friend Kelli told me to take it with her). He was the first professor who requested to meet with me after class; the first to question me about why ag ed - and the first to plant the seed of graduate school. After his retirement and my graduation, we continued to meet at least monthly for lunches - and I am forever grateful for his friendship. He was a mentor professionally, but even more so a model of how to life life well. He loved his wife; his family; his students; his job and his community - active in his church and community groups.

My first professional job: Lisa Schmidt. She was just a few years older than me - but she modeled professionalism. She was committed to constant growth and development. She wanted to be better - and she was an excellent model of being a woman in the workplace. I was in awe of her composure, her commitment to pursue a graduate degree while working full-time, her dedication to grow spiritually. She continues to inspire me today - in each of those areas, thought the commitment is now her commitment to her family and faith - to make a dramatic career move for the good of her family (and follow the call of God when it's not popular or easily communicated in our culture).

Mentoring relationships can be assigned, of course. In my experience, those have connected me with great people who became friends...but these lifelong mentors - those happened organically (or by providence for those of us who see everything as God-incidence instead of coincidence).  Likewise, there will be people in your personal and professional path placed to be your mentor. If you look for them, you will find them. 

When we break, our mentors are the ones who remind us that we are more. Good mentors practice the art of "kintsugi" in our lives. This practice repairs broken pottery with lacquer dusted with gold, silver, or platinum - treating the breakage and repair as part of the history of the object (Wikipedia, 2017). We are more than objects. The fire of 23 isn't designed to consume us: it calls forth who we really are. ...and our mentors help point out that those cracks: they are beautiful - because they are what gives us power, experience and strength.

My seniors: you are more. You are more than your accomplishments. You are more than your failings. You start a new journey: it will be difficult. It will be joyous. It will break your heart. It might break your spirit, at times. But it will not break you: you. are. more.

And you were designed for hard things! After all, you're a SPARTAN.


Wednesday, May 3, 2017

What Grief feels like: Living Plan B

Every semester, I give a talk to students called "Preparing for Jobs that Don't Exist Yet: and other impossible things." During that class, I present the idea to students that the idea of having a "Plan B" to vet school way to live. So, instead, I posit the premise that students recognize the "parallel plan" that exists in preparing for life, whether that is to be a candidate for vet school, grad school, or working. Who wants to live their life as "this is my plan B"? NOBODY! 


Last week, like a ton of bricks - or more aptly, a bucket containing all your reasons "why" was knocked off your head - it hit me.

plan b. 

except plan b, for me, it's not a plan. it's some impossible reality that i'm living. 

but it's not impossible. it is reality.

Fifteen years ago, I was a senior graduating from college. And "my dream job" at that time was this: get married, have kids, be a professional volunteer in my community. [essentially, be my mom] Reality was that I was graduating having been on an average of 1 date/year of college - which meant that my 'dream husband' hadn't materialized in those four years. So, I had to go to plan B: get a job. build a career. figure out what God wanted me to do with my life. 

My "Plan B" was putting my degree to use. :) In college, I developed myself as a professional - but never put a lot of thought into constructing or identifying a path. I just identified what captured my heart, and identified those as "good fits." Then, after a brief, "failed" stint at the DNR, I identified the 3 things I wanted most in my next job. ...and TRIO Educational Talent Search fit that incredibly well.

During that time of living my Plan B, I grew in so many ways - but the primary two would have been spiritually and professionally. While living my "Plan B," I began to discover what I was capable of as a professional. I realized that pursuing a Master's degree so that I could obtain jobs where I could apply my strengths to do more good was necessary - so, I did it. Because of my spiritual life, I realized that the best path for me in that education was agricultural education...because, even though I'd been "living Plan B," my heart still yearned for the rolling hills - for the life that 18-year-old dreamed of: the wife of a farmer, the mom of farm kids, impacting her community. 

...and God opened a window. 

April 29, 2008. 

I met Dan Kiesling, the graduate student shepherd at the Iowa State Sheep Teaching Farm. (I didn't even know that was a thing) He was the 2000 Michigan FFA State President. He was interesting to talk to. He was funny. He was interested in me. He enjoyed talking to me. He danced with me. He asked me out that night. ...and even, when I had plans for Friday night, he pressed for Saturday instead. ...and when I had plans for Saturday night - and I countered with a late night dessert - he accepted. 

If you know our story, you know that it was immediate. ...and it wasn't. It wasn't quick. It wasn't easy. Both of us had our own mountains that stood in our way. ...and when we (individually) realized that we couldn't stand in the way of a great opportunity, a great person...then, the breeze came in through the window. 

You guys, that is what Dan represented in my life: the breath of fresh air. Breath. Life. 

Being married to Dan gave a breath to my life that...I knew I was meant for. I knew I was meant to be a wife. And I thought I was meant to be a mom. For those five years that I was Dan's wife, my life wasn't easy - but it was full of life - of breath - of richness - of purpose - of love. It was full.

I was full. 

My cup overflowed.

Last week, through a series of events, I was jarred to reality: I. am. empty. 

Are you familiar with the idea of "filling your bucket"? The idea is that encounters in our day either fill our bucket or empty the bucket. When working with others, the premise is that we fill others' buckets through our own - but also that they are filling ours' in return, so that we never go empty.

My image on Friday was this: a bucket filled with little slips of paper, carried on my head, was knocked - violently - to the ground...and my bucket and its contents were strewn all over the ground.

...and, I. was. shattered. 



My dream job...a wife and mom. 

My reality...a widow at 36. a childless widow. working at her husband's alma mater, in his office suite, his dream job for his beloved department, pouring into students' development - and getting raked for those efforts being not enough and too much - longing for grace, understanding, love... 



A life of confetti paper littering the ground.

That is what grief feels like.

The past ten months, I have done what I knew to do: keep going. I did my job. I tried to focus. I fulfilled my commitments. I put on pants when others would have stayed home. I poured it out. All that action: I tried to fill the void. Not consciously, but the void Dan left, I tried to fill. 

...and now (instead), I am feeling it. I feel the void. I feel the emptiness. 

...and now, I am going to sit on the ground with my confetti life, and I am going to pay reverence to them. I am going to honor and recognize the love that has been poured into my life. 

For the foreseeable future, I am going to just sit with my bucket...and I am going to let God fill my soul with breath.

This is what healing looks like. This is what hope is.