Becoming a Leader of Tomorrow

I am a graduate of the UNYP class of 2019. I have earned my Master’s in Psychology, and am now supporting UNYP students as an undergraduate academic advisor and graduate coordinator for the School of Psychology. I spoke as a graduate student representative at the 2019 graduating ceremony, reflecting on the UNYP motto, “Educating tomorrow’s leaders.” As UNYP students, faculty, alumni and staff, we are all familiar with this slogan – we see it every day on posters in our classrooms. However, what does it really mean? Before I started school, I believed that learning to lead happened mostly outside the classroom. Through my studies, I realize this is no longer true. I learned three invaluable lessons about leadership during my time at UNYP; I did not read them in books and they are not a measure of my academic achievement, but they were essential in my UNYP education and in the way I conduct myself now as UNYP staff.

The experiences of others provide an abundance from which we can learn

            I did not continue on to graduate studies immediately. Sixteen years ago, just a couple of years after earning my undergraduate degree, I found myself at death’s door from uncontrollable drug abuse. Since that time, I have overcome the throes of addiction, poverty and a myriad of hardships to create a life of which I am proud. My status as the oldest student in my Master’s cohort, coupled with my pride in the experiences that I have survived, caused me to insist at times that I was the most suited to solve issues that arose in our classroom. I was so busy trying to convince my classmates that my way was the right way that I was blind to their collective wisdom and strength. Their stories, noble qualities, and wisdom made me realize that in order to lead, I must listen. Reflecting back now, I see how much impression the lives of my classmates have permanently made upon me. The experiences of others provide an abundance from which we can learn. This was my first lesson.

            At the core of authentic listening is life-to-life connection, and at the core of a life-to-life connection is empathy. My cohort spent entire weekends together in class twice a month for two years. We would show up regardless of what life was throwing at us. We would learn, share with each other, laugh and even cry together. I began to realize that even though our life experiences were different, fundamentally we are all the same. Dr. Daisaku Ikeda, a humanitarian leader and educator, wrote, “What our society today needs more than anything is the spirit of empathy – the ability to put ourselves in the shoes of those who are facing hardship and suffering, to understand and share what they are going through. When the spirit of compassion becomes the bedrock of society, and is embodied by society’s leaders, the future will be bright with hope.” An empathic spirit is the hallmark of great leadership. This was my second lesson.

            My third and final lesson was that you and I are capable of positively and greatly influencing the world. Just as the stories of others can be the impetus for our own transformative growth, our stories have the same potential to do this. At the beginning of my course, I was so busy trying to be right that I allowed my stubborn nature to dictate my messages to my classmates. Once we are able to listen without judgment and understand our fundamental connections to those around us, the spirit in which we choose to influence others becomes crucial – we must decide with the utmost seriousness the kind of message we want to impart to the world. The UNYP classroom and environment are invaluable training grounds to grow through listening, empathizing and effectively collaborating. The lessons you learn today are what will make you a great leader of tomorrow.


Written by: Justine Piontek

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