As someone in my 30s who likes routine and values personal space, staying at a college dorm with 50 women I didn’t know wasn’t particularly appealing. Yet, that’s exactly what I signed up for.
I spent five days attending the National Education for Women’s Leadership Development Institute at Minnesota State University Moorhead, and I can tell you, the future is bright. I was surrounded by women of all ages from many different cultures. Their unique backgrounds and experiences ranged from heartbreakingly heroic, to unfathomably foreign. Many of the women I met have life stories I’m not sure I could navigate if they were my own. Despite backgrounds as sharp in contrast as fireflies in the night, I was shown that which unites us shines brighter than any of our differences.
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These women, like everyone, harbor doubts and setbacks, but unlike many, they confront them. They are Janes of the Jungle. They know there’s comfort found in the easy sway of the vine they’re on but recognize there’s a world of opportunity and advancement on the vines that lie ahead and aren’t afraid to take the leap. With their strong backbones and wild hearts, they are the definition of grit.
Too often people, especially women, compare themselves to others and tear each other down. Not these women. They accepted and empowered one another to own and embrace their individual stories. They didn’t seek to prove themselves but found power and strength in simply being themselves. They’re united in the belief that the future depends on them but also on the women who follow in their footsteps. Just as other trailblazing women did for them, they will pull other women into the sisterhood until the network of women leaders has spread into every field of every community.
I spent a week surrounded by honest, strong, fearless, dedicated women who hold as much power in their open-mindedness as they do in their convictions. Their power lies in their ability to make space but not be afraid to take up space. Their empathy, vulnerability and resilience are equally inspiring. They know that crying isn’t a weakness, but a sign of deep compassion. Their ability to seek laughter but demand truth and reason will keep us moving forward without losing our sanity.
These women exhibited kindness I’ve never felt before, and I experienced diversity celebrated and championed in ways that make me hopeful for the future. The backgrounds, privilege, experience and passion among these women could easily have divided us, but instead it was the most connected, empowered and inspired I’ve ever felt.
The leadership of this year’s NEW Leadership Institute participants, whether public facing or behind the scenes, will be a force to be reckoned with. It’s said that what happens at NEW Leadership, stays at NEW Leadership. The stories will stay, but the leadership that emerged and was empowered will go well beyond the confines of MSUM. That leadership will be shared with the world. Fifty women met as strangers and left as sisters. I’m grateful to be able to create a brighter tomorrow alongside these women.