Confidence–The Secret Ingredient

“I just got through a really bad break up, and I need a change–to start a new chapter in my life.”

I paused, marinating in a moment of shock. There it was, the raw truth laid out between me and Denise Pacheco, the Project Director for the Writing Success Program. It was November of 2013, and I was a wide-eyed second year with only a work study office job to decorate my resume. This wasn’t a job interview, per se. I’d emailed Denise about volunteering for WSP after they’d rejected my application for a counseling position. She told me to come into her office for a chat.

Half of her face was painted Dia de los Muertos style for Halloween. Perhaps her festiveness made her seem more approachable–or perhaps it was the way that she greeted me with “hello friend.” Maybe that’s why I felt so inclined to blurt out the trainwreck that was my love life when she asked me why I’d like to get involved.

Of course, I told her about my passion for writing, as well as my admiration of the program’s atmosphere and accomplishments. But along with the usual look-at-how-qualified-and-enthusiastic-I-am speech, I…well. I got personal.

This turned out to be one of my most notable contributions to staff during my first year at WSP. That’s right. Despite my unorthodox honesty, Denise hired me on–first provisionally, as a paid volunteer, and then officially, as a Writing & Creativity Counselor. Later on, my fellow team members would tell me that I brought an atmosphere of openness and sincerity to the space, one that unraveled the pre-existing reticence. WSP is not a conventional workplace: here, we support one another holistically, with compassion, fostering personal and professional development. I noticed this rather quickly and took advantage of it, allowing myself to be especially communicative with the team about where I felt I was in terms of my growth–emotionally, physically, and mentally.

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2013-2014 WSP Staff (Left to Right): Kanyin Ajayi, Michelle Lee, Denise Pacheco, Jacob Goldberg, JoAnna Schindler (me), and Ashton Rosin. 

And I needed a lot of growth, particularly when it came to confidence. In fact, confidence stood at the top of my list of aspirations. While counseling at WSP helped me cultivate a comfort with meeting new people and provided me with a sense of community, I spent most of my first year trying to prove to myself that I belonged there. Having joined staff mid-year with barely any training, I felt like a neophyte, unworthy of leadership. I regarded myself not as a full-fledged counselor, but a shadower to my far more mature and self-assured peers. This fell in line with my general tendency to compare myself to others, and I eventually racked up a long list of reasons as to why I wasn’t good enough for the program.

On the other hand, Denise saw something in me (dedication, passion, willingness to grow) and appointed me as Co-Assistant Director for the following year, alongside another returning counselor, Kanyin Ajayi–a powerhouse of intellect and creativity. We also had a new Project Director, Layhannara Tep.

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Me with Layhannara (Project Director, 2014-Present) and Kanyin Ajayi (Co-Assistant Director, 2014-2015)

This was a big leap for me. I could no longer hide in the shadows of my colleagues. As both a returner and director, I carried the responsibility of guiding new staff members in the process of adapting to the WSP culture and operations. My colleagues looked to me for counsel–me! This role did not come naturally to me; at first, I wore the label “director” self-consciously, as if I possessed it by mistake. Charismatic and poised–Kanyin appeared to me to be the true director, the example to which I had to aspire to, in the same way that I yearned to emulate 2013-2014 AD Ashton Rosin the year before. Both of these women effortlessly commanded the team’s attention and respect; each were exceptional speakers, expressing their thoughts and instructions with conviction.

Then, Layhannara tasked me with generating a curriculum for administration and outreach–ideas that would whip staff into action and manifest in tangible, visible results. A redesigned blog. A social media campaign. As I saw the team bring more and more of my visions to life, I realized that my ideas had value. I had value. Finally, I allowed myself to give credence to my hard work.

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2014-2015 WSP Staff: (Back Row, Left to Right): Sharila Cree, Kanyin Ajayi, James Han, Gabriela Cuevas, Paul Yim; (Front Row, Left to Right): Cheechee Lin, Layhannara Tep, JoAnna Schindler (me). 

This year, I took ownership of my role as the sole Assistant Director. I came into the position with the mindset that I was certainly qualified for the job–but the work that I put into it would determine how well I did my job. From organizing over three workshops to curating WSP’s first literary magazine–this year, I honed and embraced my ability to gather people around a common goal. I realized that a leader is not necessarily someone who distinguishes themselves from the pack; instead, she is someone who builds community by fostering collaboration.

Confidence is no longer this omnipresent but seemingly unattainable desire; rather, it is a foundational part of my identity. No longer preoccupied with self-doubt, I can now see outside of myself and focus much more of my time and energy on the team, the program, and my students. I am not Ashton, and I am not Kanyin, and I do not embody the role of Assistant Director in the same way that they did. But I am a leader. And it wasn’t until I claimed that title and believed that I deserved it that I actually became one.

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2015-2016 WSP Staff: (Left to Right): Monica Mendoza, Layhannara Tep, JoAnna Schindler (me), Haesoo Kim, Gabriela Cuevas, James Han; (not pictured): Pegah Mahmoud.

As terrified as I am to graduate college, I feel well-equipped to traverse the unknown grounds of post-grad life. Admittedly, I do not have a clear-cut plan for my future; but I do have dreams of working for arts organizations, the entertainment industry, and publishing. I hope to someday see my name on the cover of a bestselling novel–and perhaps in the credits of a popular television show or movie. These past three years at WSP have undoubtedly granted me the professional skills necessary to realize these visions. More importantly, WSP has empowered me to believe in myself–to treat my dreams not as silly fantasies, but as bonafide goals–plans for action, change, and growth.

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