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President offers advice, inspiration to student leaders as first speaker in series
Feb. 11, 2014
It was fitting that Community College of Rhode Island President Ray Di Pasquale was the first speaker to kick off what Knight Campus Dean of Student Life Christine B. Jenkins said she hoped to be an ongoing series of leadership seminars.
Di Pasquale has presided over the college for nearly a decade, and before that had built up a long résumé of work in leadership positions in education as well as politics in neighboring Massachusetts. But the story that Di Pasquale shared, and the advice he gave to the 30 students gathered in a conference room was a much more personal journey than one could glean from a résumé.
Before he began his speaking program for the afternoon, which covered leadership texts that he recommends to his own team (“Good to Great,” “The Leadership Challenge” and “Discover Your Strengths”) as well as lessons learned throughout his own career, Di Pasquale told students and staff about a formative moment in his own life. He described the depression he felt after the death of his father, who died when Di Pasquale was 15 years old. He said he was ready to give up on life, resigned to living in his bedroom and not coming out. But it was a basketball coach that took his passion for leadership – and his compassion for those to whom he served as a role model – who came into that cocoon of darkness and dragged Di Pasquale back into the light. “If he didn’t do that, I don’t know where I would be,” Di Pasquale said.
It’s this kind of passion (and compassion) that Di Pasquale said he and his team works to impart to the students of CCRI, and what Jenkins hopes students will glean from these leadership seminars. The seminars are meant to give students access to leaders in the college administration, she said, as well as to provide valuable skills and inspiration to the students who attend.
Di Pasquale’s seminar gave examples of such skills in droves, proving one of his main points—that true leaders should pave roads to opportunity for others with their dedication, willingness to share and educate, and inspire a shared vision, ultimately enabling others to act on that vision. “As a leader, you have to model the way. As you go along, people begin to react to that. You have to lead not just by talking, but by actions. This is a very important piece of what you have to do every day as a leader,” he said.
He charged students with making the seminar an interactive one, rather than a lecture, asking them to reflect on what qualities make them good leaders, what they dream of doing to change the world, and why they might pursue leadership positions in the college and beyond. The students on hand were quick to rise to that challenge, engaging with the president as he helped them uncover what it was that makes them good, and how they, too, might move from good to great.
Students offered examples of their own goals and the varied strengths that they saw themselves possessing: a woman who wished to be a nurse said she prided herself on being compassionate; a military veteran who has held jobs from retail to work study at the college said she gave 100 percent to whatever task was at hand; and a woman whose family’s struggles with learning disabilities inspired her to work to help others who suffered.
“Embrace your strengths, play to those and use those for positive change … your differences and even disabilities can make you stronger. If you know who you are as a person and embrace that, you can accomplish anything,” Di Pasquale said in response to the myriad dreams given voice that day.
At the end of the session, students engaged the president in a question-and-answer period, ultimately leading to a discussion about involvement and leadership on campus. As the college is spread out over four campuses with no residence halls, Di Pasquale said that he encouraged students to look beyond the commuter mentality and search for a larger, more involved niche for themselves.
Knight Campus Student Government President Susanna Yim offered that pursuing involvement in student life had given her a chance to represent fellow students who, like her, were first-generation college students, as well as to set an example for “a lot of people [her] age who think that they are not capable of stepping into a leadership position.”
Former student and current veteran adviser Anthony Paolino agreed, saying that the countless hours he spent advocating for student veterans on campus while president of the Student Veterans Organization were well worth the time commitment. “I promise you, there are absolutely opportunities at the end of your involvement,” he said.
After the seminar was over, students talked to one another excitedly, clearly energized by Di Pasquale’s presentation. “It’s good for the students to have a visible administration working for them,” said student Kaila Matteson, who expects to graduate this May with a degree in English. “It’s inspiring and nice to see a benefit to being involved and going outside of your comfort zone.”
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