Ah, the good ole’ college days. Back then, I was deeply involved in a student-run community service organization called Asian Initiative. I was so involved that I was an officer during my junior and senior years.
Based in New York University, it was started as an effort to encourage volunteers to sign up as bone marrow donors. There was a shortage of donors of Asian descent. A few NYU students saw this shortage and took the initiative to start this organization.
A few years later, I joined as a member. By then, they had expanded their reach to include a nursing home program and an after-school mentor program.
The nursing home program allowed volunteers to go to a nearby nursing home that had a sizable Chinese American population. Some of the elderly residents rarely had family visits. They delighted in seeing children perhaps their grandchildrens’ age coming to see them.
We’d talk to them (those of us that spoke Chinese, at least), play chess with them, and host wonton-making dinners during Chinese festivals. Many were wheelchair bound and couldn’t partake in the wonton making, but they loved eating them for sure.
The after-school mentor program was down in Chinatown. We partnered with a grade school teacher who hosted a classroom of latchkey children. Latchkey children are children whose parents work late into the evening, leaving the children home alone. So instead of having them return home unsupervised, this program allowed them to stay at school and play games or get help with their homework.
Over time, this program became so popular with the students that some who weren’t latchkey children attended as well. We usually tried to mentor these children and help with their homework, though the majority, not surprisingly, preferred to play.
Aside from these main staples were a handful of fundraising events, most commonly bake sales. Our members would take the time to bake cupcakes and cookies to be sold to NYU students. The funds raised would go to buying wonton supplies, treats for the grade school children, or food for social events.
There was also a yearly carnival called Hunger Clean-Up to benefit the homeless that, for some unfathomable reason, always fell to our club to organize. We never really minded, though the reach was meant to be wider than just our niche of the Asian American community. It was meant to benefit the homeless of New York City.
Despite the emphasis on the Chinese American community, out of all our programs, the mentor program was the most popular. There was always a lively crowd waiting outside our designated meeting point to walk down to Chinatown. The nursing home program, sadly, wasn’t as popular. Sometimes we had to work hard to encourage volunteers to go. And usually, it was just a handful of the officers who would attend.
After spending my sophomore year with this organization, I bonded with its officers and became one of the more active members. In my junior year, I decided to run for the public relations position. If I remember correctly, I had one opponent. I won only because I was taking graphic design classes and made prettier flyers, I think. Whoever else was running was otherwise just as qualified, if not more so.
Right away, I found myself falling in love with the organization. That’s always been a trend in my life. When I’m part of a group whose mission resonates with me, I care for them deeply and work hard to make them a success.
I rallied a bunch of my non-member friends to join. I networked like crazy and reached out to other clubs. I put in a lot of time creating what I felt were snazzy and attractive flyers to entice others to join. I think I might have attended almost every event too, despite a crazy academic schedule and an on-campus part-time job.
When senior year came, the other officers encouraged me to run for president. So I did it without competition. That’s not as big an accomplishment as it sounds. A student organization president is a role with a lot of responsibilities and a high time commitment. The nature of our club attracted a lot of pre-med students trying to fill their volunteer obligations. Time wasn’t something they had in abundance. Relative to them, I had more time and thus, appeared a feasible choice for the presidency.
This experience became one of my most transformative. It taught me to be a true leader. I made just about every mistake in the book too. I tried doing everything myself. I became irritated by others who didn’t show as much passion as I had. I micromanaged others into what must have been utter frustration.
Thankfully, I had an understanding group of officers, an open mind, and, if I may say so myself, a fair bit of self-awareness. I tried to see my follies and changed as quickly as I could. Basic leadership tenants like delegation, motivation, and team building were all important lessons I had to learn.
The grand mistakes I’ve made, as well as the successes of the organization, are perhaps one of my most important lessons from college. At the time, they seemed horrifying and chaotic. I look back now in pure fondness though.
Some look back at their college days and see kegs and bongs and parties. I see Asian Initiative, the organization that I loved and truly made my college experience. Now those were the good ole’ days.