Whenever I read a rough draft by a young writer, or when I look over a business plan from a student asking me for feedback, or when I am pitched an idea for a collaboration or project, I think of a woman named Cynthia. I don't even know her last name, but she had a profound impact on me.
I was a sophomore in high school, attending a writing conference for the first time. It was the Santa Barbara Writers Conference and it was a wonderful, energizing smorgasbord of resources, lectures, writing workshops, speakers, and information.
However, I felt completely and utterly overwhelmed.
The youngest one in attendance by at least a decade, to say I was "out of my comfort zone" that week would be putting it mildly. Shy by nature, I was desperately homesick and felt like I did not belong. I remember those first few meals in the dining hall, looking around for somewhere to sit, feeling like the little kid asking to eat at the grown-up table.
Then I met Cynthia, in a workshop called "Writing for Children." I summoned the courage to share a story I had written with other members of the workshop, and they responded with heartfelt encouragement. Cynthia, with no-nonsense energy and a warm smile, came up to me after class ended and asked if she could read a copy of my entire story. "You're talented," she said. "I want to help you get published." Not only did I have a friend to sit with in the dining hall the rest of the week, but I also had a writing buddy -- someone who treated me like a peer and took my work seriously.
Later that summer, I received a package in the mail with my story pages, generously written all over with comments, suggestions and edits in blue pen. Out of the goodness of her heart, Cynthia took the time (a lot of time, I know now, from commenting on student manuscripts myself) to painstakingly read through the pages of my story and help me become better. She invested time in me because she believed in me. In setting a high standard -- in treating me like a fellow professional writer, even though I was still a high school student -- she inspired me to treat myself like a professional, too.
I think of Cynthia's gift to me whenever I encounter work by a young person. I make a point to never talk down to my students or brush their dreams off, for "someday later" when they are older or wiser or more experienced. I know the truth: they have all the experience they need, right in this moment, to create the best work they are able to right now. Because we are always growing and evolving and changing, all of us, no matter how old. We are always learning and becoming better. But this marvelous and important growth does not happen when we patronize our young people. So, like Cynthia did for me, I set the bar high for my students -- and then, I delight in watching them rise and surpass those high expectations.
I thought about all of this when listening to a recent Innovate Podcast interview with Liz Maw, CEO of the nonprofit organization Net Impact. At the heart of Net Impact's mission is a passion to empower a new generation to use their careers to "drive transformational change in the workplace and the world." This struck me as incredibly innovative -- and yet also, familiar. It made me think of the way Cynthia treated me. Indeed, when I listened to Net Impact's mission, I found it refreshing that they are not aiming to connect with the established "old guard" to spur change that transforms the world. Nope -- they are reaching out to a community of students and recent graduates who are just starting out in their careers. Rather than dismissing young people as too inexperienced or not influential enough, Liz Maw and Net Impact set a high bar for these students as capable of making big positive change. And what an effect they have had! Net Impact’s community now includes more than 60,000 student and professional leaders from more than 300 volunteer-led chapters around the globe, working together for a sustainable future.
Cynthia, if you ever read this, I want to say, THANK YOU.