Our second Alumni Spotlight for October 2019 is Jennifer Leyting a graduate of Collins Hill High School (2007) and of The University of Georgia ( 2011). She currently works as an Administrative Specialist II at the University of Georgia. She is an artist who painted one of the big Athens bulldawg statues for the UGA Police Department and who is championing many other initiatives.  Jennifer says 21CL provided a safe space to just be and believe in her genuine self and have positive peer relationships.

Paint a brief picture of what you are doing now.

I am working as an Administrative Specialist II in the Department of Infectious Diseases at College of Veterinary Medicine at University of Georgia. I also work as the assistant to the department head and the digital media coordinator for the department. I handle records requests, records retention, and some ordering. I’m on the EITS Mentorship Council, which runs this program.

I also serve as Coordinator on the UGA Staff Council representing the College of Veterinary Medicine and I’m on the Steering Committee for the United Campus Workers of Georgia Local 3265. University of Georgia was where the union got started, now we have over 430 members across 9 campuses and we are currently working on a statewide campaign for cost of living raises for USG employees.

I’m living in Watkinsville, GA with my significant other, Alex Medina, and 3 stepsons, 2 of which are Eagle Scouts. Alex and I have volunteered for many years with Boy Scout Troop 44 out of Winterville, GA, which is the troop that all 3 boys were in. We both have volunteered in the Society of Creative Anachronism Kingdom of Meridies Barony of Bryn Madoc for many years, Alex still volunteers with this group. I’ve since started my art career, and I have painted one of the big Athens bulldawg statues for the UGA Police Department which is now housed in the Hodgson Oil Building. I also participated in the Lake Herrick Eco-Art Project where teams of scientists and artists created works themed around the clean-up effort and reopening at Lake Herrick on UGA’s campus. My team’s project was accepted at the poster session at the Georgia Water Resources Conference and is now on display at the River Basin Center. I’m also currently working on some pieces to submit to the Winterville Arts Council.

How did participating in 21CL transform you and lead you to where you are now?

Participating in 21CL had a profound effect on my life. For the first time since the death of my grandfather the summer after 4th grade, something was able to get me out of my own head. The facilitators, teachers, and RA’s of 21CL saw value and potential in me and more importantly they were able to make me see these things in myself. I know that sounds super cliché, but I had already attempted suicide once by the time a representative came to my school to invite students to summer camp. I actually only applied because my mom said it would look good on my resume. 21CL was the first place in a long time where I was able to have positive peer relationships. I was outside of the bubble of influence of upper middle class Gwinnett County suburbia. I was exposed to people from all sorts of different backgrounds from across the state, folks that I would not have gotten the opportunity to interact with otherwise. These people became my friends. Friends who were actually concerned about my health and well-being. Friends who invited me to events and genuinely were excited to see me when I showed up. These experiences were so foreign and new to me. I think one of the greatest things that 21CL did for me was give me hope, which inspired me. It inspired me to live. As I took control of my own life instead of just living on the autopilot plan that had been chosen for me by public school and my parents of go to college, get a job and have one’s life entirely defined by one’s career, I started to comprehend what I had gained during my time in the program and how I could pay that kindness forward. I wanted to be a resource for others like 21CL had been for me. I majored in family financial planning and got a Bachelor of Science in Family Consumer Sciences. I had the knowledge so was able to serve as the Merit Badge Counselor in Troop 44 for the Personal Management Merit badge, which deals with consumer economics, saving & investing, project planning, and time management. These boys came from families where financial literacy was most certainly not being taught. I was in a position where I could help so I did. I’ve also used my own personal mental health journey to be an advocate for spreading awareness about depression, anxiety, and suicide prevention. At work, I make sure to promote wellness and mental health awareness to our graduate students and my coworkers. For several years, I have celebrated May as Mental Health Awareness Month by putting out my own stories and struggles as well as resources on various topics to help end the stigma around mental health. The momentum kept going.

Through my leadership certificate from UGA, I learned more about different types of leadership and how leadership is influence. I wanted to be a positive influence on a grassroots level where ever I was, regardless of how small of an interaction I had with someone. I have done my best to teach my stepsons to respect all people, to care about issues of those less fortunate or less privileged than themselves, to take care of themselves and process their emotions is a productive manner, and solve conflicts by using their words instead of violence. Basically, I would not be the person I am today without 21CL. They saved me.

How did 21CL prepare you for your next steps going into college and taking on leadership roles, heading into a new era of professionalism, etc. What skills/tools/perspectives have helped you along the way?

 I think that 21CL took away some of that fear of interacting with people I didn’t know and also gave me the courage to put myself out there for opportunities, knowing that I might not succeed at all of them. I think that 21CL showed me that my perseverance could be applied to more than just surviving the daily grind. I applied to UGA’s Honors Program and was denied, instead of giving up I got a 4.0 my fall semester and reapplied and was admitted. I ended up graduating with an Honors Program capstone. I applied for the UGA Student Government Associate Student Senate and was denied, instead of having a pity party, I went into the SGA general body and joined the academic committee. After I was admitted into the Terry College of Business, I rushed for the Alpha Kappa Psi business fraternity and was denied, but I joined the Medieval and Renaissance Society where I ended up serving as President, meeting Alex, and ultimately getting a part time job at UGA in the College of Agriculture and Environmental Sciences IT department. Basically, life is strange and twisty, if I had just given up I wouldn’t be where I am now!

I still remember the “Model the Way” exercise and trying to fold that dang origami thing. I remember this when I am training people that everyone has a different learning style and showing people is often one of the best ways to give instruction.

I also remember the blind fold obstacle course activity. I’m reminded that precise communication is extremely important and also to have faith in your team. There have been a lot of individuals on the autism/aspergers spectrum that I have met in my adult life and it’s that level of exact communication that is sometimes needed. In fact, one of my stepsons has aspergers.

These are things that occurred over a decade ago. A week at summer camp. A weekend leadership trip. An evening networking event. Small amounts of time with huge impacts. 21CL really taught me to take the time and see situations from other people’s perspectives. This has been invaluable working in the union when we are talking about issues relating to non-administrative staff or employees on other campuses or traditionally underpaid workers in the Athens Clarke County community.

Also as silly as it is sounds, learning how to salsa made me realize I could dance. I went on to learn medieval and renaissance dances and even perform an Old English Country dance in costume in front of A LOT of people at the UGA Student Organization Involvement Fair.

Which programs did you participate in, and when? What skills did you gain or improve through those programs?

I participated in the summer leadership institutes; one of which was held at Oglethorpe University. I went on to work as an RA for the 21CL summer camps, specifically Oglethorpe, Berry College, & Emory, while I was in college. I think the biggest take away I got from 21CL was an appreciation for diversity in all of its many forms. Having been to camp and met campers from all different backgrounds gave me some perspective on life and encouraged my emotional maturity at time when I was immersed in the rather homogeneous culture of white middle class suburbia. I feel that 21CL gave me the confidence to stretch outside of my comfort zone and introduce myself to folks that I would have been too nervous to talk to otherwise. I learned to be more people oriented and to slow down and listen to others. Sometimes the problem isn’t the problem, sometimes the problem is that people just feel like they are not being heard.

What was a memorable or ‘aha’ moment in 21CL? (Particular program, meeting a professional and diverse peers, speaking in public for the first time, etc.?)

I remember one of the summer staff members, Jessica, teaching us table setting and formal dining etiquette. That’s something I have passed down to my stepsons. Even when I’m at conferences or formal lunches, I still make a B and D with my hands to remember which drink is mine. It’s just simple stuff like that, that sticks with you.

Speaking of formal dinners, the pre-dinner networking was probably the scariest thing that I did at the summer program. But without it, I don’t think I would have forced myself to get over my fear of talking to people I didn’t know. Also having to introduce a speaker was terrifying but helped me get over speaking in front of a crowd. Though I haven’t had to specifically introduce speakers recently, I’ve had to present at faculty meetings. I challenge anyone to find a tougher audience than academics who don’t want to be in a meeting.

Did 21CL assist you in developing a leadership style that makes you an effective leader? if so how? And have you recently learned something else about leadership? Please share!

I think the program helped me realize that there were different leadership styles and different situations could call for different styles and to remain flexible with each new project or new team so I could adapt my style to what was needed to accomplish our goals.

At the end of the day, you have to be okay with the decisions you make. You have to be able to look yourself in the mirror and be okay with the person looking back at you. You have to be to be able to sleep soundly knowing you stuck firmly to your ethics, regardless of what anyone else said, did, voted, etc. It’s easy to be that person when times are easy. It’s a lot harder to be that person when actually confronted with adversity. Being a leader is hard, especially when the stakes are high. You have to make the tough decisions, sometimes when you don’t have all the information or all the answers. Sometimes you are going to be the only one who votes on a particular side of an issue. I lived through that this past spring regarding a union conflict. No matter how much pressure or guilt or other tactics were applied, I had my conscience to answer to. The one thought that kept circling in my mind during the whole situation was that I was so thankful that Bob and Zeena and Jeremy and Mike and the whole 21CL family had raised me right and already prepared me for a moment like this.