From the Dean: Be Watchful, Restless, and Relentless


by Vince Boudreau, Dean, Colin Powell School for Civic and Global Leadership

Over the years, we’ve brought scores of accomplished men and women to visit students in our leadership programs.  Most of these men and women—businesspeople, policy makers, lawyers and public servants—come with some specific public concern or policy dilemma to discuss. But we always ask them to also talk about their lives, to recount how they have navigated their paths to success. These conversations matter immensely because too many of our students discount the uncertain and contingent character of successful trajectories, mistakenly assuming that the contours of a successful end are evident from the start. In making that mistake, they take themselves out of the picture, imagining that no road leads from where they are to where they want to be.

During these conversations, however, students will far more often hear stories of chance encounters or risky decisions that lead to some exciting but unforeseen possibility. Missteps in one direction can lead to fortuitous ventures in another, and uncertain initial overtures, in time, acquire purpose and momentum. The takeaway message for our students should be that successful people do not immediately find their way, and they are not always on the right track.

But I often wonder if this message is truly resonant for students.  A world of difference, after all, separates the tingle of uncertainty a romantic comedy evokes en route to its inevitable Hollywood conclusion, and the indeterminacy of someone agonizing in real life over whether they’ll ever find love. I also suspect that upon hearing stories told in retrospect, students imagine that key moments and opportunities in life will shine like jewels in the road, easily sighted and scooped up.

The first step in any leadership curriculum is to undermine both of these misimpressions.  The ends of the best stories are never evident in their beginnings, and the most accomplished lives are seldom preordained for success. When somebody says I never knew I had it in me, we must believe them—and use that belief as a bulwark against the notion that leaders begin with—rather than grow into—greatness.

Furthermore, the richest, most rewarding opportunities rarely come outlined in neon. When talking with our students, so many of our speakers allowed themselves to pause and wonder aloud: What if I hadn’t answered that call, accepted that offer or decided to strike out on my own? How could I have known what would follow from this prescient decision, or that one?

The answer, of course, is that we can never know. Our lives are made up of strategy and fortune, planned results, and unintended consequences. We can never know where a new job, a new acquaintance, a new opportunity will lead. But that doesn’t mean we can’t shorten the odds.

Cultivating a watchful, restless, and relentless sense of agency profoundly shortens the odds on success. The person who walks into a room attuned to its possibilities; who moves through a conversation, a program, or an organization alive with purpose; who is alert to surprising and unlooked for possibilities, will be far ahead of the game. Teaching young people to ask of every important situation, What is expected of me? What do I want and how best can I achieve it? sets them on the path to strategizing the connection between a vision for the future and a plan to get there. It enables further questions about how they can acquire the skills necessary to reach a goal, meet the people who will help shape their vision of the future, and find a way into conversations that matter.

Most roads toward this sense of agency begin with a set of basic questions, relentlessly repeated:

Why? Why am I making this choice?  Why am I in this room, taking this class, pursuing this internship?

What? What do I want from this moment, this opportunity, this person, this internship? What is the relationship between where I am today, and where I want to be? What will make me get up in the morning next week, next year, and for the next three decades?

How?  How do I acquire the skills necessary to get there? How do I engage this person in front of me, or this class, or this program?

For many people, unreflective and passive answers to these questions have much to do with inertia: Today I’m doing pretty much what I did yesterday. Today I’m following through on a decision I made months or years ago. Today I’m more or less enacting a role I accepted years ago.

Putting inertia to the test should be the lifeblood of an education—and we should be prepared to test ourselves in this respect throughout life. While in college, many students live transient, liminal lives: caught, in the best possible sense, between what they have been and what they wish to be. What can be less helpful to such an existence than inertia, than the sense of purpose rooted in some distant, unexamined occupation? It’s a challenge to escape this state, of course, because an inert life has the comfort of constant familiarity. But if we don’t ask ourselves, our students, and our colleagues, every day What do I want? Why are you here? How will we accomplish it? we will drive education toward mere certification.

We don’t need a program to ask those questions—we need instead to commit to an inquiring disposition, to make the daily examination of purpose and strategy part of our routine. If the Colin Powell School for Civic and Global Leadership is to provide a way forward for 2,600 students each year, then let that path begin with a set of questions, ceaselessly repeated, and with the meaningful discussions that will follow any genuine attempts to answer them.

Join Engineers Without Borders at CCNY


An EWB-CCNY student working in the field.

by Zineb Bouizy, Secretary, Engineers Without Borders-CCNY Chapter

I come from a poor family in Morocco. When I came to the US six years ago, I came alone and did not know any English. I started working full-time to support myself and help my family back in Morocco, and began to pursue my dream of becoming a civil engineer. It was my experience struggling to get the basic necessities in my hometown that led me to engineering as a professional path, and fortunately, I made my way into the Grove School of Engineering at City College. My personal experience is also what drove me to become involved with Engineers Without Borders (EWB), a humanitarian organization that supports the design and implementation of community-driven, sustainable engineering projects worldwide. Continue reading

Maria Binz-Scharf: Yes, “Lean In,” but also “Reach Out”

This month, we honor Women’s History Month. This past Saturday, we celebrated International Women’s Day. But how exactly do we choose to honor and celebrate these days? As during last month’s observance of black history, there is a necessary tension in recognizing the achievements of historically underrepresented and oppressed groups: We are celebrating the progress of peoples despite living within systems of power (still in place) that would have them shut out, by brute force or by insidious power play.

ImageMaria C. Binz-Scharf, Associate Professor of Management in Business and Economics at the Colin Powell School, addresses the slow progress of women achieving equality in the workplace in her International Women’s Day post on the Complexity and Social Networks Blog of the Institute for Quantitative Social Science and the Program on Networked Governance, Harvard University.

Continue reading

Rajan Menon: On Ukraine and Russia

Courtesy Christiaan Triebert, Creative Commons License.

Addressing the crisis in Ukraine, Professor Rajan Menon, the Anne and Bernard Spitzer Chair of Political Science at the Colin Powell School, has published commentary on a number of blogs in the last couple days.

Today on the Huffington Post, “Stop Bashing Obama on Ukraine”:

“Even as I write these words, President Obama, who probably hasn’t slept much lately, is being bombarded with advice on Ukraine: Do this. No, don’t; do that instead. Do that, but not yet.

Apart from the pressure the president is under, it must be galling to be criticized by, and receive counsel from, individuals who have far less information than he does about what’s happening on the ground in Ukraine and until recently (if then) couldn’t spot Balaklava or Simferopol on a map.

Here’s the thing: Many people are outraged, and justifiably, by Vladimir Putin’s risible claim that he was forced to act to defend Ukraine’s ethnic Russians (who exactly has been attacking them?). But there’s nothing Obama can do to get the Russian soldiers, now patrolling various parts of Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula, back in their barracks….” Continue reading

Spend a Day with the Colin Powell School Feb. 27

Since its inauguration last May, the Colin Powell School’s programming—including public lectures, service-learning courses, partnerships between faculty and community organizations, and more—is driven by our desire to blend the intellectual resources of a public university with the diverse energy of the city: its leaders, its communities, its global network.

On February 27, we invite you to “Spend a Day with City College,” where you’ll get an insider’s view of our plans for the future. Continue reading

From the Dean: The Fundamentals of Leadership

vinceheadshotby Dean Vince Boudreau, Colin Powell School for Civic and Global Leadership

Leadership can mean a lot of things to different people, and has been on the minds of more than a few of us at the Colin Powell School. What does it mean to shoulder the task of developing leadership capacities in new generations of City College students?

For us, leadership probably needs to mean something different than the specific training programs that take place in Outward Bound experiences or executive leadership seminars—because our leadership development work occurs alongside the university’s degree-granting activity. Students here need to prepare themselves for leadership roles as they learn the ins and outs of economics, sociology, psychology, and other academic fields.  Continue reading

Preserving and Strengthening Access


by Lisa S. Coico, president of the City College of New York (excerpted from the Huffington Post)

President Coico published a piece on the Huffington Post last week urging lawmakers and public universities to preserve their mission of providing an affordable education, and to better connect students to networks that can provide a pathway to successful post-graduate careers. You can read the entire post here.

From the Huffington Post:

… “Access to affordable higher education has enabled people like me to take their lives on a different trajectory than would have otherwise been possible. Many have attained higher living standards; a few changed the world through their contributions. At City College, we claim such illustrious alumni as Gen. Colin L. Powell, Andrew Grove, Jonas Salk and nine Nobel laureates.

Clearly, public colleges and universities have been a win-win for both the students who attend them and the states and cities that support them. The higher tax revenues resulting from increased lifetime earnings and the economic development supported by entrepreneurship and university-based research offer one of the highest returns to be found on public investment.

Today, however, the pathway faces challenges at both the point that students enter college and after they graduate. States have slashed support for their colleges and universities, forcing them to raise tuition to unaffordable levels. New graduates often have to take unpaid internships to gain entry to their chosen fields. That’s a huge barrier for those who need to work to support themselves and pay off student loans. Continue reading

‘Let’s Get Ready’: Not Your Ordinary Work-Study

let's get ready group shot

by Angela Choi, Community Engagement Fellow at the Colin Powell School

When you scan the list of available federal work-study jobs, many are in campus offices or departments needing administrative help. But there’s another opportunity, one that takes you away from paperwork and into the City College community.

Let’s Get Ready is a nonprofit organization that provides free SAT preparation to students from families with low incomes, and assists these students throughout the college application process. Let’s Get Ready at City College is a different kind of on-campus work-study, where students awarded federal work-study funding get paid to do great work. It’s a unique opportunity to engage and have an impact on your community.

While I was still in high school, I had a burning desire to go to college—but I didn’t know how to get there. My parents had not gone to college in this country and were unfamiliar with the application process. My parents believed it was my high school’s responsibility to help me get into college, and expected their support. Unfortunately, this just wasn’t the case. Continue reading