Understanding uniqueness

Throughout this two-month teaching journey, I've been continually surprised when I give the introduction to the first class assignment - that is, to share a meaningful story of one's self. When introducing this assignment, I've consistently had a student raise his/her hand to say - "but I'm not unique. I don't have a story. I'm just common, like everyone else." This sentiment is heart-breaking to me, and I believe it alludes to a much bigger picture. Though I've only seen a slice of this part of the world, it appears that students are told and expected to only memorize information. Any type of questioning, especially of authority, is not acceptable. This is in stark contrast to what we're taught at Harvard, in that leadership begins with knowing one's self. This, too, is a new concept to many of our students, given that their learning is instead memorization of facts and figures, not questioning "why" or trying to understand one's values, motivations, and actions.

When faced with student's overwhelming disbelief that every single person has a unique story, I've been challenged in the classroom - not just for how to respond and encourage students to think about him/herself, but also how to be respectful of the cultural norms in each location / country. I try my best, often not having the answer, but instead continuing to ask questions of the students, gently encouraging him/her to truly think about their own self. The workshops provide an intense learning environment, and students bond incredibly quickly through their shared experiences and learning challenges. In my class, this trust, honesty, respect, and support has yielded 75% of the students having the courage to tell a story about a personal experience that they have never before shared with anyone. Seventy-five percent speaking about their own experiences, their own values, their own feelings - often in a culture that does not outwardly support such "weakness" or "individualism". Hearing so many students share these meaningful stories only continues to strengthen the bonds among the students. 

After my final class yesterday, one student summed up our work together in the most perfect way. I was appreciative that he took the time to share this with me - it confirmed that my approach has yielded something of an impact, at least for him. He came up to me with a huge grin on his face, thanking me for my class and wanting a picture together, saying: "You were right! Each of us does have a really cool story to tell. We are all unique."

Tonight was the closing ceremonies for the final summer workshop, a trilateral summit with student participants from China, Japan and Korea. I recounted this particular observation and story for the students in my closing remarks, and urged them to never forget that they each have their own voice, Every single individual has valid thoughts, perspectives, and opinions. Through this individualism, each has the ability to exercise leadership and choose to use their own voice to make change happen. We need to remember to also listen and empathize with others. Yet above all else, every single person has a story that most certainly is unique.