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10 Things I Learned as a Student Executive
March 6, 2020

My name is Twan Dieker and I am the 2019-2020 Vice President: Programming & Services for the Wilfrid Laurier University Students’ Union on the Waterloo campus. I consider myself among the small handful of graduating students who are lucky enough to experience leadership as a student executive for a student association. Not many other 22-year-old recent grads get the opportunity to oversee a team of 600 volunteers, a department budget of over $600,000 and implement programming for over 4000 students while advocating for 18,000 undergraduate students. I am so thankful for the opportunity that the opportunity has granted me thus far. I wanted to highlight the top 10 takeaways from my role, things I hope to take with me in all of my future work, wherever that may take me. 

1) Try new things and take some risks

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One of the first pieces of advice that was given to me in this role was to take the word “tradition” out of my vocabulary. Student associations are fairly infamous for running on traditions. Though this creates a spirit of commodore and spirit, a lot of these traditions date back before the current student population and the programming never evolved with the student's needs and wants. Often, student leaders are hesitant to make changes because they are afraid of the response. However, in my role, I have seen the most success in going against the status quo and trying new things. Bringing in Antoni Porowski, from the Netflix show Queer Eye, and other speaker type events saw sold-out attendances and such a positive response from the student population. All it took was me not being afraid to say “let’s go against the traditional schedule and try something new”. The payoff was incredibly worth it. This is an attitude I hope to bring with me in all the challenges ahead of me in my career.

2) Don’t take yourself too seriously

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Emphasis on the "too". Obviously the stakes in this role can be big and the responsibility is nothing to joke about. However, I have learned in this role that this is a 1-year contract for a reason. This is a year for learning and trying new things. I am so lucky to work with a team of full-time staff who are experts in what they do. These people are here to guide me to stay within the lines so don't be afraid to use this year to mess up, make mistakes and learn as much as you can. I look to these people for advice, wisdom and best practices, but I am never too shy to put my own twist on things. If there is ever a time to do this, it is in these roles.

3) Empowered volunteers can accomplish anything

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As I said, I have a team of 600 amazing volunteers. Including 8 coordinator level volunteers. I may not have learned it the easy way, but I did come to learn that my job was not to do it all. My job was leading this giant team to accomplish their goals. My role was to guide, support and empower them. As a student leader through and through, I am used to taking on all the work, this role taught me how to delegate, a phrase used more often than it is practiced. More importantly, I learned my own way to delegate. This means that I do not enjoy sitting in an "ivory tower" watching the work get done. My type of delegating, and ultimately my type of leadership means I am still strapping on my boots (literally and figuratively) to get the work done alongside my team. I am so thankful that this role taught me that all of my favourite parts of being a student volunteer can still translate to my professional, management life; I just had to modify my working style to find what works for me.

4) A work/life balance isn’t as easy as it sounds 

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I found that one of the most challenging adjustments in this role. As a student, my free time was filled with my extracurriculars; that was my hobby. Now that my job is in a way, my hobby as a full-time role, I feel sometimes as though I have lost my hobby. I sometimes find myself spending my nights, my weekend and my holidays doing work because it is the thing that I enjoy doing the most. My biggest piece of advice for anyone entering a role like this is to find your new hobbies because turning your hobby into a job can lead to some over-exhaustion and burnout. In the world of "Work/Life Balance", turning what was my life into work, made for an unexpected, unforeseen challenge. It wasn't until my final semester where I really came to see this and becoming aware of this was integral to figuring out what I need in my life and in my career.

5) Remember all of your lollipop moments

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I will let this point speak for itself. My absolute favourite TedTalk is "Leading with Lollipops" (video below). I got the chance to hear from Drew Dudley twice this term, once as a delegate at the Shinerama National Conference and I got to host him at our Orientation Week Bootcamp Training where he got to speak to our team of volunteers. My most memorable quote from Drew Dudley, which I take with me in my day to day life is, "We've made leadership about changing the world. And there is no world - there's only six billion understandings of it. And if you change one person's understanding of it, one person's understanding of what they're capable of, one person's understanding of how much people care about them, one person's understanding of how powerful an agent for change they can be in this world, you change the whole thing".

Leading with Lollipops -Video

6) Use your supports and lean on your team

I am so lucky to work in an environment where I have such an incredibly supportive team of full-time staff support. The mistake of many peers in these roles is not to recognize that the strongest supports and most wisdom often come from a desk down. I try to never be too shy to ask for help, seek advice or even run an idea by this team of full-time staff support. Some of my favourite days in the office and climbing down the rabbit hole of discussion, picking apart processing, understanding their background and questioning how we can make them the best they can be. Be curious, ask questions and do as much learning from your peers as possible.

7) Take advantage of all the learning opportunities

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Speaking of learning, I learn something new every day in my job. Sometimes those things can be obvious in attending conferences, lunch & learns or meetings but sometimes I have to dig a little to find the learning. Sometimes this comes in the form of a small turn out at an event, in crisis with a volunteer, or in being an active member of one of our services, there is always something to take away from my experiences. Try not to neglect this opportunity, I try to take time every day for reflection, even writing this article is a great exercise for myself.

8) Find motivation in your volunteers' success

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You should always be able to figure out what gets you motivated, what brings you into work every day. For me, I find my motivation in my volunteer team. I find motivation in their successes and their challenges. My favourite days are our 1on1s, our team meetings and my office hours. I love talking about their goals and brainstorming pathways to achieving those goals. Whether it is an event they want to put on, a service improvement, a challenge with a volunteer or a new marketing initiative, these are the problem-solving challenges that bring me to the office every day.

9) Always put yourself first

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Like I said in my 4th point, these roles can easily consume and overwhelm. It is so important that student executives take time for themselves and balance their hours. I noticed very early that my job was anything but a 9-5. I work closely with my supervisors to come up with a strategy for balancing my hours, making sure that my late nights allow me to come in late the next day, that my weekends build up vacation days and that all in all, my hours balance out week to week. I made sure to take vacation days, unplug and take time for myself at least once per term. It is also important to be proactive in doing this. Knowing that my summer, especially my August would accumulate lots of overtime, nights, holidays and weekends, I planned ahead and took time off throughout the summer knowing that it would balance out. This comes from having conversations with my supervisor early. Taking time for yourself literally means carving out the physical time for yourself, not just practicing self-care when it is convenient.

10) Take the time to stop and smell the roses

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I cannot stress this point enough, your 1-year contract flies by fast, like really fast. Every event, big or small, take time to enjoy it and soak it all in. I remember during our Headphone Disco in Orientation Week, stresses were high as our venue had to change last minute, my team was stressed, and tensions were high. At that moment, I knew the best thing to do was to take the time to enjoy the event, we grabbed our own set of headphones, put on our favourite channel and enjoyed the event. When the event flies by without you taking the time the appreciate it, you don't even realize the impact you are having with your programming. Carve in the time to enjoy what you are doing, there is always enough time for this, so make sure to prioritize it.

In summary, the opportunity to work as a student executive of a student association is truly unlike any other, that being said, it moves quickly, it throws you into challenges you wouldn't expect and it pushes you out of your comfort zone. Ride that wave, enjoy it and be thankful for the opportunity, you are one of the few lucky people who get this experience, so do not take it for granted. I hope that these 10 nuggets of my own learning can help anyone as they take on these roles or any role in their careers. I truly cannot wait to see where this role will take me next.

Twan Dieker
2019-2020 Vice President: Programming & Services
Wilfrid Laurier University Students' Union