The only thing more important than being irreplaceable is replacing yourself

Teaching the underclassmen at U.Va. to be the future us

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I’ll never forget sitting at my dinner table, elbows deep in college essays, scribbling down ideas to answer “What’s your favorite word and why?” for my University application and then ferociously crossing them out. 

I spent endless hours thinking of how to be unique — musing over one response, completely scratching it, returning to it an hour later and typing an introduction only for it to go absolutely nowhere. Differentiating oneself in a sea of thousands is hard work. I wanted to show the administrative office that I was unlike anyone else and that I could bring something to the University through my perspective and abilities no one else could supply.

Only, differentiating myself didn’t end in January, when I was accepted, or in August, when I went to my first 9 a.m. English class on the third floor of Bryan Hall.

In fact, it had just begun with those late nights at my dining room table. We run the same race with every club, every internship, every job — we memorize the distinguishing elements of our resume and we’re conditioned overtime to think in terms of what only we can bring to the table. We strive to present ourselves as — and to truly be — irreplaceable.

It feels so good to be an essential part of a team and to able to give something only you can contribute. The world tells us being irreplaceable is the peak of success and the height of security. But what I’m realizing as an upperclassman is that this sense of irreplaceability harms the growth of our community and breeds a damaging sense of pride — in me and in us.

We aren’t irreplaceable, and we don’t want to be. Believing we’re irreplaceable isn’t good for us — at it’s best, our duties become a crushing weight and source of constant worry because we live with the understanding that we are the only one who can do it. Failure becomes unimaginable, and we wouldn’t dare admit we’ve taken on too much after we’ve convinced ourselves and everyone else we’re the best fit. And at it’s worse, it’s a lie that inflates our ego and creates a suffocating, competitive ladder of a community.

More than that, irreplaceability hurts this University. Being irreplaceable doesn’t foster growth the University because whatever we bring to the table leaves with us when we graduate in four short years — and for some of us, they’re almost over. Irreplaceability doesn’t contribute to the continuous quality of the things we care most about, on- and off-Grounds because it can’t outlive us.

In fact, if we’re truly passionate about the causes we contribute to in our time on Grounds, we need to consider investing our time to the opposite effect — learning how to replace ourselves and raise up the future generation of Hoos to continue the legacy.

Irreplaceability is about being the right person in a moment — growth is about raising up people to be part of a movement.

For example, in 2015, I was a second semester senior in high school living out a leadership position as a Campaigner in an organization called Young Life. One day, an older mentor stood with me in a sea of freshman and sophomores and challenged me to replace myself — it was a humbling experience. The older mentor gently explained to me that if I wanted the legacy of what I had worked to create to continue, I needed to teach someone how to carry it on. And while I wanted to believe that I was the only girl who could do what I had learned to do, I wasn’t, and I’m so thankful that was the truth. 

Freeman High School needed someone else to drive freshman girls to school when I was gone, just to show them someone cared despite the intense social ranking high school enacts. It needed someone to wash off the mean comments written about underclassmen in chalk on the sidewalks the first day of school. Freeman needed someone else who knew how order and pick up three dozen bagels for morning Campaigner meetings. If I’m being honest, Freeman High School didn’t need another me; they needed someone better.

Hoos, I know you’ve worked hard these past few years to create, build and improve what you love in and around this University. Whatever team you’re on, whatever club you lead, whatever alliance you run — you put in the hours because you have a vision for what it could be, and you want to be an integral part of its realization. Now, as many of us are upperclassmen, we can finally see that we were. But why let that vision — and those skills we’ve learned to achieve it — die in May when we move on to bigger and better things?

You can bury those hours in the ground somewhere under the Rotunda, or you can place them in the hands of someone who reminds you a lot of yourself when you were a first-year — someone who’s quirky, under-qualified and maybe even more passionate than you were. Teach them how to organize the meetings. Teach them how to encourage your members and raise support in the community. Teach them how to persevere through obstacles and how to overcome the ones you’ve already mastered. 

If you continue to believe that you’re the only one who can do what you do, you will be. But if you break with the normality of bolstering your own skill set to invest in the future of this University and community, you might just be part of something a lot bigger than your own four years.

What legacy will you leave? Who will you equip before you walk across the Lawn your final time? 

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