In a conversation covering topics spanning from his father’s declaration of bankruptcy to the challenges he faced during his career, Kevin McDonald, vice president of diversity, equity, inclusion and community partnerships at the University, imparted invaluable wisdom to students Tuesday evening. The event was a part of the Multicultural Student Center’s “Things I Wish I Knew” event series.
Sara Hamilton, fourth-year College student and MSC identity development intern, was responsible for planning the TIWIK events. The informality of TIWIK is a key distinction of the series when compared to other speaker events, Hamilton said, adding that the atmosphere of the talks are intended to be intimate and casual. To this end, the speaker sits in front of the audience, shares vulnerable life experiences and finally welcomes student input and questions.
Hamilton hopes that in this casual setting, students will feel encouraged to identify similarities between their experiences and those of the accomplished speaker, allowing them to harness a sense of reassurance that eases their anxieties about the future.
“[TIWIK is a] casual conversation with students, helping us gain some clarity and insight into things that we may be struggling with,” Hamilton said. “So, you know people thinking ‘Am I on the right path? Am I in the right field? Am I, you know, going to be successful in my life?’ Just those general insecurities most students have. It's just a nice way for us to kind of connect with people who have been in our shoes in the past and see that it's okay not to know all the answers, it's okay not to have everything figured out.”
The event began with Hamilton inviting students to help themselves to a diverse array of Thai Cuisine — basil stir fry, fried rice, spring rolls, chicken wings and white rice. With about 50 students enjoying the food, Hamilton introduced the event series and speaker.
McDonald spoke for about 30 minutes, offering his wisdom on a wide range of topics, such as the importance of relationships, taking risks — or “flight,” as he put it, getting comfortable with discomfort, finding mentors, developing interpersonal skills, growing in the face of adversity and finding work at the intersection of passion and purpose.
In his discussion of relational skills, McDonald emphasized the primacy of human connection over productivity. He elucidated on this guidance with an anecdote about a woman he knew who, despite her self-conceived brilliance, was fired for reasons related to unwillingness to connect emotionally with others.
In a related line of thought, McDonald transitioned his focus to the value of mentors. McDonald shared that he has many revered mentors and exemplified this point with a story of a plate gifted to him by one of his mentors that now serves as an emblem of his respect and love for those who have offered him guidance.
“One of those mentors told me so much, not just about navigating professional spaces, but about life, about being a good father and [a] good husband. I will never forget when I got married he gave me my first set of plates. All of those plates got cracked and broken except for one. And when I tell you my wife thinks I'm crazy... I eat on that plate every night like I'm paying homage to this person,” McDonald said.
For a brief time during his talk, McDonald assumed the role of mentor by answering students’ questions and using his own life experience to inform his audience. Conducive to the contents of his talk, McDonald valued the human connection aspect of TIWIK. The opportunity to mentor students is one that he finds both exciting and significant.
“I love the format — the notion of kind of reflecting on the lessons learned in life that will be beneficial from a collegiate standpoint … Most importantly for me, I'm just energized by the opportunity to engage with students,” McDonald said.
Beyond the practical skills such as networking, mentorship and interpersonal skills, the undercurrent of McDonald’s entire speech was the necessity of remaining strong, confident and maintaining drive regardless of — and more often in response to — external circumstances.
McDonald derived this wisdom from his encounters with adversity during his upbringing in Cleveland, a period when his father’s business went bankrupt and his family was evicted from their home. McDonald offered an alternative to wilting in the face of adversity and instead recognized setbacks as an almost necessary facet of progress.
“I just felt like [my father] was associated with me, you know, in my plight as an African American male, as a Black family in Cleveland, it just felt like it was fulfilling so many caricatures … At some point, I was able to kind of shake it off and use it as a motivator to kind of get on the grind with regards to life,” McDonald said. “Part of it for me was motivation to say 'I'm going to move on.' You know, either my family or myself is going to have to go through this again, so I want to try to excel at everything.”
McDonald said that this triumph over adversity and this reframing of misfortune early on in his life prepared him for future challenges such as his decision to accept a job at the University of Missouri following student protests of the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson.
With his final words and an expression of gratitude for the opportunity to speak with students, McDonald’s speech concluded. Students slowly diffused, but lingering in the atmosphere was a sense of invigoration and inspiration.
Hamilton shared that although the number of TIWIK talks per semester has varied in the past, she is working toward transforming the speaker series into a monthly event at the MSC. Next month’s TIWIK talk will take place in the third week of March and the process of confirming next month’s speaker is already underway. In future TIWIK talks, Hamilton hopes to achieve increased student engagement and facilitate interactiveness between students and featured speakers.
“I think having ‘Things I Wish I Knew’ be more conversational and more intimate and have more of those one-on-one conversations [and] interactions — instead of the speakers talking at students and students are just listening — I think having it be more interactive would be cool,” Hamilton said.