For Kaitlin Cole, 21, of Portland, being a leader means caring for people whether they’re family, friends, colleagues, from Maine or from other countries. A leader is not necessarily someone who talks loudly and draws attention, she said, but works with others to accomplish a goal and hold the center. It’s a definition worth remembering.
Cole was one of 28 undergraduates from Maine selected to participate in the annual Maine NEW Leadership Conference, a program of the Margaret Chase Smith Policy Center at the University of Maine, between May 30 and June 4. She will be a junior at the university in the fall and is studying food science, human nutrition and political science.
We hear often about the work of political and business leaders, but of course there are many more unexpected and unpraised individuals in Maine who devote their time to bridging differences and helping others.
As a resident assistant in a freshman dorm for international students, as an intern with the Sustainability Solutions Initiative, as public relations manager for the UMaine African Student Association, and with a background of experience in helping others, Cole is one of them.
Actions are important, and so is philosophy. “It wasn’t until my junior year of high school and senior year that I was recognized as being a leader. For me, it took me awhile to realize you don’t have to be that really loud, outspoken person who’s seemingly fearless and can get up in front of anyone at anytime,” she said. “You also have to be kind of patient, observe, pay attention, listen, and then, when you need to step forward, be able to say, ‘This is what I’ve seen, and this is what I think.’”
Cole grew up in Portland but spent her summers in Aroostook County, where her parents are from. She has a biological brother and an adopted brother. Most of her friends are from other countries.
“I tell people all the time, I absolutely loved growing up in Portland because of the diversity in culture, languages, religion, everything, and I feel like that has really been beneficial to me and my interests,” she said.
One of the greatest influences on her life so far, she said, was attending Casco Bay High School, which focuses on expeditionary learning and was named one of the nation’s top schools in 2012 by U.S. News and World Report. Cole was part of the public school’s second graduating class, with a tight-knit group of 43 students. All the students in her class were accepted to college.
At the school, students participate in long-term learning expeditions where they explore a single topic in depth, do fieldwork and then present a project, product or performance. For one of Cole’s expeditions, she studied the historical and political reasons why Cambodia, Sudan and Romania have so many orphans. At the end, she filmed a public service announcement and organized a fundraiser with food, music and speakers. The money went to Maine-based organizations and individuals with connections to orphanages in those countries.
She attended Clark University in Worcester, Mass., for a semester where she studied international relations and Spanish. She then decided to switch to UMaine to study nutrition, which combines classes in biology, anatomy, physiology and chemistry.
Her experiences at the university have been about much more than classwork. The previous two semesters, she served as a resident assistant for a dorm floor of about 80 students, most of whom were exchange or international students. She said she wanted to be the type of leader who was available, who people would confide in if they had problems.
She learned to watch over students. If she hadn’t seen someone in the lounge in awhile, or if they hadn’t been playing their music in some time, she would check on them. At one point she talked with a student who was depressed and ended up having to call for extra help. She said she expected students to have trouble with homework or to be conflicted about what to major in, “but you don’t think you’re going to have to help save someone’s life.”
She’s found herself filling another role, too, as a voice for the African Student Association, a group on campus to provide unity among Africans or those of African heritage who live in Maine or on campus. Cole is white, and has good naturedly fielded questions from people curious about why she’s involved.
“Unless you kind of seek it out, you’re not always around a lot of diversity on campus. For me, it’s sort of a feeling of being at home, since in Portland it’s so diverse,” she said.
And she’s learning. The organization raised enough money to be able to attend the fourth annual Harvard African Development Conference in March where she and her friends met the president of Senegal and leaders from across the continent. She hopes to study abroad in Ghana, in West Africa, next year.
Throughout the five days of the Maine NEW Leadership Conference, participants listened to speakers, watched the Maine Legislature in action, participated in their own mock legislative experience, and learned skills to become Maine’s next civic leaders.
Cole said one of the most powerful parts of the conference came when Achebe Betty Powell, an educator and human rights activist, did an exercise called “leveling the playing field” with all the women. They stood shoulder to shoulder in a line, holding hands. Powell then read off certain life experiences. If those experiences had happened to the participants, they had to step forward. If not, they stepped backward. One of the experiences, for example, was growing up with a certain number of children’s books.
The women held hands as long as possible but eventually had to let go. In the end, they were spread across the room, representing those who came from privileged and less-privileged backgrounds.
It was an emotional activity, Cole said, that demonstrated how society might see individuals based on the households in which they grew up. Children start out on more of an even playing field, and then certain setbacks make it more difficult to get ahead. Sometimes people in more challenging situations don’t believe they can reach their goals.
But the exercise also demonstrated hope and people’s power over their achievement — because, despite their individual odds, they had all made it to that room.
Cole said, “We were all chosen for this program. We’re already leaders. We’re here to cultivate that and continue with that, so it doesn’t matter what background you come from. You can do anything you want to.”