Savor the Risk

This article is a follow-up piece on last week’s feature concerning female leadership at Phillips Academy. Reflecting on the opportunities of young women at Andover seems surreal from my current vantage point as a Peace Corps Volunteer. In many corners of the world (including the green island that I currently inhabit), teenage girls balance schoolwork with carrying water and helping their parents with farming. In their lives, leadership opportunities are more likely to surface as they resolve a family conflict or raise babies than in school. Every now and then, it’s good to wake up to the simple fact that by winding up at Andover, we already won a leadership lottery. A substantial number of people in our lives expect us to tether our futures to our own ambitions. No small gift. I decided to campaign for School President on a clear winter night, while in my prefect room in Nathan Hale. As I absent-mindedly did my Virgil translation for the next day’s Latin class, I said to myself, “Why not?” Looking back, this is not an insignificant commentary on leadership, because my confidence sprang from all the times I had seen women at PA take the lead and go for competitive positions. As a Junior, I watched my admired prefect run for school president and lose. What stuck in my mind though was her “What the heck, why not?” attitude towards pursuing a long shot. A chicken and egg conundrum exists in fostering leadership. A leader needs a model for their policies, but he or she doesn’t have to be a traditional success story to inspire future contenders. A campus culture of many young women stepping up to the plate swinging is much more powerful than a single one of us hitting it out of the park once in a blue moon. Between my prefect, team captains and fellow theater kids, I had witnessed the leadership of enough gutsy PA females that it didn’t seem crazy to run in an election I likely wouldn’t win. The campaign for school president was a fierce competition. It started with an initial pool of nearly 20 candidates and eventually shrank to a group that hashed out topics like campaign finance reform in the pages of The Phillipian. We questioned the ways opponents traded remarks on humor, gender and even good looks during the campaign. I enjoyed the adrenaline of those months. I believed then, as I do now, that men and women tend to have different strengths as leaders. Nevertheless, I wanted to stay focused on issues like preserving study abroad opportunities in the face of budget cuts, tailoring the Life Issues curriculum to include peer teaching and the relationship of student government with different campus groups. But I was representing young women on campus and especially wanted to be a role model for my Juniors in Nathan Hale. I think this sense of responsibility lent a serious tone to my campaign. In speeches, I didn’t joke as often as my male opponents, which in the end probably cost me some votes. Students generally want a Student President who will lighten up All School Meetings and not take his or herself too seriously. But I couldn’t get around the fact that the responsibilities of campaigning and the chance to speak for my peers impressed me with a sense of gravity. Regardless of the outcome, a female candidate who makes a tough effort will inspire as many of her peers as if she wins in a landslide victory. The position of School President is unique because of its interactions with faculty, administrators and trustees, and because of the public speaking component. It exemplifies a significant but narrow definition of leadership: visible, singular and relatively prestigious. We know that leadership takes many forms on the Andover campus, and that the gender breakdown of school presidents fails to measure the influence of young women in campus organizations, on teams and in dorms. As long as Andover fosters a campus culture of women encouraging each other to risk failure, I have no doubt that our presidential numbers will continue to grow. Allegra Apslundh-Smith was the fourth and most recent female president of the Phillips Academy Student Council. She is currently abroad as a Peace Corps Volunteer.