Mark Leadership Conference encourages students to be agents of change
CNN's 2014 "Hero of the Year", Miss New Jersey and a former White House executive pastry chef all have one thing in common: They inspired students from across the state at the third-annual Rutgers Mark Leadership Conference.
More than 440 people attended the conference, which was held on Saturday in the Livingston Student Center, to consider the “mark” they would leave on the world around them.
Rutgers students were joined by students from Rowan University, Drew University and Stevens Institute of Technology to listen to more than 20 speakers.
From artists to leaders in technology and business, the diversified line-up of speakers made for an event unlike "your typical leadership conference,” said Alyea Pierce, Rutgers alumna and former Ignite Speaker.
“This a unique opportunity to discover something new about yourself,” Pierce said. “… (to) think, ‘What will I leave behind and what will be my mark?’”
Pen Farthing, former marine and 2014 CNN "Hero of the Year", shared his story about the mark he is making in Afghanistan through his non-profit organization Nowzad Dogs, the first and only dog shelter in the country.
Farthing was deployed in 2006 to serve in Afghanistan, where he soon discovered dog fighting was a norm in the country after breaking up a dog fight being held by local police.
“This dog then ran into our compound and eventually started to think I was his friend,” he said. “… I realized I was spending time with this dog just to pretend I wasn’t in Afghanistan.”
To ensure the dog did not end up back on Afghani streets, Farthing arranged for the dog to travel to his home in the United Kingdom. Thus, the idea for Nowzad Dogs was born.
Nowzad Dogs has reunited more than 700 soldiers with stray dogs and cats they took in during combat. The organization’s trap-neuter-release program also combats rabies infection rates and creates job opportunities for aspiring veterinarians.
“I didn’t start making my mark until I was nearly 42,” he said. “If you have no idea what you’re going to do now, don’t panic. You absolutely have plenty of time… you have like-minded people around you here who can help you out.”
Maysoon Zayid, an actress and comedian, shared her experiences with cerebral palsy and the obstacles faced by performers in Hollywood with disabilities, all the while leaving the audience laughing.
“There are perks to being palsy,” she said. “I don’t ever have to stand in line at Disney World.”
Amid laughter, Zayid told her story of growing up in Cliffside Park, New Jersey as a Palestinian minority and the struggle to get cast in college plays with her disability. While attending Arizona State University, Zayid auditioned for the role of a girl with cerebral palsy, but did not get the part.
The entertainment industry does not hire disabled people, she said, but audiences can make a difference by protesting the inequality on TV screens.
“Ninety-nine percent of the time, the character on screen is not being played by an actor with disability,” she said. “…and if you’re going to be disabled (in Hollywood), you better be slim, white and attractive. You can’t be disabled and brown," she said. "If a wheelchair user can’t play Beyonce, then Beyonce can’t play a wheelchair user. Actors won’t stop turning down those roles unless the audiences stop supporting it.”
Another speaker, Tom Krieglstein, reminded students they do not need a diploma to make their mark. He shared the story of the successful business venture he launched during his sophomore year of college re-selling older editions of college textbooks online.
During his senior year of college, Kreiglstein was making $1.5 million in sales.
“Just because you are a student right now doesn’t mean you have to wait until you graduate to take an opportunity,” he said. “You can have those moments right now.”
Rutgers students were selected as Ignite Speakers to share their personal journeys on stage in five minutes.
Kellie Palomba, a School of Arts and Sciences junior, gave a moving speech on the lessons she learned from her brother Michael, who has severe autism.
“This boy truly loves and appreciates people for who they are,” said Palomba. “We should all aspire to be like him — to love people for who they are, not how much money they have or whether they have a disability.”
Chris Price, another Ignite Speaker, shared how he realized that comparing himself to others is unhealthy.
Throughout his four years at Rutgers, Price excelled academically and became rigorously involved on campus, but realized he was only doing this in order to “measure up to others.”
“Unfortunately, we live in a culture where we are told to compare ourselves to others,” he said. “This ranges from internships to the likes and comments we get on Facebook.”
Avalon Zoppo is a Rutgers Business School first-year student majoring in pre-business. She is an Associate News Editor at The Daily Targum. Follow her on Twitter @avalonzoppo for more stories.