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Rutgers students 'make their mark' at annual leadership conference

<p>This year, Olympic gold medal gymnast Laurie Hernandez spoke at the 5th annual Mark Leadership Conference at Rutgers. More than 500 attendees gathered in the Livingston Student Center to participate in the nine-hour event.</p>

This year, Olympic gold medal gymnast Laurie Hernandez spoke at the 5th annual Mark Leadership Conference at Rutgers. More than 500 attendees gathered in the Livingston Student Center to participate in the nine-hour event.

The Mark Leadership Conference, hosted by the Department of Leadership and Experiential Learning, had its fifth annual gathering on March 4 at the Livingston Student Center. 

The goal of the conference is to “inspire action among students and encourage them to think critically about the 'mark' they will leave on the world around them,” according to the Mark Conference website. One of this year's guest speakers was Olympic gold-medalist Laurie Hernandez. 

“The leadership unit on campus wanted to create something new and innovative for our students. We wanted to explore leadership in a very different way…(by) inspiring students through a TED-style format,” said Robyn Ginese, director for Leadership and Experiential Learning in the Student Affairs Division.

This conference is the main event held by the Department of Leadership and Experiential Learning, and this year it sold out the fastest it has in five years. 

School of Environmental and Biological Studies junior Jessica Thorpe said the conference this year welcomed more than 500 individuals from all over the tri-state area.

Thorpe, who is Speaker Logistics Captain for the conference, is one of the numerous student leaders who helped organize the event. 

Although the Department of Leadership and Experiential Learning is professionally-staffed, the event was run completely by Rutgers students. There were eight Mark captains who lead the group and roughly 50-60 other students, deemed “the SWAT team,” who assisted with other duties.

“The students really envision everything. My job in the department, from a professional standpoint, is to help them actualize those ideas, and so we sit there and try to think bigger and bigger every year,” Ginese said.

This year’s conference involved roughly 20 speakers, all hailing from various walks of life. In addition to Olympic gymnast Laurie Hernandez, presenters included tech entrepreneur Yasmine Mustafa, and professional spoken word poet Rudy Francisco — as well as Rutgers students. 

There were seven Ignite speakers, all students, who presented their own stories and perspectives. The diversity of lifestyles and mindsets offered what Ginese called “a transformational experience.”

Besides the main speaking events, there were also other energizers that the students could participate in. Breakouts were infused into the nine-hour long day to allow attendees to expose themselves to different activities. Activities like black-out archery tag and light saber competitions serve as relaxing breaks, but also as an opportunity to meet new people and network.

“(The conference) brings Rutgers as a whole together. The community we had today was amazing,” Thorpe said.

Ginese said the energy at the conference was electrifying and it was crucial to grant students the freedom to forge connections.

An event as large and encompassing as this did not come without its challenges, though. As Speaker Logistics Captain, Thorne was responsible for reaching out to speakers and deciding which ones were compatible with Mark’s goal.

“The hardest part was finding the speakers who will speak to the students. There are so many speakers out there, and they all have a story, but we wanted to pick the ones that will really hit home with our students and our attendees. It can be difficult because you have to find such good speakers like we had today,” Thorpe said.

To Ginese, the toughest aspect of organizing the conference is having it outdo the year before, she said. There is always a desire to achieve more and offer something original, this year being multimedia and virtual reality.

For one student, the conference was successful in its intent. Dennison Adad, a post-graduate student in the School of Engineering said she had never previously attended the Mark conference, but enjoyed it.

“I thought this conference was done really well. I thought the speakers were great and very motivational. One of the best things about this conference, I thought, was the diversity in the stories. I think for those who think they aren’t seen in the world or that people don’t relate to them, I think this kind of event will inspire people to aspire toward their dreams,” Adad said.

Students have shared over 100 pictures of their experiences at the conference with the hashtag, #MyMark on Instagram. Thorne said she hopes that this event has motivated students to achieve what they want, no matter their age or goal.

“I think (an event like this) is so important because it demonstrates to students that they don’t have to wait," she said. "They don’t have to wait until after college to make a mark. You don’t have to say ‘Oh, I’ll start that business after college.’ You can start now. Get out there and do what you can.”

Kelly Kim is a School of Engineering first-year student. She is a contributing writer for The Daily Targum.

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