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When Breaking the Rules Is the Best Policy

Kelly Tsai has a lifetime of experience with feeling out of place. Growing up the Asian American daughter of immigrants in the Midwest, she told a ballroom full of college women, “There was not a place for me where I made sense. … Make some noise if you can relate.”

The room erupted.

Tsai, a spoken word poet and one of five 2016 Women of Distinction awardees at the National Conference for College Women Student Leaders (NCCWSL), echoed a theme of otherness shared by several of the speakers. Marisa Demeo, the Superior Court of the District of Columbia judge and advocate for LGBT and Latino people’s rights, remembered being asked her whole life to account for where she “came from.” She was born in the United States, but she knows what people meant — perplexed by her Puerto Rican and Italian background, they wanted to restrict her race, heritage, and culture to a single box. As a gender-nonconforming person (she identifies with the female pronoun), she further baffled restrictive constructions of identity.

Demeo offered empowering words to those who have felt ostracized because of their identities or the way they look. “You are a vital thread in the fabric of America. Without you, America would be less beautiful. Less creative. Less smart. And less strong.” And she cautioned listeners not to hide their true selves out of fear. Rejection from others is painful, yes, but surmountable. “When you reject yourself, that is the deepest pain there is.”

Sarah McBride, a campaigns and communications manager at the Center for American Progress, brought the crowd to tears, cheers, and murmurs of empathy with her deeply personal story of baring her identity as a proud transgender woman and then losing the partner who had helped her get there. Just four days after she married Andy, another transgender activist, he passed away from cancer. His death, painful as it was, reinvigorated McBride’s passion for trans rights, underscoring her belief that “change cannot come fast enough, that every day matters when it comes to building a world where every person can live their life to the fullest.”

McBride encouraged the crowd to nurture that sense of urgency, because students are powerful change makers. “Our college campuses should look like what we want our country to look like in 10 or 15 years,” she said.

Tsai echoed her admiration for the young leaders in the audience and challenged them to pursue their dreams without fear. “Confidence is a muscle. You must use it every day.”

However brave and confident we are, we all face harsh realities at one time or another. “Sexism and sexual harassment are real,” Tsai acknowledged, and they may happen to us. “But know that other people’s mistreatment of you is not who you are,” she said, to resounding cheers.

Business investor Anu Duggal’s advice was perhaps the most pragmatic, offering tips for women to start building their professional networks. She advised students to track names of professors and first bosses in a spreadsheet and make at least annual efforts to stay in touch through letters or coffee trips. “Find a mentor. Whatever field you go into, it’s incredibly important to find people who will support you and be your advocates,” she said.

Another entrepreneur on the stage, Kimberly Bryant, encouraged attendees to look inward for inspiration and to rely on each other to achieve their goals. Bryant grew her organization, Black Girls Code, from a dozen girls in a San Francisco computer lab basement to a worldwide organization serving more than 6,000 girls. Inspired by her love for her STEM-enthusiast daughter, Bryant encouraged the audience to make their own passions drive their careers. “The thing that gets you up in the morning … do that,” she advised.

And she urged the young women leaders in the room to rely on each other’s strength. “You have the potential to answer all of the questions that you may have on what will make the world a better place. But we need each other.”

Bryant

Demeo

Duggal

McBride

Tsai

 

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