The word “legacy” is thrown around often in student affairs and higher education. In my first professional position in 2004, I was asked during a performance appraisal what I wanted my legacy to be. I was unable to answer the question, but also unable to clearly explain why I couldn’t answer. The idea that I would leave a legacy, that something of my work might continue on, wasn’t entirely foreign to me. In 2008, as I prepared to depart that same institution, the university’s president readied for retirement. Throughout the academic year after he announced his retirement, people often spoke of what his legacy would be. On more than one occasion, he was asked to define his legacy. He articulated what I was unable to during my performance appraisal. He expressed that it was not up to us to determine our own legacies; that it would be most accurately defined by the people who followed us. He discussed the contributions that he felt were most meaningful to his own personal growth, but clarified that those same lessons may be meaningless to someone else in the university community.
So many of us enter this field believing we are going to change the lives of every student. If we are true to ourselves as professionals, we eventually come to understand that our students have the opportunity to change us as well. Amanda was the most exemplary student leader with whom I have had the opportunity to work and learn. Our social circles were concentric beginning in high school. We attended rival schools, both competed in forensic tournaments, and had mutual friends that kept us linked as we transitioned from high school to attending the same university. To list all of Amanda’s accomplishments and involvement would be a disservice to who she was as a person because, truly, she was so much more than her resume and co-curricular involvement. She understood leadership and engagement as an undergraduate student in ways many professionals will never achieve.
Shortly before the end of Fall Quarter of our first year of college, I ran into Amanda on the way home from class. It was the first time I’d seen her in weeks. We paused to catch up and I asked her about her quarter. She expressed her frustration with her experience, commenting on not feeling involved or engaged. She hadn’t found opportunities that suited what she had hoped to accomplish. She confided that she was considering transferring to another university.
Ultimately, Amanda chose not to transfer. Instead she sought experiences and opportunities that interested her. When they didn’t exist, she created them. She e-mailed the president of the university and invited him to share a meal in the dining hall with her and her roommates, explaining that if they were all going to be on campus together for four years, they should probably get to know each other. She sought leadership opportunities as a peer leadership consultant, within student government, and through a sorority on campus. Amanda defined her experience by paving her own path in college.
On May 3, 2003, Amanda was killed in a car accident in our hometown. Less than a month before she was going to speak at commencement as senior class president and receive her degree, she was gone. Over the next weeks, Amanda’s accomplishments and contributions were celebrated. A memorial service six days later reflected on all she had given to the university community, and also gave the university the opportunity to present her degree to her family. Two weeks later she was posthumously awarded the Outstanding Senior Leader Award at the Student Leadership Recognition Reception. Over and over again, I had the chance to hear stories from students and student affairs professionals about how Amanda changed their lives. Her legacy, it appeared, would not be in the design of the new student center for which she served on the committee or the structure of student government. Her legacy was giving back to the university and role modeling how one student can create a path that doesn’t yet exist if they simply want it to be their own.
How often do we fail our students by not supporting what they want to create, what they want to define? How often do we direct them to organizations that already exist or to established processes? How many opportunities do we miss to encourage them because we’re entangled in learning outcomes, assessment, and measurable goals?
Amanda loved the movie Toy Story and often signed her e-mails, “To infinity and beyond…” Every time that message is unwittingly delivered to me through e-mail or in conversation, I smile thinking of her and how her legacy lives on in immeasurable ways. There is a leadership center in the new student center at our alma mater named for her. While many people naively consider that her legacy, I know that her legacy is bigger than that programming space.
It’s carried out daily in the work many of her friends now do as student affairs professionals. It’s a legacy that constantly pays forward — we encourage students to create opportunities that involve other students, who are then inspired to create their own experiences and opportunities or, better, become student affairs professionals themselves. To infinity and beyond indeed — there is no way of knowing how many people are touched by a legacy or how long it will continue to live on.
May 3 is a hard day for me annually, particularly as the years go on and those of us who formed those concentric social circles are farther flung across the country. It is a day that I celebrate Amanda’s legacy by looking for opportunities to help students venture from a beaten path onto one that makes most sense for who they are and what they want to give back. It’s a day that I reflect as a student affairs professional on what it means to do this work. It’s a day that I remind myself that defining a legacy is related less to who I am and more to whom I help others become.