An Unexpected Love Story

The following is a written version of the story I told at our Corvias alumni retreat last summer.

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Can I tell you a love story?

Some of you may know that a few years ago I was a Mormon missionary in Italy. You’ve probably seen missionaries around—they’re often young guys in white shirts with black name tags riding around on bicycles like nutheads; yeah, that was me, except I wore a skirt (even on the bike, which is a totally different story that I’ll have to tell another time).

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Me near the beginning of my mission after having biked home in the pouring rain.

There are a lot of rules you’re asked to follow as a missionary, including being with a companion missionary 24/7. You don’t get to choose who your companion is, but once you’re assigned together, you’re supposed to stay within sight and sound of each other for a six-week period called a “transfer”. At the end of the transfer, the mission president, typically an older, married man who leads the missionary efforts in your area, will send you and/or your companion to a new area, or leave you there for another six weeks.

Being a missionary was the most wonderful, awful, terrifying, challenging, amazing, difficult, and life-changing thing I’ve done in my life thus far. I literally would spend all day stopping people on the street to talk to them about Jesus, which, for my somewhat introverted self, was terrifying every single time, and almost assuredly annoying for everyone with whom I attempted to converse. One of the general LDS church leaders once described this terror by saying something along the lines of: “Missionaries are just as terrified to be there standing on your porch as you are finding them there.” So don’t worry the next time they knock on your door–you definitely have the upper hand.

There are a lot of reasons why I decided to serve a mission and none of them was motivated by a desire to get anything from anyone; I simply wanted to help others and do what I thought I needed to do. I quickly realized, however, that being a missionary was an amazing opportunity for me to learn, and I wanted to make goals in order to maximize my experience. I decided to make a list in my journal of things I wanted to learn from my mission, but for the entire length of my 18 months as a missionary, I could only ever come up with one thing I wanted my mission to teach me: love. I’d heard from people who’d already served missions about how much they loved the people in the areas where they served; I wanted to learn how to recognize and accept love and how to give love.

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My mission goals, from my actual journal

Missionary convention dictates that you forsake your first name in favor of your last name, so I became Sister Soh, or in Italian, Sorella Soh (male missionaries use the title “Elder”, or “Anziano” in Italian). I spent the first nine weeks of my mission at the Missionary Training Center (MTC) in Provo, Utah, where they teach you how to be a missionary and if you’re serving in a non-English speaking country, they teach you the language of the place in which you’ll be serving. Missionaries don’t get to pick where they get to serve, so being sent to Italy was like winning the lottery. The country is beautiful, the people are beautiful, and the food is beautiful (I gained 30 pounds). And despite some unpleasant experiences (people can be very mean), I had many, many unforgettable moments of joy and happiness and love. I felt like I was on track to meet my only goal.

Over the course of my mission, I had eight different companions. I got along great with my first few companions, considering the fact that we were together every moment of every day; they were all Americans, and we’d often talk about home and our lives before the mission and what we wanted to do when we got home. Our mission president encouraged us to serve each other, cook and eat lunch together, and look out for each other so we would get along and be more effective missionaries.

About seven months into my mission, the mission president called me and told me I was getting transferred from the coastal city of Savona to the big city—Milano. Summer was just starting, so the thought of leaving the breezes of the Mediterranean for the sticky, stifling heat of the city was disappointing, but he told me he had a special assignment for me: My new companion, Sorella Sanchez*, needed some love. Right up my alley.

Sorella Sanchez was from Peru, but had lived in Rome for 10 years before serving a mission. She was 11 years older than me and didn’t speak any English. When we were together, the church members would often ask me about her personality, which was hard for them to read. The only explanation I could give them was that she was particolare, which is a word Italians use to describe people who they don’t understand. In English, some might have described her as “awkward”, but there’s no word for that in Italian, and even if there was, she wouldn’t have known what it meant because she wasn’t awkward—she was just particolare.

Once, in the middle of July when it was 9 a.m. and 90°F inside our study room, she got mad at me because I’d turned on the oscillating fan and the fan-generated wind touched her. “Artificial air is bad for you, Sorella Soh” she’d told me, before asking me to move the fan two inches to the left so it wouldn’t blow on her. Whenever we went anywhere, she always walked five feet behind me, and if I tried to slow down so she could catch up and walk beside me, she’d just slow down to match my pace. When we’d get on a train or the metro, I’d look for two open seats, sit in one, and then watch her ignore the open seat next to me and sit in a totally different spot. Particolare.

I was beginning to understand why Sorella Sanchez’s past companions had struggled to get along with her, and I almost couldn’t blame them. I tried to serve her and love her, but I always felt that she was resistant. Even when I asked her if she wanted to cook lunch together, she looked at me blankly and simply said “I don’t think so.” I felt like the language and cultural barriers were unconquerable obstacles; she just did things differently than all my American companions, and she NEVER talked about home or her life before or after the mission. I loved her, at least I tried to love her, but I couldn’t understand her. Everything she did was unexpected, and I wondered if there was something wrong with me.

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In Florence, about a year into my mission. And yes, I was absolutely as tired as I look in this picture.

One morning we had an appointment with someone on the far side of our assigned proselyting area, and on the bus ride home, the heat and the bumpy road started wearing down on me and I began to feel motion sick. When we got back to our apartment for lunch, I knew I needed to recover from my nausea before I could even think about eating. I didn’t want Sorella Sanchez to think I was being lazy, which is probably what she would’ve thought, so I told her, “I’m not feeling well, so I’m going to lie down for a half hour, and then I’ll make my lunch” and went to bed.

After my half hour repose, I was feeling better and walked back into the kitchen where Sorella Sanchez was washing the dishes from her lunch. She saw me walk in and with no emotion or expression said, “I have some extra lunch, you know, if you want it” and turned back to the dishes. As soon as she said it, my first thought was a sarcastic one: “Gee, thanks, Sorella”, but no sooner had that thought crossed my mind when another thought popped into my head: “She just offered you food. She almost never makes extra food, and she certainly never offers it to you when she does.” In that moment, it felt like a lightning bolt struck my heart and opened my mind to understanding: “She did that on purpose. She knew you were feeling ill and she made you lunch.” She was making an offering of love.

I accepted her leftovers and couldn’t stop thinking about it the rest of the day. It’s like the floodgates had opened and suddenly I started to understand everything. She loved me. She’d loved me the whole time, she just didn’t know how to show it. And when she did show it, I was too blind to recognize it because I was expecting love to come in a different way. I’d expected love to be like it’d been with my other companions, talking about home and laughing about silly little things. But that wasn’t Sorella Sanchez. Her love was different. It was particolare.

Upon recognition of this love, I immediately felt terrible about how I’d been treating her and how frustrated I seemed to always be with her; after that moment in the kitchen, everything changed. The light switch turned on in my head and I started to trust her love. Without even trying, we started to fall into sync. We began having inside jokes. I’d make eye contact with her across a train car, cross my eyes, and she’d laugh. We laughed all the time. We laughed with each other. We laughed with the people we met. One day another missionary even approached me and said, “I don’t know what you’re doing, but I haven’t seen Sorella Sanchez this happy in months.”

It wasn’t just Sorella Sanchez who was happier—I was happier, too. She loved me and I loved her. She still drove me nuts sometimes, but the more I saw her through eyes of love, the more I noticed the effect she’d had on me. She still walked 5 feet behind me, but I noticed she was often texting people on our phone (we only had one for the two of us), checking on them and making appointments. She still never sat next to me on the train, but she was always talking to other people about our message, and because she wasn’t sitting next to me, it made me talk to more people, too. And because we never talked about home, I never felt homesick. Everything she had done had been slowly transforming me into a better missionary, and was helping me to become more like the person I wanted to be.

After 12 weeks together, Sorella Sanchez was transferred to a different city to finish out her mission. I saw her two or three times after that, but it’s been more than five years since the last time I saw her as she boarded her train home to Rome at the end of her mission. But a part of her is always with me, and will remain with me forever, written on my heart. Without her even knowing it, she’d changed my life. She gave me far more than I could have ever given her: she taught me how to give love and how to accept love, especially when it comes in ways you don’t expect.

 

*Name has been changed

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Lead365: A Step in My Personal Journey to be an Impactful Leader

By Cristi Rader

Do you ever wonder if you are an effective or impactful leader? I do. What are the qualifications I possess to be an impactful leader? As a young professional, how do I develop my skills to be more effective? How do I inspire others to want to lead in their community or business or academic environment? Hmm-insert thinking emoji.

I received the Corvias Foundation Scholarship in 2007, graduated in 2011, and am now an Opportunity Advisor with Corvias in Cary, North Carolina. Corvias empowers its employees to be truly impactful and its Foundation Scholars to reach higher in all that they do. This year I had the privilege of representing both Corvias employees and scholars at the National Lead365 Conference. Lead365 is an organization “committed to empowering collegiate leaders and professionals dedicated to developing student leaders, to be prepared to serve the greater social good 365 days a year”. For the last three years, Corvias Foundation has sent a small group of scholars and team members to the Lead365 Conference in Orlando, Florida, to support their personal and professional development and to continue to build a network of Corvias Foundation scholars, alumni, partners, and mentors.

I attended the conference as a professional with three college students from across the country: Lahela Daniels, a Corvias Foundation scholar attending the University of Oregon; Sara, a foreign exchange student from Egypt and a Resident Assistant at Wayne State University; and Gerald, a Resident Advisor at Howard University.  Sara and Gerald are Corvias partner scholars; Corvias partner scholars are distinguished students that attend universities with which Corvias has a partnership.*  Through their jobs both Sara and Gerald help students navigate the challenges of their college journeys.

Lahela and I attended the Lead365 Conference with the Corvias Foundation charge to make a difference in our communities and campuses. Although we both are a part of the Corvias Foundation family, this was the first time I had the opportunity to meet Lahela. Her energy and enthusiasm is contagious, and she plans to use her sociology major with a minor in legal studies to make a change on campus. I had the privilege of connecting with her on a personal and professional level during our time together in Orlando, to take risks, and by the end of the three-day conference I could see the new confidence rising out of Lahela. After the conference Lahela shared with me, “I feel that the most important thing that I’ve taken away from the conference is that in order to create your foundation, you must first establish your mission, your vision, and your statement of values. My vision is to start with my community; mentor, influence, and inspire those my age and younger, and to give hope to those who are older, that I will change the world day by day.”

“Leadership isn’t impossible, it means I’m-possible.” This was one of the most resonant quotes from a presenter at the Lead365 Conference. Although, it is fairly easy to listen to your inner critic, this statement reminds me that how we individually show up in failure, truly defines the leaders that we are.  I am continuously learning to be an empowering leader to not only my Corvias teammates but my fellow Corvias Foundation scholars and alumni. Attending the Lead365 Conference allowed me the opportunity to overpower my “inner critic” and allow myself to evolve my leadership skills. I learned from many leaders and presenters in higher education that it is not easy to be a leader, but it is indeed possible. Not only for me but for others too. I can evolve my leadership skills and direct a passionate pursuit to make a difference in others who tell themselves becoming a leader is impossible. I’m-possible and so are they!

The truth is, I do not need someone else to tell me I am doing a good job as a leader, but I do need to feel the 360-degree impact of my actions. James Robilotta, speaker, author, personal coach, and host of the 2017 conference said it best, “As leaders, it’s not only your job to impact others’ lives; it’s your job to let them impact yours.”

Through the Lead365 conference, I have learned that I am a more impactful leader when I:

  • Listen to understand rather than offer solutions—when I am present
  • Engage openly
  • Allow others to impact me and challenges I am facing
  • Take the time to let others share their story
  • Ask for help
  • Recognize moments when a person is showing empathy because we both need this moment.

I know I am being an outstanding leader when the team I am a member of is allowed to learn together. We can learn so much when we value the contributions on all sides.

Corvias Foundation has always inspired me to Imagine. Empower. Reach Higher., and now I can also build upon lessons from the Lead365 Conference to Explore. Engage. Evolve.

*Corvias partners with higher education and government institutions nationwide to solve their most essential systemic problems and create long-term, sustainable value through our unique approach to partnership.

What Can The Corvias Network Do For You?

There are now 131 Corvias Scholars.  Some of us are currently in school, winding down the spring semester.  The other 70 or so of us are making our way through graduate programs, forging careers, growing families, and living as adults day-to-day.  There are now ten years of experience within the alumni family, ten rings in the tree, spanning all walks of life, all manners of studies and expertise.  All this potential at our fingertips.  But how do we do anything with it?

I estimate that I’ve met and spent time with about 50 alumni, to varying degrees of intimacy.  I have known some of you since elementary school — this is common within the Corvias Foundation, there are only so many schools at each base.  Other alumni know each other through siblings, through babysitting, or grade school soccer programs.  But many of us have yet to meet.

I have gotten to know most of you over the years at Alumni Summits.  At these last two summits, I have felt the connective tissue between scholars solidify.  I have heard such stories from you all: like one scholar who reached out for help with a book drive and received hundreds of books.  I have heard of scholars following job leads that came to them from the Corvias network, of them moving across the country and starting new lives.  I have spoken with business owners, doctors, scientists, and musicians — and while some may scoff that I could have done this anywhere, there’s nothing quite like the caliber of a Corvias scholarship recipient.  Recently, Melissa facilitated a connection between myself and a seasoned mentor in my own field, arts and entertainment.

I am truly excited about all of this because I think that something is happening.  I think that something really cool is starting.  We, the Corvias scholars, have evolved.  The Corvias Foundation celebrated its 10th anniversary.  The first scholars have entered a phase of their lives well beyond what a freshmen undergraduate is living through, and that distance between the first class and the most recent class will always be growing.  For every question you have, every problem you’ve gotten stuck on, there is now a professional to turn to.  After all this time, the Corvias network has matured and can now tend to itself.

Ask yourself:  Where do you want to be going in your life?  How can the Corvias network help you get there?  Even if it’s silly, even if it’s the longest shot of your life, is it worth asking for?  Probably.