An academic pep rally. Incentives replacing demerits. Passion that inspires all students to pursue their dreams.
School spirit is surging at Rockdale Magnet School for Science and Technology in Conyers, GA. Much of the credit belongs to a student council leadership team nicknamed “The Magnificent Seven” for its power to reshape the school.
Seven young women—seniors of the Class of 2018—have forged friendships across varied backgrounds. They’ve learned to work together and create a collective impact. Guided by student council adviser Susan Powell, all seven earned the recognition of National Student Council Distinguished Student Leader (DSL), undertaking the rigorous process that documented their individual leadership qualities and prompting reflection on the meaning and definition of leadership.
“The Distinguished Student Leader process allows you to step up on that platform and say, ‘This is what I did,’ and it gives you something to look back on,” says student council President Jestini Jordan. “It wasn’t anything we did just to make our résumés look better, because we’re all doing pretty well. We wanted to make ourselves feel better and know that we’ve come so far.”
“The Magnificent Seven” recently shared four years of leadership lessons learned—and many laughs—with Advise. In addition to Jordan, we spoke to First Vice President Bridgette Benefield, Second Vice President Sydney Turner, Parliamentarian Rachel Hill, Historian Madeline Burkey, Back-to-School Week Committee Chair Asiah McWhorter, and Faculty Appreciation Committee Member Jessica Kamuche.
Advise: You are all in a rigorous academic program and busy with other activities. Why add leadership to your plates?
Madeline: Student council offered the opportunity to spread our wings and put into place our ideas about how to make the school and the community a better place.
Bridgette: It was a challenge. I saw what every other kid did; it was easier doing the wrong thing. I wanted to be that one person who did the right thing and helped people realize that you don’t have to do wrong to be cool or popular.
Advise: Why choose student council as your leadership outlet?
Jestini: Student council allows you to be creative, but it also allows you to use your voice and show that you know what you’re doing and let others mimic that. It allows you to bond with others while also building yourself and just doing what high school is about: becoming that adult and that leader.
Madeline: We not only interact with the students and put emphasis on how important it is for them to develop who they are as a student and as a person outside of school, but we also try to focus on our staff and our teachers and show them how much we appreciate them and how much we love them.
Advise: As student council leaders in a magnet school, does your role include coalescing all the students who come from different parts of your area?
Asiah: One of the most valuable lessons I’ve learned from being part of a group of young ladies who all come from different backgrounds is that you don’t have to water yourself down, but sometimes you have to lessen yourself and step out of yourself to hear what other people have to say. It’s amazing to see how one perspective from each of us can come together and become something big.
Rachel: Even though we have strengths and weaknesses, when we come together, we get the job done. That has shown our classmates that coming from different backgrounds, we’re all students who can work together.
Advise: What have you learned from each other over the years?
Asiah: From Maddie, I learned that sometimes you have to be quiet more than speak up. I learned from Sydney that sometimes you need to make sure that your voice is heard, even though that might cause discord. From Jestini, I learned that sometimes you have to step up when nobody else is willing. I learned from Bridgette that sometimes you have to speak out [about] what’s real and what needs to be said. I learned from Rachel that you get things done. And I learned from Jessica that everything’s always done with a smile, and it’s easier when you’re happy.
Bridgette: I don’t think it’s really what we learned from each other. It’s how we grew together. None of us would be the person we are today if we hadn’t all joined through the council.
Rachel: I learned dependability. I can’t do it all myself. I have to depend on each and every person to do their part and to be a part of the team as a whole. Then together we’ll achieve the common goal.
Advise: Looking back as seniors, what would you do differently?
Sydney: I would follow more. I chaired so much, and I didn’t know what I was doing. I made it seem like I did, and it was good to have that, but at the same time, I had to work harder in order to learn what to do when I could have just stepped back and watched.
Rachel: I would have encouraged more people to join. The more people, the more hands you have, the greater the difference you can make. That is how you grow as a council. And maybe more male participation, because women outnumber the males on our council.
Advise: How has being a leader impacted you or your future plans?
Sydney: I can talk a lot, but talking and communicating are two different things. Yes, my mouth is moving, but what is coming out? Student council helped me learn how and when to say stuff and get it across appropriately.
Jestini: When I was younger, I always looked for the right answers. I want to be a lawyer, so I look at student council as a give and take. Sometimes you’re not going to win the case. Sometimes, you’re going to have to sit there and take the final decision and ask, “How can I grow from this, and what can I learn from it?”
Bridgette: Coming into my freshman year, I decided I was going to go to this college in California. I was going to be a California girl. Becoming a leader made me realize it’s not about where you go. It’s about who you meet and how you build on those relationships.
Madeline: I’ve been able to find my voice. I’ve become more outspoken, more confident in my ideas, and able to pursue the creative ideas that might be in my head.
Advise: What’s the biggest fear that you have overcome?
Bridgette: This is truly my favorite question, because my biggest fear was myself. I used to act out, every day, all day long. Student council taught me how to channel all my negative energy into positive. Helping other people feel good about something they’ve done makes you feel way better than insulting them. All that leads to what I want to do in my future, which is to open a mental health facility. I want to have a voice for people who might not know how to speak for themselves.
Jessica: The biggest fear was failing, not like failing in a class, but failing yourself. At times, you feel like you could have done better, or something didn’t go as you expected, but we learned what we could do better and not to put ourselves down.
Advise: Is your school a better place because of your leadership?
Bridgette: All of us coming together is what changed our school. It didn’t even start with us. It started with our two past presidents, Sammie and Marissa (National Student Council Distinguished Student Leaders and current University of Georgia students Sammie Addisu, Class of 2015, and Marissa Hernandez Christie, Class of 2014). Everybody in our school can come to one of us with anything, and we will have a solution between the seven of us. Everybody can relate to student council, not just the leaders or the popular kids or the really smart ones.
Madeline: We helped change the student body’s perspective on service. We implemented a commemorative walk called “11 for 11,” honoring first responders and veterans in our community. It shows how important it is to honor those in our nation and in our community who are giving back and have given everything, even given their lives.
Sydney: All seven of us are very transparent by showing the school that we have passion. We have passion for student council. We have passion for ideas. That’s why I think more people are coming to our events or supporting our causes.
Rachel: The legacy I want to leave is believing in yourself, because each and every one of us had to believe in ourselves. If we can teach everyone to believe in themselves, then they can take that into the future and incorporate it into their future goals.
Advise: What have you learned from the Distinguished Student Leader process?
Madeline: Before I started, I had no idea there were so many different categories of leadership. The whole process was learning how I function. How can I make my leadership style better so I can better serve the council?
Bridgette: It was realizing that leadership isn’t just telling people what to do or where to go or how to get there. It’s following. It’s uplifting somebody’s day. It’s the little things.
Asiah: I will never forget how important self-reflection is. You can’t grow if you don’t know where you stand.
Advise: Now that you’ve been through the Distinguished Student Leader process, how will it help you in your future?
Asiah: I learned how to eat an elephant. When my eighth-grade teacher first asked me how you eat an elephant, I said, “Um. You don’t.” But she meant that you have to stay persistent and take it one piece at a time. You don’t see the finish line. You just keep working and working and working until you get there.
Jestini: I learned about stepping back and appreciating myself, and looking at what I did in a positive instead of a negative light. At the end of the [Distinguished Student Leader] portfolio, I thought, “Wow, I’m this type of leader. I’ve done this much.” A lot of times I look at a situation and think, “Darn, I should have done this better.” I can use that “take the positive, leave the negative” skill in the future.
Jessica: Doing the portfolio has also shown us, and me personally, what I’m capable of. I’m not saying it was just me, of course, but there were certain things that helped the council in a better way, and I feel like doing this process shows I can do so much more in the future.
Bridgette: This was my life lesson of why I shouldn’t procrastinate. I would have alarms on my phone every day, and I still was not getting anywhere. I had to sit down one weekend and just talk to myself. I’m really glad I did, because it made me realize who I am, how I lead, how many people I worked with, and how much we’ve accomplished.
Advise: Why should others apply to be a Distinguished Student Leader?
Asiah: It was like harvesting the fruits of my labor. Just being able to say, “Asiah, you’ve come so far, you helped so much, you’ve changed so much.” It wasn’t so much of, “Ooh, I might get a scholarship for this. I’m going to get an award.” Everybody who has led in student council or National Honor Society should be encouraged to do something like this. It’s truly beneficial.
Bridgette: Everybody always says, “Oh, the student council experience has been great,” but what nobody says is, “Asiah, I love the way you did this, and I’m really glad that you planned that.” The DSL program really showed you that you did this, and it’s self-rewarding. The process made me realize I can do anything. You can do whatever you want to do. You can prove whatever you need to and get wherever you want to be.
M. Diane McCormick is a writer based in Pennsylvania.
To learn more about the Distinguished Student Leader program, visit www.NatStuCo.org/distinguished.