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Lauren Cardenas '12 Reflections After Graduation

Lauren Cardenas

As I reflect upon my time at Swarthmore, I realize how the Department of Religion shaped my sense of self, my values, and my desire to make a tangible impact on the world around me.  This past week, I celebrated my first year employed as a trainer at the Posse Foundation, an organization that identifies, recruits, and trains incredible young leaders from urban public high schools and sends them in groups of 10 to top colleges and universities across the country with four-year full-tuition merit leadership scholarships.  My role as a trainer is to develop cohorts of 10 students from perfect strangers into a functioning support network so that they persist in their academic studies, graduate, and eventually take on leadership positions in the workforce.  My work requires me to invest time and energy into the transformation of young adults, but I didn't expect my job to make quite the impact it made and is making on me.

This past year has taught me many lessons in maturity, self-awareness, and discernment - lessons I thought I had fully grasped while at Swarthmore.  I didn't anticipate the ways in which my values, beliefs, and sense of purpose would be questioned. My first few months at work were much like my first semester at Swarthmore.  When I first matriculated, I didn't have a plan to study any particular major.  I simply took a variety of courses in my first semester - mostly to begin fulfilling distribution requirements.  When I started at Posse I knew I had goals to accomplish and assignments to complete, but I didn't have a plan of action.  This being my first professional position, outside of college activities and internships, I didn't quite know how to speak, act, or simply be.  I felt like I had overshot the boundaries of my own comfort zone, much like in college.  

In my first semester at Swarthmore, I felt alienated.  I didn't feel connected to the campus community and I was incredibly homesick.  I began doubting myself.  I was in a course entitled "Religion and the Meaning of Life" with Professor Mark Wallace.  At the time I didn't know what to expect from a religion course, but I enjoyed the experience.  I liked sharing ideas about mortality and morality.  I liked challenging perceptions of reality and of listening to others experiences with divinity.  The class discussions made me temporarily forget my feelings of inadequacy.  In this class, as opposed to others like Astronomy or Introduction to Japanese Language, I felt a sense of empowerment.  I felt smart. I felt like I belonged.  I didn't enroll in any religion courses during my second semester, but as I looked ahead to my sophomore year, I knew I would declare my major in Religion.  

At Posse, a similar experience occurred. For first several months I needed to rapidly learn different skill sets according to the workflow demands of the particular season we were in.  As soon as I had accomplished one task, a newer, more intimidating one would appear.  The language I used and the thoughts that ran through my mind consisted of, "But I've never done that before," "I don't know how," and the crippling "What if."  Looking back, I see that this was the same self-defeating language that plagued me during my first semester at Swarthmore.  It was the language that facilitated feelings of inadequacy, uncertainty, and regret.  During my first year at Posse, I had experienced many moments where I questioned my fit at the organization, my abilities, and my sense of self.  This was difficult to handle at first, as I hadn't yet learned the ways in which I could advocate for myself.

I hadn't yet found my voice.

Freedom to explore my intellectual curiosities was one of the factors that drew me to Swarthmore College.  As I delved deeper into my studies in Religion, my mentors in the department - Professors Yvonne Chireau, Steven Hopkins, and Ellen Ross - encouraged me to follow my passion for social justice and challenged me to find ways of connecting my studies to my life.  They pushed me to see how Religion could be more than just the reading assignments, the lectures, and the discussions.  They pushed me to take my studies out into the world, to see how the two informed one another.  Now, more so than ever, I realize the value of having a mentor to help guide individuals through trying times.  

In the work I do, relationships are everything.  They are the foundation upon which my Scholars cultivate their critical thinking.  At work, my mentor for the first year was my co-trainer, Ethan.These days I often think of the Department of Religion and how it served as an invaluable resource to me in discovering my strength, my passion, and my voice.  Relationships with my mentors taught me the value of discernment, reflection, and personal transformation - values I strive to live by and embody in my work with young people.  As a Religion major, I gained a more fine-tuned sense of responsibility to others and the world around me.

At Posse, we talk a lot about leaning into one's "comfort zone." For some it's overcoming the stress and anxiety of walking "like the floor is made of Jell-O!" in a large group interview or of sharing deeply personal life experiences with nine other strangers that will soon become your network of support throughout college.  For others it's "trusting the process" and jumping off of trees while rigged to a rope and harness, learning to ask for help & guidance, or simply, admitting wrongs and making them right.

As I enter my second year at work, I am struck with gratitude.  I've realized how much I've grown in my position, as a human being, and as an agent of change in the world.  Much like in college, I had to learn to cultivate the relationships around me to be successful. I had to learn to ask for help, which meant learning to step to the edges of my "comfort zone" and use my introvert tendencies to help me stand up for myself in vocal, physical, and behavioral ways.  I have learned to define my leadership style, how to give positive, critical feedback, and to believe in myself when it would be easier to fall into old patterns of thought.

Through trial and error, I learned - and am learning - how to be a young professional in the workforce.  I will always be indebted to my experiences at Swarthmore and the Department of Religion.  These are invaluable life lessons that I'll always carry with me.

To learn more about Lauren Cardenas '12 click here.