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Discovering your career, Life after graduation

Lessons in Leadership: 4 pieces of advice from a Handshake VP

Handshake's VP of Higher Ed & Student Success, Christine Cruzvergara, shares her advice to students embarking on their career journey.

"In graduate school, we were asked to put together some sort of goal statement. Unlike most of my peers, I honestly could not say that I aspired to be a VP, a director, or a dean. As a first generation student, I had no idea what those individuals actually did. However, after much thought my goal statement came together as:

I want to make a difference in the life of at least one person.

This mission statement has held very true to me over the years, knowing I have the ability to impact people. I have such a strong desire to lead change in order to find new and better things to do, push the status quo, and help remove obstacles."

From your experience, what are the qualities that comprise a strong leader like yourself?

For me, leadership is not a title, it's an action. Act on what drives you. It’s not about stature, prestige, or position. It is about the people you work with: understanding others, exhibiting emotional intelligence, and serving as a clear communicator, open to feedback.

Read Christine’s “5 Leadership Lessons”: 5 Leadership Lessons: e-book version & article version.

Is there a female leader who portrays these qualities that has served as an inspiration to you?

I am really fortunate to have many amazing women in my life. However, the first person, colleague, and friend to come to mind is Heather White who is the AVP Dean of Students at University of Florida. Heather is the ultimate example of managerial courage. Being a leader is hard. It’s difficult. But Heather is just someone you admire deeply with her grace and humility, both traits all leaders need to have.

You mentioned that being a leader is hard. What obstacles have you faced within your personal career?

Ah, I have faced all sorts of adversity, especially on an identity level. I held senior level roles early in my professional career when many of my peers were 15-25 years older. Being young, a female, and a woman of color, I was keenly aware of how I might be perceived. I felt greater pressure to prove myself, to prove my competence. Every single leader will face different obstacles. It's simply a part of the journey.

From all your compiled experience growing into the leader you are today, what advice would you give to students?

I would like to offer students a few main bits of advice:

  1. Repetition Builds Reputation. Don’t just think about the shiny title. Focus on the daily things. Those are what ultimately matter. How you answer someone’s email, how you make decisions when no one can see you, says a lot about your accountability and character.
  2. Strive to Respond, Not React. Take the time to think through your response and not succumb to your initial reaction. It is guaranteed that someone along the way will upset you, but how you respond should be thoughtful.
  3. People are Your Most Important Resource. You’re only as good as your team. Don’t ever forget that. If you want to make a difference, if you want to do good work, focus on your people. Take the time to learn about them.
  4. Authenticity is the best strategy. Adapt the lessons you’ve learned to your natural approach and demeanor. You’ll never be just like anyone else. Know yourself, be yourself.

Now looking forward, what are your future goals?

My goal is always to continue making a difference - from one person to many. The opportunity and possibility to scale this impact now is even more motivating. On a personal or professional level, I can tell you that I am not someone who has ever had a concrete plan for my future. I believe in being open to possibilities. And as long as I feel like I'm making a valuable contribution, I'll be in the right place.

Want to read more from Christine? Check out her pieces below:

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