Leadership Lessons (L)earned

July 26, 2021

By Robert Stephens

A grid of images depicting service learning experiences at Rollins College.
Photo by Scott Cook.

These Rollins College grads credit thriving careers in medicine, law, and business to lessons learned in service of others.

Mothers have told us for years never to underestimate the goodness of a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. But even Mom wouldn’t believe how a few PB&Js in the hands of a college student could energize a career and impact countless lives.

“Going into uncomfortable situations was the best way for me to learn what I didn’t know,” says Shalini Allam ’13 of her first service-learning experience during her first year at Rollins. “Serving those sandwiches began to give me the direction I needed and in a way I never saw coming.”

It turns out, Allam had a head start on her path to becoming a doctor of internal medicine in the nation’s capital. A new survey from the Association of American Colleges & Universities (AACU) says 88 percent of hiring managers are more likely to hire a candidate who has worked “in community settings alongside people from diverse backgrounds.” And what could be more defining than spending time with homeless people in a park or leading a group of students into rural Tibet or conversing with a civil rights champion who lived through the trials of segregation?

“Those types of experiences,” says Allam, “influence more than what you are. They become part of who you are.”

Shalini Allam ’13
Photo by Jim Remington.

Shalini Allam ’13

  • Major: Chemistry
  • Service Learning: Immersion experiences in eight locations, including Chicago, Bahamas, St. Petersburg, and Colorado
  • Current Role: Resident Physician, Georgetown University Hospital

You couldn’t blame Shalini Allam ’13 if she took her credentials as a doctor of internal medicine and began climbing the career ladder. But she’s always thinking bigger. Allam’s desire to be a doctor started in seventh grade when her father had a heart attack. “He was active, only 40, and a doctor himself,” says Allam, “so I wanted to understand how the heart works and why that happened to him.” At Rollins she also deepened her understanding of what “care” really means.

“As a biology major my first year, I was a bit lost. So I changed my major and went on my first Immersion experience. We were serving peanut butter and jelly sandwiches to homeless people in St. Petersburg, Florida, when I met this man living in the park. He’d been an engineer at NASA. His wife battled cancer, died, and he went bankrupt. That’s why he was there. I began to think of my own biases about people based on their situations, which often are no fault of their own. Encounters like that one have shaped the way I want to care for patients.”

“In South Florida we met an incredible lady who’d suffered a stroke and used gardening as therapy. She donated her vegetables to a food pantry. The food pantry then offered classes on how to cook healthy meals. This lady was shaping a healthier lifestyle for a community that had never been exposed to it. I’m using some of those lessons to develop preventive cardiology care for families.”

“When I struggled with the MCAT before med school, my mentors at Rollins told me, ‘You’re more than a test score. You’ll be a great doctor.’ It means a lot when someone appreciates you as a complete person. It’s how health care should be. In fact, I’ve decided to stay here another year as chief resident instead of moving on so I can encourage new residents to see each patient as more than an ailment. Each one is a person with value and a life story that needs to be told.”

Brian Boone ’09

Brian Boone ’09

  • Major: International Business
  • Service Learning: Studied abroad in China, Tibet, and Spain; organized Chi Psi fraternity’s partnership with Second Harvest Food Bank
  • Current Role: President, Hylant

It’s obvious Brian Boone ’09 doesn’t want to talk about himself. Mention that he was named to Orlando Business Journal’s 40 Under 40 list in 2019, and he turns the conversation to “our Hylant family.” Ask about his role as president of the 86-year-old company—one of the nation’s largest privately held, full-service insurance brokerages—and it’s we, we, we. “We always want to think beyond our walls so we can make positive differences.” Hmm, that sounds a lot like what he did at Rollins.

“Our fraternity had money left over at the end of my sophomore year. A friend and I thought we could use it to buy nonperishable food. So our advisors at Rollins said, ‘Why don’t you coordinate with Second Harvest Food Bank?’ Instead of dropping off food, we were encouraged to build relationships with the people on the receiving end. The partnership is still active today. I always appreciated how we were empowered to figure out solutions to fill a need rather than being told what to do and how to do it.”

“We went into villages in Tibet where we might have been the first Westerners they’d ever met. Many of the people have no running water. They’re working for food and shelter on a daily basis. And here we are, frustrated about cell-phone service. To this day, I’m reminded there’s a person with unique life experiences on the other end of every email or conversation. It’s important to ask questions, to listen, and to find out what they’re going through so we can offer meaningful help.”

“My ancestry traces back to China, so going there and witnessing daily life in a communist country made me more grateful for our opportunities in the United States not only to improve our economic standing but to make positive change around us. It’s why I encourage our Hylant team to rally all of us around whatever causes they’re passionate about—pediatric cancer, foster-care services, Special Olympics. It goes back to using our time and resources in a responsible manner. When we do that, it’s good for business and for the world.”

Steve Miller ’09

Steve Miller ’09

  • Major: International Relations
  • Service Learning: Developed Rollins Relief as the first student-led service-learning program at the College
  • Current Role: Senior Vice President of Strategy, eCommerce, and Analytics, Dick’s Sporting Goods

Steve Miller ’09 arrived at Rollins from the Cleveland, Ohio, area in August 2005 with a grand vision. He’d engage in spirited discussions. He’d use those discussions as preparation for law school. “I saw myself being a pro bono attorney for underrepresented people,” says Miller. Shortly after his first day of class, he saw something more vivid: images from Louisiana after Hurricane Katrina struck. Miller had barely unpacked his belongings when he went to meet with Micki Meyer, Lord Family assistant vice president of student affairs – community, and said, ‘I want to do something now.’ Looking back, he can see he was in the right place.

“They told me it was a great idea … for the next spring. It wasn’t what I wanted to hear, but they were right. I needed to learn the reality of pulling something off in an area ravaged by disaster. We had to find places to sleep. We needed transportation where all the vehicles were flooded. We had to secure personal protective equipment in quantity. And we needed to be useful rather than just show up. The leadership skills I learned through that experience helped shape my career.”

“The Katrina project started the flywheel in motion. We called it Rollins Relief. Within months it transformed from a project into a program—the birth of service learning at Rollins. Students would lead teams that included professors. You’d be on a first-name basis and wouldn’t yield power due to hierarchy. Instead, you had to move people through influence. That’s a valuable asset in any company or organization.”

“I had a lot of ‘at bats’ at Rollins. We engaged in local disaster relief several times. There’s nothing more personal than picking up the pieces of someone’s home—the pictures, diplomas, and favorite movies strewn about. You’re putting together a mosaic of the person in the rubble. It’s life-changing because it isn’t a sanitized volunteer experience. At the end of the day, I went to Harvard Business School instead of law school because I came to believe businesses can influence change in communities with more speed and scale than politics or law. That’s what I enjoy about Dick’s: engaging daily in service-minded leadership, which makes me appreciate all the ‘at bats’ I took at Rollins.”

Erin Brioso ’14

Erin Brioso ’14

  • Major: Philosophy
  • Service Learning: Led teams to Nepal for Making Lives Better; helped develop Rollins’ Bonner Leaders Program
  • Current Role: International Licensing Manager, King Features, a unit of Hearst

On a bookshelf in Erin Brioso ’14’s home are pictures of her two wedding ceremonies. Different locations, same husband. In one, she and Aditya Mahara ’12 are next to Lake Virginia on the Rollins campus where they met. The other ceremony is in Nepal, the country where Mahara grew up and Brioso broadened her global perspective while working with the student organization Making Lives Better, which was co-founded by Mahara. These are among the through-lines weaving Brioso’s story together: Rollins, Nepal, and now New York, where she’s growing both her family and her career.

“Watching our 3-month-old son explore in our home reminds me of stretching my own worldview in Nepal. The first thing I noticed there was the trash. There’s no consistent garbage management, so they burn it, which compounds fundamental needs like clean air, clean water, and clean soil. It’s easy to notice the big problems like poverty and hunger, but when you pay closer attention, you discover so many factors at play. The cross-cultural empathy I gained is directly related to how I approach my work. Listen first. Then determine how brands fit into a given market and culture in a mutually beneficial way.”

“It can be hard to think beyond yourself as a teenager. I once thought I’d read books for a living. But once I experienced service learning, I couldn’t get enough. The staff and faculty eventually asked me to help develop the Bonner Leaders Program, which pairs incoming students with nonprofit organizations, with scholarships built into it. It’s an honor to know I helped create a clear path for students to engage in responsible leadership and sustainable service.”

“I’ve never been able to re-create the exact recipe that made Rollins feel like family. You build your closest relationships when you serve together. That’s why the alternative breaks were so popular. Instead of vacationing at the beach, we’d build homes with Habitat for Humanity in New Orleans or work with at-risk students in Chicago. The experiences became a part of who I am, and so did the people I met, learned from, and grew to love.”

Adrian Cohn ’10

Adrian Cohn ’10

  • Major: Critical Media and Cultural Studies
  • Service Learning: Expanded student-led Rollins Relief program; organized fundraising for local, national, and international relief efforts
  • Current Role: Head of Marketing, Smartling

Adrian Cohn ’10 lives and works in arguably the best place to feed his curiosity about people: New York City. He actually grew up in the Big Apple before heading off to a friendly place called Rollins College where he would, of all things, gain a more complete understanding of the world. “Rollins didn’t prepare me for a job,” he says, sounding at first like he’s making a confession unfit for this publication. “It prepared me to pursue anything that excites me.”

“Hurricane Katrina flooded my dad’s childhood home. So I had a personal interest when Steve Miller ’09 invited me on a Rollins Relief trip. Two years after the storm we could still see physical damage, but the most profound moments were sitting in homes and listening to people tell very personal stories. I remembered this when I developed a Smartling campaign called ‘Move the World with Words.’ It’s a compilation of stories about our translators around the world. Nothing establishes emotional attachments better than real stories by real people.”

“Two initiatives were crucial when I became president of Rollins Relief. One: fundraising, so students wouldn’t have to spend a lot of money for the privilege of shoveling muck during spring break. Two: curating genuine cultural experiences. We ate amazing food with Leah Chase, the Louisiana restaurant owner who during the height of segregation invited white and black people to eat together. She knew, together, people with different backgrounds would make the community stronger. I consider that a priceless lesson.”

“My career path has taken a lot of turns. That’s by choice. I’ve worked for nonprofits, small consultancies, and now at Smartling we’re making it possible for people around the globe to read digital content in their own languages. It’s about bringing the unique character of small communities into the context of our global community, which is a similar purpose to our service experiences at Rollins.”

Fay Olga Pappas ’09

Fay Olga Pappas ’09

  • Major: Political Science
  • Service Learning: Created the Rollins College FORUM to bring representatives of all sides of challenging community issues to campus for dialogues that would facilitate solutions to some of the world’s most pressing problems
  • Current Role: Serious Personal Injury Attorney, Bailey Fisher Law Firm

Attorney Fay Olga Pappas ’09 knows exactly who she is. “I’m the person there for you the day after the worst day of your life. Overnight, someone else’s negligence shattered their lives. It’s my job to help them put the pieces back together while making our community safer for everyone.” Near her bed, she keeps a decal from the Rollins Alumni Board with the likeness of Fred Rogers ’51 ’74H and the words “Life is for Service.” She keeps it visible for good reasons.

“‘What is your passion?’ This was the first question Rollins’ director of external and competitive scholarships Jayashree Shivamoggi asked me just a few days into my first year. Dr. Jay would be instrumental in not only nurturing my passion for public service, but in matching me with the right opportunities to explore it. Rollins College, without a doubt, strives to develop the responsible, educated American leaders of tomorrow from day one but doesn’t stop there. Dr. Jay and Rollins were determined that I have access to the same opportunities as my peers (or greater) in the Ivy Leagues, and I couldn’t be more grateful for the belief placed in me.”

“Tough conversations can be the best conversations. That’s why the school allowed me to start Rollins FORUM. I’d invite key stakeholders from different points of views on community topics to publicly discuss them on campus. We didn’t create the FORUM to advocate for one side versus the other, but rather to offer each stakeholder an opportunity to make their case before the student body. Our real objective was to open dialogue.”

“No student in law school had what I brought from Rollins: a sincere passion for public service and a deep understanding that different points of view have value. Though I now make a career as an advocate, my greatest tool is the ability to hear my opponent out. Every single case involves a problem in need of a solution. I’d never be as effective of an advocate if I stayed inside my own thoughts. We don’t have to like what our opposition has to say, but we can recognize that what drives us all is a common set of values. Once we do, that’s when even the most difficult problems can be solved.”

Professor and students in a class discussion at a Rollins outdoor classroom

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