I’m a big fan of biscuits, and Saturday morning at the annual Haslam Scholars retreat in Greeneville, Tennessee, did not disappoint. I could smell them before I saw them; the delicious scent led me straight to the tray of perfectly golden dough and generous supply of gravy, butter, and colorful jams. A full pot of coffee sat nearby.
Students lumbered into the dining hall of the 4H Center, still displaying various stages of sleep. Some scholars remained bleary-eyed, some confused. Others, like myself, took one look at the full display of food and brightened considerably.
I poured a generous amount of honey on my biscuits and added a few pieces of fruit before pouring a cup of coffee. But my breakfast of champions proved useful, because the morning activity was an unexpectedly grueling departure from our normal activities.
Prior to the retreat, a StrengthsFinder personality questionnaire tested every scholar. Out of thirty-four possible traits, the test provided each scholar with a list of five top qualities. These qualities generally sorted us into four different categories: executing, influencing, strategic, and relationship building.
My group, the relationship builders, included students whose defining characteristics were harmony, positivity, and empathy. In other words, if the Haslam Scholars were sorted into Hogwarts houses (for the Harry Potter fans out there) I’d just officially become a member of Hufflepuff.
And, as a peace-loving HSP Hufflepuff, I was remarkably uncomfortable at the tension in the room as we began our morning activity.
With the instruction of the staff from UT’s Center for Leadership and Service, we plunged (fictitiously) straight into the throes of the stark Canadian wilderness after a devastating plane crash. The relationship builders merged with the strategic thinkers to complete a task—figure out how to survive in the freezing Canadian wilderness.
The group needed to decide, first, whether we needed to move toward civilization or remain in place. Additionally, we received a list of survival items to rank in terms of importance—like a compass, chocolate bars, and a loaded gun.
The group clamored as we heatedly discussed our rankings.
“Clothes. We need the clothes—put them first.”
“No! We need to make a fire.”
Someone else chimed in. “Chocolate bars? We’ll die without food.”
The supplies, it seemed, hinged on a single decision. We could either remain together as a group and build shelter, or venture out in search of civilization with a map.
Some wanted to move toward civilization; some wanted to stay. I voiced my opinion amidst the din: “We have to stay together—we need to make shelter to survive.”
After a few more minutes of heated debate, a group of dissenters advocated using the map to venture through the tundra. Another suggested we send a small contingent out to find help with the map.
To be clear, I’m not an expert survivalist. My most recent experience with the outdoors is limited to Max Patch—but the logic behind this decision seemed clear to me.
The final decision drew closer; one group insisted upon movement, and the tension (and volume) heightened. They pushed for the maps and trekking out into the cold.
“No!” I heard my voice exclaim. “We have to stay together. People will die if we don’t.” I felt my eyes snapping with intensity, took a breath, and remembered that it wasn’t real. Finally, the group made an executive decision to remain in place and build a shelter.
Survivalists recommend that, in a real-life situation, remaining stationary but together would prove strategically intelligent—to my (somewhat haughty) delight.
I couldn’t help, however, making this a metaphor for a greater truth. As a senior in the Haslam program, if there’s anything I’ve learned, it’s this: we are better together.
The diversity of the people in this group astounds me. Our homes, talents, preferences, academic ideas, religions, and languages serve as strong reminders of our diversity. Our conversations and activities, in and out of the classroom, force us to consider different sides, to adjust and defend various points of view.
One of my top StrengthsFinder qualities, individualization, loves to look at the unique framework that makes up each person with whom I come in contact. But maybe that’s what I’ve developed as a result of the Haslam Scholars Program— I’m surrounded with unique, passionate people with remarkable abilities, and I can’t stop learning from these fascinating individuals.
I’m grateful to know that some people have intriguing interests, from neurological linguistics to sustainable urban development. I’m grateful for the multiple deep philosophical discussions, for opportunities to listen to someone explain his or her abiding interest in impressionist art or astrophysics.
The real richness I’ve gained comes directly from relationships with the brilliant people in the program. I will take those conversations, interactions, and ideas with me throughout my life and will continue to develop the skills that take me closer towards shared understanding and learning about others.
Yes, the activity taught us something about the tension, the discord, and the ultimate strength that comes in diverse groups with different personalities. But it requires something constant, and reveals a very simple truth: people are better together, and so are we.
Sarah Hagaman, Cohort of 2012