Embracing a lifelong commitment to serve God, her country and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s legacy of humility and inclusion by uplifting immigrant and underprivileged youth, Lt. Colonel Consuelo Kickbusch personally encountered the community of Saint Michael's College on January 20 and gave it a hug.
The students of the college's MLK Jr. Society responded to the onetime military leader's open kindness and words of hope by delivering an inspiring evening program in the chapel, filled with eloquent words from the heart, commitments to honor their best selves and a powerful symbolic candlelit "Call to Kindness" toward all students, whatever their differences.
It all started at a campus luncheon on the Martin Luther King Holiday, a day when Saint Michael's chooses to do something positive to honor Dr. King rather than taking the day off. As Kickbusch entered Alliot's Vermont Room, the former Army supply specialist – a short woman with warm eyes, an aura of wisdom and an easy laugh – personally embraced and chatted with about 50 faculty, staff and students present before she spoke. The hugs were her way of demonstrating that personal relationships are at the center of what colleges must try to do for students, as she sees it, particularly those from backgrounds like her own: immigrants or minorities trying to rise from poverty to honor their families' sacrifices. "The number one reason students flee college is a lack of emotional support," she said.
Her lunchtime topic was "Seeing possibilities, not circumstances: creating safe places for people to excel." As in her later Keynote in the chapel titled "Fighting the Good Fight: The Power of Ethics, Commitment and Leadership in the Pursuit of Justice," Kickbusch delivered her message in soft-spoken but deeply felt and affecting language, peppered with personal anecdotes from her life.
It was an early life, she told audiences, made possible by faith-filled immigrant Mexican parents who moved from Texas to Illinois and raised her older siblings for many years in a railroad boxcar dropped in a field by the steel mill where dad toiled, while her mom cleaned toilets as a maid. Her mom put up curtains on the steel boxcars walls, telling her kids, "your vision should be beyond those steel walls." Sustained by their deep religious faith, her parents loved America and were never bitter – "my mom would say 'I'm going to be a world-class maid and my work will speak for me even when I'm not there." Of her 10 brothers and sisters, 8 are veterans. Her dad would say "If you can't give to your country, don't you dare take from it." As his daughter Consuelo put it, "He chose to be a change-agent."
That's the sort of pride and self-respect she's tried to instill for the past 19 years as she's traveled around the country to the most impoverished and toughest neighborhoods, meeting with young people to bring a message of hard work, faith and hope. Her personal stories included a college professor and social-work department chair who visited her dorm once when she was sick in college – a life-changing affirmation that someone personally cared for her. Describing herself as "an elder of the village called humanity," she offered pithy advice time and again: "The true power of a great leader is service to others"… "The essence of life is about being human, which calls sometimes for us to be uncomfortable." … "Humility has nothing to do with being weak" … "Take extra time to get to know students." The students she meets from gangs have great leadership potential since they are already leaders but just channeling it in a destructive and negative way, she said, "But I love them and never give up on them." Sometimes her best efforts don't bring the changes she'd hoped for, but she measures success by effort and intentions, not outcomes.
"I walk among the wealthiest today, and they are among the poorest people I know," she said. "I worry more about rich kids," because, "with affluence comes prominence of distance" – big houses with rooms far from one another, many cars to extend distances, youth going overseas to study. "You're missing the human connections," said, and losing "the whole essence of what matters, which is our families."
In remarks before her keynote, President John J. Neuhauser said that because of her record of walking the walk, Kickbusch "can address these topics from the mountaintop." He said Dr. King was a symbol "for how far we've come, but also how far we have to go," noting how Nelson Mandela showed a "path toward forgiveness" that compels "both action and generosity in each of us." He thanked the hundreds in attendance for joining "a "hopeful remembrance."
Moise St. Louis, associate dean of students and director of Multicultural Student Services, went to the heart of lessons from King, Gandhi and Mandela, saying it was critical that we be able to "recognize each other." He decried a "deficit of recognition, kindness, compassion," saying that sometimes on campus, "we love the ideas, but not the substance of advocacy for justice." He lamented a too-frequent "kindness deficit" and suggested MLK Day was an opportunity "to begin a conversation about compassion and kindness," so important to the college's Edmundite tradition. Kickbusch, too, invoked the Edmundite history of coming from France to seek simple recognition for who they were and what they stood for.
In student Ariana Pena's flawless, from-memory dramatic recitation, she took on bullying at schools, saying, "We learn to cheer on underdogs because we see ourselves." Karen Penafiel, MLK Society co-president, said that as a collegian now, she is a realization of her Ecuadoran dad's "dream" – "but what I see in my neighborhood makes me think the dream is unrealized." What her generation and neighbors from home need from society is better teachers, schools, friendships, and more institutions committed to inclusion, she said. "We need adults to speak up, learn what it is to have courage." Kickbusch later told Penafiel that she should run for president based on the power of her remarks.
In a "Call to Kindness," St. Mike's students stood with candles from the audience and created a line on the altar as a speaker said on behalf of the minorities represented, "We want you to respect us as we are. We are not invisible." Daviah Lawrence, MLK Society secretary, spoke of her early struggles in some Saint Michael's classes, but said she has persevered and raised her GPA significantly with help. "I got support from believers in the dream. … You made me feel I matter," she said. "You have the power to lift or destroy … [so] "Say no to unkindness."
As Lt. Col. Kickbusch said near the close: "If it's not going to be me, who will it be?"