A Funny Thing Happened On the Way to Session

March
2004
Yula Flournoy,

Every time I visit the hallowed halls of the San Francisco Westin, I take a minute or two to sit in "my" chair. It is not a completely comfortable chair, nor is it especially beautiful, but I think of it as "my" chair because that is where I spent a lot of time during the first plenary session I attended. I sat there to get myself oriented - I hate reading maps on street corners or in corridors, so I would refer to the session schedule while ensconced in "my" chair. I sat there to catch my breath between breakouts. I sat there to read material that I had had no idea even existed. I sat there to people watch. I sat there to drink coffee between meetings instead of standing around, with no one to talk to.

My first time at session was very frightening for me. Most people who know me do not realize just how shy I am in new situations. I am always on the margins at parties and gatherings where I don't know anyone. If I only know one person, I will heel just like a well-trained puppy. If I don't know anyone, I'd rather just not go. My metamorphosis into a political animal (all right, maybe just a political kitten) has been long and tortuous. I have forced myself all of my life into many strange and scary situations in order to grow. I have lived on three continents and did the Eurail trip at 21 all by myself. Many times I was uneasy and lonely, but in the end I had a wonderful time. So what happened at my very first session? I sat around the edges, tried to keep my mouth shut, was a little lonely, sat in my chair, and had a wonderful time!

I attended session all by myself because somehow I had ended up as the Academic Senate President of Mt. San Jacinto College. I had only just received approval of tenure (not yet by the board, though), but I had been on the senate for three years and thought I knew what was involved. The trip to session was almost a by-the-way sort of decision; I had heard of it in passing but did not really know what it was. The past president recommended that someone go, and since I was a newly minted local academic senate president, I figured it was my duty and responsibility to do so. I was to learn that it was both a duty and a responsibility-and a whole universe more.

The first person to approach me in my chair at that first session was Mark Snowhite. He teaches at Crafton Hills, which abuts my district. I had heard of him from our past president, but of course did not plan to approach him myself. He was so warm and welcoming. I can't begin to tell you what that meant to me. After that, I started meeting more people, sitting next to them during the breakouts, but most importantly during the meals. Since I was alone, I had to find someplace to sit. I couldn't tag along with Mark because he was on the Executive Committee, so I somehow found places at each meal. I met so many wonderful people who were so interesting! Sometimes I think the meals are the best part of session. Well, my hips do, at least!

The breakout sessions, however, are what I consider the most awesome aspect of session. I was truly amazed by the number of well-informed and motivated faculty we have here in California. Sometimes the most informative breakouts are the ones where the audience knows more than the presenter. We need to realize we are all resources, whether we know it or not, and going to session helps spread those resources around. Before going to session, I had not a clue about how much we all have in common. I didn't know there were other people out there just like me with the same issues and questions, the same problems with administrators and students, even the same problems with some of our colleagues. Sharing our experiences, solutions, and maybe just our commiseration was so motivating. I cannot conceive of how I would have acted as president without having had the experience. I learned so much just from attending one session.

The most empowering part of session was still to come, though. On Saturday, we voted on resolutions. How cool!! I had my own delegate's badge and a sense of emancipation. I didn't have the nerve to approach the pro or con mikes, but I listened and thought and listened and thought as much as I possibly could. What stood out the most for me was that we all care about our students with such passion and very little selfishness. Here was a group of people who have a calling, not a job. Above all, we come together. We may not always agree, but we support each other to the end. I was and am very proud to be a part of this.

Since my first session, I have attended both on my own and with a group of colleagues from my college. I don't know which I prefer. On my own, I was forced to interact with people from all over the state and from different disciplines. With colleagues, I usually spent most of my time with them, which is good to strengthen local bonds, but also a bit isolating. Perhaps attending with a group but forcing ourselves to go out and mingle is a good compromise.

I haven't missed a session since, am still learning, and discovering that I have so much yet to learn. There truly is strength in numbers, and attending session is, in my opinion, the one thing a new local academic senate officer cannot afford to neglect. After returning home, I felt so much more a part of a group of smart, caring people and not just a lone, struggling drudge. Since that first session, I have served on the Resolutions Committee, the Curriculum Committee, the Basic Skills Committee, and now on the Executive Committee as one of the South Representatives. I can't believe how far I've come. The next time I faced down an administrator, I wasn't alone: I had all of you behind me, cheering me on. It all happened because I wasn't afraid to try something new.

A funny thing happened to me on the way to session. Instead of attending yet another meaningless set of meetings, I grew as a faculty member, as a local senate officer, and as a person. I met so many new and interesting people that I cannot even begin to name them. I learned how important a faculty role in governance is and how to go about ensuring its health. I also learned what a great resource we have in the State Academic Senate. From the Executive Committee to the Committees to the Executive Director to the support staff to the local senate members, we have so much to be thankful for. If you have never attended session, you are missing out on a wealth of knowledge and camaraderie. Come with friends or come alone, just be sure to attend! (But don't sit in my chair!)

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