ordained as Ngawang Pema, "Pema"
|Year of Entry: 1988
||Age at Entry: 16
||Hometown: Dry Fork, Virginia
Almost Too Late
“Because if you don’t let me in, I won’t finish high school.”
It was the last question of the last interview of the application process, and I was alone with the staff of the Program for the Exceptionally Gifted (PEG). They had asked me to provide them with the one reason they should let me into the program. My response was so heartfelt that I said it before I realized that I was speaking.
Formerly, I was a straight A student. I had already had skipped my sophomore year, having earned enough credits from advanced classes in junior high and at the local community college. Yet I was losing steam, totally bored, and out of ideas to keep myself interested. My grades began to drop considerably — very considerably.
To stay engaged, I had tutored other students in my freshman English class. In my second year, I occasionally and secretly led lectures in biology. I had taken the SAT prep class, been on yearbook staff, participated in French Club and Science Club, competed in Academic Competition for Excellence and Forensics Extemporaneous Speaking, played tennis, and gone to the prom. I had also been to Governor’s School for science education. I had done everything I could think of.
I stared at the PEG staff, wondering if the honesty of my answer would outweigh the recent dip in my grades. Did they believe me? I felt desperate, but I tried to look calm.
Several weeks later I received an acceptance letter and subsequently spent two happy years enrolled at Mary Baldwin College. I did not immediately come out of the academic tailspin, but acceptance into program was the pivot point. I began to regain interest and confidence in exploring new subjects, and I opened up again to the possibility of making a substantial contribution to society.
It was almost too late when I found PEG, but gratefully it was not. Without PEG, I would not have made it. I would have disengaged. I would have stopped trying. The disengagement might have lasted a year, or it may have lasted many years, but I feel I would have totally derailed. Instead, I slowly became invested in my education.
Eventually, my desire to explore the field of physics took me away from Mary Baldwin to a school with more emphasis on the field. Finally after some time, I chose business as my area of expertise. I had my first management job at the age of 19, which evolved to a second career in information technology several years later. By the time I was 26, I had become the division web manager for the Wisconsin Department of Transportation overseeing Intranet, Internet, and Extranet applications for 1400 people. My business career peaked in my thirties at global management consulting firm, where I ultimately served as the vice president of operations and consulting services managing a pool of over 100 consultants.
PEG is for students who exhibit maturity and excel academically. In this way, you might think that PEG is about academic leadership. That is correct, but there is more. The PEG staff members were aware that the students needed to develop other qualities. Here and there amongst the rigor of academia, in formal and informal situations, intentionally and unintentionally, the staff and teachers planted seeds of skills that we did not understand at the time. Over the years I have seen them flower uniquely in each PEG student I have known.
My PEG experience taught me to be a confident explorer in my own life, to approach my own interests with an air of discovery and flexibility. Although there was a strong expectation of academic excellence, the PEG experience also made room for individual expression and creativity.
As I progressed over the first ten years of my career, I noticed that most successful people are not very happy. We had the good jobs, the cars, the houses. We had the disposable income, the vacations, and the added luxuries,but something was missing. Our leaders were stressed and depressed; our role models were losing integrity. Somehow we felt the pain of all of those things and more. We were stressed, sleepless, and feeling a bit lost in regard to the elusive state of happiness.
Just as good grades did not always bring happiness at PEG, success at work was not bringing my coworkers or me the kind of happiness we expected. Fifteen years after I left the PEG, a seed that was planted at Mary Baldwin began to germinate a rather unexpected harvest.
In the back of my mind was always an awareness that I wanted to serve people. Early on I described that desire as wanting to help people make their real dreams come true, but what qualifications does one need for such a job? Where does one work? I secretly researched the answers throughout my education and my developing career. I had volunteered in various capacities since the age of 15. I tried working in service professions. In 1994, I became a Red Cross instructor.
Eventually I explored contemplative practices, focusing on mindfulness meditation and Ashtanga yoga. In 2001, I began studying meditation in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition. This form of Buddhism emphasizes the study of how the mind functions and the development of Altruistic Great Compassion. It emphasizes training the mind in order to eliminate suffering and increase happiness. It includes a focus on an individual’s unique situation, taking into account that each person starts a trip from a different location but has a common destination. I observed and was inspired by the dramatic positive changes I was seeing in fellow meditators.
I became ordained as a Tibetan Buddhist monastic , and in 2005, I received permission to begin teaching. Over the years, I served as board president, executive director, retreat coordinator and program manager. In 2007, I helped open a meditation and healing center called Joyful Path, and I began advanced studies in Hatha Yoga. I now work part-time for Joyful Path, part-time as the director of program development for Alignment Yoga Teacher Training School, and I teach part-time as an ordained clergy member. You could say my job is to help educate, lead, and inspire others toward a greater sense of happiness and wellness.
Most people think the definition of academic leadership is developing knowledge of a technical subject, but great teachers know it is about deeper learning. The PEG staff and Mary Baldwin faculty planted the seeds of integrity and leadership in the minds of their students. They combined them with an instilled sense of creativity and a cultivated confidence in our unique personalities.
I realize now that those seeds have flowered into a lifelong commitment to serve others. Having been inspired by its values, I have evolved in step with some of Mary Baldwin’s efforts. I have inadvertently specialized my career with the wisdom gained from social science, business, and global issues. Along the way, I have learned how contemplative and spiritual practices are not by nature obstacles, but enhancements to our development of integrity, leadership, and our positive contributions to society.
In making day-to-day work decisions, my coworkers and I question how we can serve others with wisdom and compassion, how our company can live its core values, and how we can use every situation as well as everything in our environment as a growth opportunity for ourselves and for our students. I have discovered through altruistically and compassionately serving our families, our communities, our country, and our world comes a type of joy that cannot be gained through any other method.
PEG instilled in me a sense of lifelong learning and lifelong contribution. As I evolve into the next step of my career, I plan to work with cardiac and cancer patients in stress reduction methods. Tibetan Buddhism contains a large body of knowledge on end-of-life process. Therefore, I also am training to be a special kind of hospice worker to help people pass peacefully at end of life. Finally, I hope to continue to help individuals train in techniques to improve their states of mind so they can lead happier and healthier lives.
We thought PEG was about education, about knowledge. They told us it was about leadership. We thought that meant we were to be scientists, authors, doctors, and such. However, as the real lessons of PEG bear fruit, I realize that success can also be measured in ways that are more subtle, more enduring, and more powerful than academic excellence. To me, positively touching even one life is a lifetime’s success.
I am not a scientist, a professor, or an executive. I am not a doctor, an author, or an artist. I am a learner, I am a leader, and I am definitely a PEG.