The Columns

My W&L: Anna Russell Thornton ’16

— by on September 5th, 2016

Anna Russell Thornton '16

“I have been challenged to step outside my comfort zone, encouraged to pursue my passions, and nurtured as a student, a leader and an individual.”

The skills I have learned as an English major have set me up for success in any leadership role. When I write an English essay, I scour pages and pages of books and articles to gather data points, many of which boil down to something as minute as finding the same word recurring in multiple key moments. I sort through that data for the most useful pieces and reassemble them into an innovative, defensible argument. This ability to synthesize and summarize in a cogent, articulate way has opened many doors to me. Professors like Professor Connelly and Provost Conner identified my writing skills and encouraged me to pursue incredible opportunities which changed my life personally and professionally, leading me everywhere from Washington, D.C. to Dingle, Ireland. Further, the data collection and design skills I learned in the English classroom equipped me to serve in unexpected ways, including as Web Chair for Mock Convention. And, of course, knowing how to articulate my thoughts proves invaluable anytime I give a speech or lead a meeting of ODK.

Holding a titled position is just one kind of leadership; just as important is being willing and able to elevate the quality of conversation just by being present. I first practiced leadership in the English classroom, learning to express my opinion even when it differed from that of my professors and classmates. Further, I discovered that understanding a story required stepping out my own skin and into the skin of a character or characters in that story. In order to grasp what stands between Jake and Brett in The Sun Also Rises or to discern the dissonance in the apparently happy endings of Jane Austen novels, one must read with great care and diligence. English majors learn to hear not only what is being said, but also what it is left unsaid. Through my reading, I have learned to empathize with others, to put my perspective aside and listen carefully without judgment. This, to me, forms the foundation of leadership; attending to others and working with and for them to find a good solution.

Last semester, a dear friend of mine died in a tragic accident. The drive from the funeral to the gravesite took about two hours, and when I thought about what book I wanted with me, I chose The Tale of Despereaux by Kate DiCamillo. It is a story of light and darkness, of being different and disregarded, of the power of empathy and the ridiculousness of love. A small, odd mouse called Despereaux is sent to the dungeon for speaking to a human, the Princess Pea, with whom he has fallen in love. There he meets the jailer, who hears him cry out in the darkness the only words of comfort he knows: “Once upon a time.” The jailer picks up the mouse and asks him to finish the story, saying: “Stories are light. Light is precious in a world so dark. Begin at the beginning. Tell a story. Make some light.” That sums up what I hope to do with my life: to encourage others to tell their stories, to listen, and to join with them in shining the light of love, the only power that can combat darkness. I am forever grateful to the people of Washington and Lee for helping me do that. Here I have been challenged to step outside my comfort zone, encouraged to pursue my passions, and nurtured as a student, a leader and an individual. Wherever I go in life, I am indebted to Washington and Lee for helping me get there, and I look forward to giving back any way I can as an alumna.