An Interview with a Dance Marathon Director

I’ve had the pleasure of knowing Ashley Sam since the first day I moved into Brett Hall my freshman year. During that time, I’ve seen her grow not only as a phenomenal human, but as a leader throughout many different areas in Rutgers. One of these areas is Dance Marathon. With DM coming up this week, I sat down with Ashley to talk about her time with DM and how it has affected her view on leadership.

In her freshman year, Ashley was a captain for DM. Her sophomore year she was the Assistant Director of Staff Relations. Junior year she became Director of Community Outreach, and this, her senior year, she is Director of Volunteer Management.

Luke Modzier: How did you initially get involved with Dance Marathon?

Ashley Sam: Funny story, most people think that I was actually recruited but I wasn’t. My freshman year I was really bored and there was this involvement fair going on so me and some people that I lived with decided to go check it out. As I was walking through there was this table of really obnoxious people in red polos screaming at me asking if I wanted to help kids with cancer. And I’ve always been really involved with community service so at that point I was like, “Sure Ashley, you should do that.” So I signed up thinking I would just be a dancer and then I went to an info session and this guy Nate Weiss, who was also a Rutgers guy and at the time an assistant director in the organization. He gave this presentation that blew my mind about the impact that someone who had just turned 18, was a freshman in college…he really told me that I could do something. So I was inspired to go and sign up to be a captain. I did that for a year and the rest just kinda happened.

LM: What’s a typical day or week in your position like?

AS: There really isn’t one. Everything changes depending on where we are in the year. In the beginning of the year there’s a lot of reading applications, reviewing applications, and working on the hiring of process for captains. Then once those are hired it transitions into, well obviously once dancer registration open its managing that, but its also planning orientation for the captains, and once that’s over it’s planning spring orientation for the volunteers. It’s a whole assortment of things. A lot of it is managing lists, getting into contact with people, answering questions. I spend a lot of time on my email.

LM: How would you describe the culture of Dance Marathon?

AS: That’s a great questions. I think we’re a family. I think we’re very familial. We give snaps to each other when we do good things, we bring cookies for people’s birthdays if we know that they’re happening. I feel like we’re an extended family because we have seven teams, who are all very very tight knit within themselves, but then we all come together to form this larger central planning team. Within that the seven teams interact all the time and are very very close. I think that as an organization, we strive to promote positivity in everything that we do. We’re constantly looking for ways to recognize people for the good work they’re doing because at the end of the day this is volunteer driven. If you’re not feeling good about what you’re doing you’re not going to do it anymore.

LM: How do you measure success for 1) your organization and 2) the members of your organization.

AS: I think it really depends on the team. For recruitment, it’s pretty straight forward. We increased by one hundred and fifty and dancers and one hundred confirmed dancers this year. Statistically that’s huge. That’s a really big measure of their success and the recruitment strategies that they’re using and that’s something tangible. For volunteer management, which is what I do, we send out surveys and we try to get feedback, but when I look at audiences for programs that we put on, it’s how engaged is the staff. How much are they taking away? When they come to the marathon, how much do they know walking in the door and are they ready to start doing everything because they’ve been properly prepared? As an organization as a whole, it’s hard for us because we always say that the money doesn’t matter. It does, but if we only raised $400,000 this year instead of breaking last year’s record of $442,000 that’s still a huge amount of money and it’s still a success. But at the end of the day there’s always that part of us that says we need to break the record. I think on a large scale organizational level, it’s a little harder for us to identify.

LM: Would you consider yourself a leader?

AS: Yeah? I think so. I think…yes. Obviously in a hierarchical sense I am because I have the title of director and nobody else does, at least on my team. I strive to take that to a different level and be an empathetic leader. I sit down with my team and talk vision and give them the autonomy to do whatever they want to do within that vision in order to accomplish our goals. And I think that that’s something that I had to work on; it’s not something that I had inherently and I give Dance Marathon a lot of credit for teaching me to be able to do that.

LM: Do you think people find it difficult to describe themselves as a leader? Or to say “I am a leader” when asked that question?

AS: Yeah, I definitely do because it’s easy to say you’re a leader, but it’s harder to be able to say this is why. I think that’s what’s really hard for people, to talk about yourself, to talk about your positive qualities without thinking that you’re sounding arrogant. So for me, that is a tough question because I do a lot of things that qualify as leadership, but is it effective? Am I doing the best that I can do or the things that I struggle with in terms of does that question apply to me. It’s 1) about developing confidence in people so that they’re comfortable in saying “Yes, I am a leader. I do do theses things.” But it’s also shaping the way people define leadership and understanding that it takes multiple forms.

LM: What do you think your leadership style is, and how does it fit into your position?

AS: I’m a big list maker. At the beginning of the year I sat down with my team and said, “Let’s talk volunteer management as a team, as a whole.” I have three Assistant Directors who do very different things, but I wanted to sit down and make sure we had a collective vision for Dance Marathon. I made it very clear that we are hear at Point A and we need to get to Point B, however there are a thousand different roads to take to get to Point B, and I don’t care which one you take as long as it gets done. So I think that doing that and providing that overarching vision and overarching goal for the team, but giving them the freedom to do what they want within that, gave my Assistant Directors to own their projects and to be proud of their projects and to really feel connected to the cause.

LM: Do you think a leader is more important to those that they lead, or are the people more important to the leader?

AS: I think it depends on the person you’re talking to. For me, my Assistant Directors mean the world to me. I fully recognize that I would be able to do nothing without them and that they are absolutely the heart and soul of Volunteer Management. I sit there and I have my to do list of things that I need to get accomplished, but they’re the ones that are really striving to get the work done. A good leader needs to recognize that importance and that they are nothing without they’re team. Obviously my Assistant Directors come to me and talk about DM stuff and personal stuff and I’m there for them 100%, so I obviously think that I matter to them. I think that I certainly value them more than I could even put into words.

LM: Do you think you acknowledge those Lollipop moments that you see? Or do you think you and everyone else could do a better job at recognizing them?

AS: I think that I, and DM as a whole, do acknowledge them. DM does this thing called “Good Fish” where we have literal little construction paper fish that we cut out. We cut them out and put them in this little fish bowl and when someone does something really cool, whether it’s DM related or not. For example, someone that was in Florida during spring break took time and helped me go through the database even though it wasn’t their job, so I wrote them a good fish. We do little things like that and read them at the meetings every week and we give “snaps” to people. I do think it’s something I could do more in my everyday life. I think it’s really easy in a structure that already has something in place to do something like that to acknowledge people. But to the person that helped me pick up my stuff when my bag fell in the street, that meant a lot to me and as much as I said thank you, I think it’s acknowledging those little moments everyday that matter.

LM: What advice would you give to someone going into a leadership position for the first time? A set position, not one they’ve assumed because of their traits?

AS: Maintain perspective. Remember that someone came before you and someone is going to come after you and that you’re not the “be all and end all” of the world. But also remember that you were put into that position for a reason and that you do have the capability to do the work. Within that, it’s taking care of your team and taking care of the people you work with outside of your team. Keeping yourself grounded really. It’s super easy to let “power” go to your head and by constantly reminding yourself that you’re working for a bigger cause. Whether it’s serving a student population or if you go out into the real world and get a nonprofit job, you’re always serving something bigger than yourself and if you remember that, it will keep you where you need to be.

LM: Do you a have anything else to say about DM or leadership?

AS: I’m just really proud about how DM goes about fostering leadership. I think that we reach out early and we try to engage first year students because we want to get them involved right away. We want to make them feel important and useful on this campus. With 38,000 people it’s really easy to get lost and I’m very proud of the fact that we have captain positions that give them hands on things to do that you can see at the marathon and that really do have a tangible result. I’m also really proud of the way we move people up. We don’t often just pull outsiders into the organization. We try to keep people that have been loyal to the organization and have done good things for us with us for as long as we can.

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