Olivia's Hope: a story about meeting people where they are, and finding it hard to hate up close
Olivia Solow-Niederman is the proverbial ray of sunshine. A strong believer in the power of ice cream, random acts of kindness, and spontaneous dance parties – she is a light to all she meets. Her presence has the power to fill you with contagious hope, and inspires you to find the good in others.
But on Wednesday, November 9th 2016, Olivia’s hope was stolen. She woke up in a haze, completely blindsided by the results of the 2016 election. As she was beginning to accept her new American reality, her world was shattered once again. That afternoon, she received news that a close father-figure of hers had passed away. Not only had Olivia lost faith in the appointed leader of our country, but she had lost a mentor. “My world just came crashing down.” She says.
As an American studies major, Vanderbilt Student Government’s Chief of Staff, and second year VUceptor, Olivia understands the necessity of relational leadership. She has learned that it’s hard to hate people up close, and is heartbroken when people fail to recognize our shared humanity. “That’s why the election crushed me,” Olivia recalls, “People are capable of ignoring darkness in the world - homelessness, unfair political schemes, even genocides - if it doesn’t directly affect them. We all need to look out for each other a little more.”
Amid collective and personal heartbreak in the weeks following that dreary November day, Olivia found comfort in her relationships. “It’s the people around me – my mentors and mentees - who gave me hope,” she says, “That’s why I love being a VUceptor: it’s all about the people for me. I mean you can make it about a lot of things, but I choose to make it about the people and the relationships.”
Olivia’s passion for relationships spills over into everything she does. “My leadership style is very relationship driven,” she tells me over dinner as she recounts her eagerness to become a VUceptor freshman year. Confident in her ability to mentor, Olivia had planned her entire Vanderbilt career around becoming one, but her dreams were quickly shattered when she was rejected from the program. “I was crushed. Everyone always says you fail a lot when you come to Vanderbilt, but you always think – well, that’s not going to be me – until it is you.” She received her rejection email in the Nashville airport. As she sat in the Southwest terminal, ready to begin her spring break, she broke down. “I sat alone the whole way back to Denver,” she laughs, “No one wanted to sit next to the crying girl in the window seat.”
Although the original rejection crushed her spirits, when it was time to reapply sophomore year, Olivia found the strength to keep chasing her dream. “It’s the people in my life who gave me the hope to reapply,” she says, “They loved me even in my failure, their encouragement was really what got me through. They assured me that even if I didn’t get it, it would be ok.”
And it was ok.
As she was grocery shopping one day in July of 2016, her phone rang – it was the head of VUcept, calling her to tell her she had been accepted into the program. Olivia was so overjoyed that she dropped the bag of spinach she was carrying, and celebrated in the middle of the produce isle. It was a moment that marked the fulfillment of heartbreak, failure, and lots of shared hope.
This contagious hope that intoxicated Olivia to continue pursuing VUcept has fueled her to become an active member in our country's political scene. She has a passion for justice, and finds joy in planning spontaneous adventures to campaign for Doug Jones in Alabama, and having genuine conversations across devise party lines. “People say this generation is apathetic, but that hasn’t been my experience.” She says, “I have meet young people who are so educated and committed to improving this country, and that’s been really cool for me. It’s been very hopeful.”
Olivia continues to hope because her failures don’t define her. She knows that when you are left crying in a window seat that there will be rejoicing in the produce isle, and that when we get to know the people around us, our similarities will always outnumber our differences. She has seen the power that our shared humanity can have over evil, but she recognizes that to find it, you’ve got to move in closer to those around you.
So move in, connect with people, and listen to what they have to say. “I think a lot of people hear what others say, but don’t really listen,” Olivia said, “If we could just get to know the people around us, I like to think that deep down we all have something to connect on. It’s been the people that listen that still give me hope.”