Aiste Manfredini is a Ball State student and contributor to the Ball Bearings Magazine. Write to Aiste at amanfredini@bsu.edu.

I sat amid 1,200 climate activists in a noisy conference room, patiently waiting for former Vice President Al Gore to speak at the 23rd Climate Leader training last summer. Feeling nervous but relieved, I knew that I wasn’t sitting alone as a young leader. As it was my first leadership conference, I didn’t know what to expect, but I was excited to be part of the global cultural movement.

During the three-day training, I was surrounded by hundreds of people from places as close as Chicago and as far as Dhaka, Bangladesh. A variety of inspirational speakers at the conference included the Climate Reality Project’s Maggie Fox and Mario Molina; the National Wildlife Federation’s Larry Schweiger; the storytelling specialist and co-creator of The Meatrix, Jonah Sachs; and outstanding Kim Wasserman, who helped lead the successful campaign to close down Chicago’s two killer coal plants.

One week later, I found myself in San Francisco to attend the Global Brigades Student Leadership conference at the University of California at Berkeley. There, I learned how to empower members in my Global Brigades chapter at Ball State, an organization that is devoted to global health and sustainable development. I was immediately moved by Orion Haas, former director of mobilization at Global Brigades, when he spoke about leading through the art of inspiration. Haas urged students to practice passion, clarity and direction throughout their journey as a leader.

Taking the extra steps to attend both conferences wasn’t easy — mentally or financially — but those steps encouraged me to take advantage of my collegiate leadership opportunities, which shape decisions that I make today and will make in the future during my career. It’s crucial for us to lead and take advantage of as many opportunities as possible while they’re available. Come graduation, we’ll be at the bottom again.

If that disappoints you, don’t let it — there’s a powerful and valuable life skill that employers look for during the interview process but often struggle to find, which is the ability to lead.

“Leadership is defined by how you present yourself on an everyday basis,” says Lauren Berger, Ball State assistant director of student life. “It’s not about having a specific title or a specific position, it’s really about you as a person and your character and the vision that you have.”

Berger works with Ball State’s student leadership programs, the Excellence in Leadership Speaker Series and oversees the leadership minor. She said anyone can be a leader and that it’s about the things you do and the opportunities that you take that make students stand out as leaders.

“When leadership is done well and when students learn what leadership is and make an impact in their community, I think that is really how students can take those skills and develop them into their future work as a professional and student leader,” Berger said.

The moment you begin your journey at Ball State, make sure to get involved on campus and look for opportunities outside of the classroom, whether it’s a student organization, internship or job.

“Find something that you’re passionate about,” Berger said. “Find something that you get really excited about that’s outside of the classroom, that’s going to challenge you to do something different.”

Berger said anyone can lead and that it’s all about combining the skills, experiences and passions that students have while simultaneously figuring out how to make good decisions and make an impact on a community, college or organization.

It seems like college students are more involved and well-rounded than ever before and involved in more than just one activity. That’s why it’s important to find that one thing that you’re really good at and passionate about and put your full focus on it.

“It’s better to be good at one thing than seven different things,” Berger said. “But it’s also good for students to have a variety of different experiences. It’s about loving to do all those things.”

Adam Kuban, director of the Louis E. Ingelhart Scholars at Ball State, shares a different perspective on leadership.

“Freshman sometimes come in knowing right off the bat where they want to go and what they want to do,” Kuban said. “What I want them to do is explore not just what leadership is to them, but also how exactly they got to the point where they believe what they do about leadership.”

He urged students to ask questions about why someone was so influential to them and what influential means so they can explore what leadership is.

“It would be useful for students to have had some deeper intellectual conversations about what leadership means so they can talk about that intelligently and they’re not caught off guard by it,” Kuban said.

It’s important that we push ourselves out of the comfort zone because down the road when we’re all working professionals, we may be in a major leadership role. It might be unpleasant and we might have regrets, but it’s important to remember that it’s a learning experience that takes effort, patience and commitment.

Carson Weingart, president of Ball State’s Student Honors Council, said leadership, at its core, is about inspiring other people.

“I think it’s wrong to assume that being a leader is getting people to think like you do,” Weingart said. “The best leadership experiences that I’ve had is where I’m able to inspire people to do things in their own way and to get them to think of things and then take ownership of those things.”

Weingart said he is encouraged by the positive leadership from millennials. During his time at Ball State, Weingart learned that not everyone is a leader.

“There’s a real difference between leaders and managers,” he said. “Managers are really good at being given a plan and then they have to implement it and they have to tell people, ‘This is what someone above me says you need to do.’ And that’s a great thing to have, but leaders have to set the vision.

“I’ve always looked up to Walt Disney because he didn’t step out as, ‘Oh, I want to run a multibillion company.’ He just had an idea and he was able to inspire other people and create that organizational culture that’s made that company what it is today.”

After listening and observing leaders from all walks of life at both conferences, it made me realize that leadership is not about entitlement or power. It’s about building a passion for something you believe in. A zealous leader isn’t always the president of an organization or the captain of a sports team. It can be anyone who has a vision with a purpose and someone who leads by example.

“The best thing you can do in college is to spend your first year just sitting on the sidelines and observing, and that’s what I did with the Student Honors Council,” Weingart said. “Never join an organization with the intent of running it. It’s just like traveling to a different country … you have to immerse yourself in the culture first and then decide if this is somewhere I can grow or do I need to find somewhere else.”

He said leadership is important because good leaders allow followers to do their best work.

“One of the qualities of leaders that people most respect is when they’re amazing without having to say that they are,” Weingart said.

Take those extra steps and explore your passions because you never know when the doors will open up for new opportunities that you may never gain back. Acts and visions of leadership will not only help you find your passion in life but can also make a significant difference to your community and the world.