"Couch cooperation"

Carl Yao. Photo credit: Christina Franusich
Carl Yao. Photo credit: Christina Franusich

After interviewing Carl Yao for a peer leadership class, his nominator wrote a beautiful tribute to him, and I’d like to read it to you now:

“When I asked Carl what motivates him to be a leader, I was surprised to learn that there is a dark side to the power of influence that peer leaders have, and only through self-reflection can we identify this. He began by recounting why he initially joined VT Engage. He participated in an alternative spring break trip to New York City and was enthralled by the leadership skills of the student leader who facilitated the trip. He admired her energy and character and decided that he wanted to be that kind of person. I was not expecting what he said next: ‘Admiring some person and wanting to be that kind of person is a fine line to draw,’ he said. ‘You want to recognize your own value as well.’ Carl’s statement made me see that wanting to be like someone else is not always positive and can make us forget our own strengths.

“He went on to lead the same New York City trip his junior year. He was constantly giving himself a hard time because, in his eyes, he was not being a leader like the one from his earlier service trip. He told me that it kept him from living in the moment. It was not until a trip participant pointed out to him that his doubt was baseless that he realized he had forgotten to recognize his own value.

“Going forward, he has promoted the importance of understanding one’s own value and being honest when we fail to do so. Carl recounted a story to me that gave me insight into the experience international students have and introduced the concept of ‘couch cooperation.’

“About eight years ago, Carl first came to the U.S. and stayed with a host family. Before coming, he had a lot of confidence in his English. But after arriving, he realized that it was not up to the standard that he had thought. This made him insecure about his communication, and he felt alienated. One day, his host brother wanted to play a video game with him. At first, he was very nervous because the game required a lot of collaboration and he lacked confidence in his communication. The game forced him to communicate because cooperation was crucial.

“As time went on, his communications skills improved. This ‘couch cooperation’ experience made him think, ‘How can I re-create such a wonderful, collaborative community experience?’ As a peer leader, he works to build this experience with the students he leads by communicating intimately in small groups. Within these groups, he makes an effort to remain transparent about his own struggles, which creates an environment of acceptance.”