Mawi Asgedom, a nationally recognized educator and author, will speak at the ACA national conference on February 13, 2013. Asgedom arrived in the United States in 1983 after escaping civil war in Ethiopia and surviving a three-year period in a Sudanese refugee camp. He graduated from Harvard University with top honors in 1999. He has since devoted his life to working with teenagers and motivating them to be their best. Recently, Mawi shared his thoughts on inspiring success, connection, and resiliency in youth.
You’ve experienced a lot of success connecting with high-school-aged kids. What is your formula for relating so well to teens?
Teenagers have an incredibly fine-tuned “fakeness” detector. So for me, it all starts with being myself. What I hope comes across is that I have fun working with youth, I love youth, and I believe unreservedly in the power of any teenager to achieve and contribute — regardless of their socioeconomic background or circumstances.
For folks in the camp industry, I’d say recruit and train staff members who are comfortable in their own skin. Just as an example, a sixty-five-year-old counselor who genuinely cares about students and is comfortable in his or her own skin will connect much more with campers than a twenty-two-year-old counselor who is trying to be someone he or she is not.
Leadership and character are two prevalent topics in the noncognitive learning conversation taking place right now. What is driving the conversation? Where and how do we, as a society, stand the best chance of succeeding in developing these skills and attributes with today’s teens?
There’s a simple reason that people are taking a closer look at noncognitive skills: We have gone off the spectrum in this country with accountability. There is a relentless pursuit of student achievement as measured by standardized testing. Parents, educators, politicians, and researchers are now coming together to say that grades and test scores matter, but our students are MORE than their grades and test scores.
That’s why you’re seeing bestsellers such as How Children Succeed, by Paul Tough (who will also speak at national conference) — the book shows the power of noncognitive skills. That’s also why now, more than ever, camps have the opportunity and imperative to express a clear value proposition around the ability of camps to develop noncognitive skills.
For camps, the formula is simple: (1) build great relationships with kids, and (2) help kids acquire noncognitive powers through skill acquisition.
What led you to develop your “Success GPA”?
I had a friend who had three degrees from Harvard — an undergrad, a master’s, and a doctorate — but could not find a job. At the same time, I read articles about the so-called “dyslexic advantage” that showed a disproportionate number of CEOs and civic leaders had dyslexia. Because they struggled in school, these leaders had to develop noncognitive skills that they later used to make massive contributions to our world.
I created the Success GPA* to help students measure and develop what we call their Social Power, Awareness Power, and Solution Power. Students actually get a number on a 4.0 scale that shows them where they stand and how they can improve.
You provide your readers (teens) with some great tools and examples in your book The Success GPA. Are these the tools that would have been offered a generation ago? What is it about today’s generation of youth and teens that make the building blocks of resiliency so elusive?
Research shows that struggle and the acquisition of skill through failure are what build resilience. I have a two-year-old and a three-year-old myself — and I face the same challenges as everyone else. The key question is: “What’s the right balance between challenging my kids and nurturing them?”
In all my training, I focus on acquiring skill through action and embracing failure. If you don’t do something new, how will you grow? If you don’t fail, how will you learn? Camp is a wonderful place to fail, act, and grow in a caring environment.
In The Success GPA, you approach diversity in a refreshing and accessible way. You mention the benefit of changing your environment, such as attending camp. What are some of the benefits you see for youth and teens who experience camp?
I think camps can make an incredibly convincing value proposition that is based on science. Research by highly respected luminaries, such as Dr. Martin Seligman and Dr. Carol Dweck, has proven that our youth gain confidence and resilience by doing new things and acquiring skill. Think of all the new skills someone gets at camp: (1) learning how to adapt to new environments; (2) skill acquisition from activities, whether rowing, biking, or something else; and (3) social skill from connecting to new people in a new place.
I was lucky enough to attend camp because my church paid for me as a kid — I couldn’t afford it otherwise. That’s why I think ACA’s Send a Child to Camp Fund is such a wonderful opportunity to support kids of all backgrounds.
How can camps help their teenaged campers achieve Awareness Power, Social Power, and Solution Power?
Students acquire power by taking new actions that show them what they can really do. My favorite strategy is to focus students on the upcoming week by asking short-term action ques¬tions. For example, a good question is: “What’s one small thing you can do this week to _____________?” Fill in the blank with a character quality such as “show gratitude,” “be creative,” or “give compassion.”
What is your next project?
It’s already here. In June of 2012, I launched a two-semester online leadership class that any student worldwide can take. In Florida, the course is free to any student, and the students get high school credit upon completion. I believe I was put on this planet to show teenagers that they have more in them than they could ever imagine. I’m lucky enough to partner with professionals like you at ACA who share my vision and who are already doing so much to help our youth. Keep up the great work!
Visit www.mawilearning.com  for more information.
*Editor’s note: Read the introduction of on Asgedom’s 2011 book, The Success GPA, for free at www.mawispeaks.com/downloads/Success_GPA_Intro.pdf .
Originally published in the 2013 January/February Camping Magazine