By Maria Liu Wong
Cultivating self-awareness was critical for fully engaging in my cohort-based doctoral program in Adult Learning and Leadership at Columbia. We were asked constantly to reflect in journals, to think critically in small and large group settings, and to engage in various exercises and activities. This made us hyper-aware of how we felt, how we showed up, and how we experienced others from our positionality.
Or perhaps, that is what I took away from the experience. I was one of two students, in the group of 21, coming from a faith-based organization in a fairly hostile-to-Christianity academic setting. I was a Chinese-American woman, sometimes mistaken for my Singaporean and Filipino-Canadian colleagues. I was also an introvert who needed time to process, flourishing in small rather than large group contexts. It became almost second nature to have a “meta” experience while interacting with others. I gauged situations where I sensed I was comfortable or not, and calibrated how I read others read me. This constant awareness of self and other, and need to re-align emotionally and mentally, was exhausting at times but necessary.
Carrying this forward into my current work at City Seminary, I find building self-awareness even more important. While I am in a different structural position (as dean), I interact with others – faculty, staff, and students – from a point of advocacy. I try to cultivate a “holding environment” within the learning organization. I hope to provide enough space and support for safe disclosure, while at the same time enough challenge for growth and transformation.
There is almost a sense of relief and release when I am able to be transparent with others in community. This past Saturday, my youth seminary work group and I went through a team-building exercise based on our NBI (Neethling Brain Instrument) results. This whole brain assessment evaluates dominant thinking preferences – whether one uses more of the right or left side of the brain, focusing on process, outcome, people or vision (to put it rather simply). We shared laughter and much grace as we got together with literally like-minded teammates to discuss our gifts, strengths, and needs from others. Two volunteers also engaged in a role-play, putting themselves in the dominant preference of another.
While I always take tools like these as points of departure for reflection, we experienced a collective sense of relief to have certain inclinations affirmed while having space to share honestly. It was an opportunity to celebrate the wholeness of who we were, as we made sense of our thinking, feeling, and action together. Thus, actively cultivating self and other-awareness became an asset to our collective practice of team leadership.
Perhaps the takeaway here is seeing how self-awareness brings about the greater realization of who we are in Christ, as whole beings with heads, hearts, and hands. While self-awareness can be leveraged in leadership, more importantly, it enables us to allow the Holy Spirit to work in us. We become more in tune with how God uses our feelings and thoughts to remind us of His presence and what He is telling us. We come to know God in a fuller way, as we come to be aware of ourselves, and the reality of what it means to dwell in His presence as He dwells in us. This is the vulnerability of the Gospel laid bare.
Maria Liu Wong serves as Dean of City Seminary of New York in Harlem, NYC. She leads a women’s fellowship group and a newcomers’ Beta group with her husband Tony, and volunteers in the children’s ministry at Redeemer Presbyterian Church Downtown. Her research focuses on urban theological education, women and leadership, immigrant youth, diversity, and action research. She lives in the Lower East Side with her husband and three energetic little New Yorkers, and enjoys creating ways to make time and space for students, faculty (and herself!) to learn from and with each other.