The evolution of Awab Shawkat ’21 into a campus leader taught him the importance of listening and responding — what he calls “response-ability.”

By Kris Dreessen

Awab Shakat ’21 grew up in upstate New York, but as a child he visited his parents’ hometown in Kerma, a village in northern Sudan. It is a place, he says, where you can walk into anyone’s home at any time of day for a visit or to share a meal. Everyone knows each other; generations of families have lived there.

“It is ‘small town’ times a thousand,” says Shawkat. “I have an extreme sense of community that I have kept because of my childhood visits there.”

Shawkat says his sense of community led him to opportunities at Geneseo that transformed his passions into leadership roles as an advocate, volunteer and researcher. A psychology major, Shawkat is a student researcher for Distinguished Teaching Professor of Psychology Ganie DeHart and her decades-long siblings’ study — and was a historian intern at Letchworth State Park. In 2019, he earned a National Science Foundation grant to participate in community-based research on black men’s mental health in a disadvantaged neighborhood in North Carolina. As a member of the Quell Foundation’s national Junior Board of Directors, a mental health advocacy foundation, he helps to diversify the organization’s scholarship recipients. And last spring, he was among the students who organized a march on Main Street, Geneseo, in solidarity of the Black Lives Matter movement. Through his experiences, Shawkat says, he has learned how to become a better leader.

Q: Why is it important for you to take leadership roles for causes you believe in? A: “There is never a shortage of urgent local and global projects that need people’s help. People of all interests can find causes and issues they’re passionate about. The projects I took up transcended my academic and career goals. They are changes in the world I want to see. If I didn’t step up, I feared no one would.” Q: During your research in North Carolina, you intended to introduce a meditation program to partnering organizations but changed your focus once you arrived. Why?
A: “I spoke with men from different segments of the community to find out where people stood on mental health issues. My interviews took me far from my own preconceptions and into West Charlotte’s mental health reality. I realized my meditation idea was good, but not what was needed. The best lesson I learned is that it is important to listen to what the community really needs.”

Q: What leadership skills have you developed through experiences at Geneseo?
A: “I can overextend myself, forgetting others can share the load. Remitting control is difficult for perfectionists, but Rome wasn’t built alone. I’m also working on meeting people where they are. You have to make yourself relevant to others in terms of communication and understand what they want to know.”

Q: What are the most important lessons about leadership you have learned?
A: “My leadership roles have forced me to rethink responsibility. It means being trustworthy and dependable, but it relies most heavily on being responsive to others — a response-ability. We need to incorporate the perspectives of others for the sake of the wider community. Leaders are conduits for community energy and resources, to ensure they go where they’re most needed. I have also learned there’s a balance of how much you can do and still deliver quality to all those projects and tasks. Things like sleeping and eating may seem dispensable in the rush of a passionate workflow, but work-life balance means getting comfortable saying ‘No’ and realizing we’re not superheroes. I’ve also learned not to let one facet of my activities determine who I am.”

Q: Why is it important for individuals to be active in causes and projects they believe in?
A: “People who volunteer their time and energy have just as much, if not more, to gain from their service as the ones they serve. No project is painless. The learning and discomfort that comes along the way better equips us to deal with future challenges and unease. To better ourselves, we have to better the world. Working on projects bigger than ourselves makes us more selfless and effective in realizing our collective goals.”