Daniel E. Burke-Aguero – University of Missouri Columbia
If someone were to ask me now what my Southwestern Advantage Experience has meant to me so far my response would be simple: It saved me, and I am eternally grateful for everything I’ve been blessed with because of it. But to truly understand what I mean I have to back it up. In high school I never had a major challenge when it came to things besides school. I was gifted at music, the lead in the play, on the Varsity Soccer team, I was quite social and had lots of friends. I was smart enough to be in AP but my grades never reflected it because I’d never put in the work. The thing was, that all through high school I had problems with alcohol and drug use. It would come and go in waves; I’d be doing terrible in school and then use was a regular thing, but then because of something or another I’d call it quits. For a month, for two, for a couple more, and then I’d be right back at it. My senior year I actually went to the hospital because of alcohol poisoning with a BAC of .32. It’s not something I am proud of but the way I see it; it is my mistakes that have caused me to grow and become who I am today. That shook me hard and leaving HS I had vowed to not take another drink at all and cut back if not stop everything else. I began running a lot and it cleared my head.
So as a freshman at the University of Missouri I was involved in quite a few things; a community service organization, an anti genocide coalition, I was logging between 40-60mi a week of running, I was in a Hispanic leadership group, and on top of it all I was touring with an up and coming band as the Sax player. On the surface things were stupendous but I was wrestling with an inner battle of my own the whole time. Regardless of how busy I was, there was one thing that I was always consistent and completely on schedule about. The party time. I was doing a lot of the things that I had vowed to cut back on and give up when I got to college, when I had the chance to, “start over.”
So when I first heard about the Southwestern Internship I was not sure it was the right fit for me. At the time; my focus was on me. True I was involved in a community service organization; BUT I joined it in the first place to have a larger social network; so I could party with more people! I saw the summer as a sacrifice. I was planning on teaching English in Costa Rica; or going on tour with the band that was at the moment blowing up and getting all sorts of shows from Chicago, down to Memphis and all the way out to Denver. So anything that was going to replace these plans had to be golden. I was definitely selfish and even my initial motivation for actually doing it was just that. My student manager was a goofy friend named Will Metscher and I knew if he had made over $13k in just three months there was absolutely NO WAY I couldn’t do it; and better at that! I thought to myself of all the “sandwiches and soda” I could buy with that money, all the new guitars, the sizzler trip and all the ensuing debauchery that could result from it.
Naturally my parents were completely against me. It was actually funny how hard headed I was thinking back on it. I had made the decision that I was going to do it and it took almost 3 months for my mother to finally accept it. Bless her heart though she’s just a mom caring for her son. So as the summer neared though I began to see it as an opportunity; to actually set the foundation for the change I wanted to see in myself. But the day we left for Nashville to train, I was on the phone with my guitarist in the band at the time and he said, “Well if you’re going out there man to work; work hard. So we can party harder when you come back!” Those words were a double edged sword for me for the next two years.
Nashville training school was a blast. A Blur, but a blast. Competition with an Iowa girl; friendships with Wisconsin kid, hope for doing well, fear; lots of fear. Up early, moving fast, coming on too strong, trying to do too much, meeting lots of people, in one ear out the other, run run run run faster! That about sums up my first sales school ha. I was selected to live with Anthony Merkel (our head OL) and two other FYs Zach Peztka and John Canada. So when we left sales school I was nervous but I knew I could do it and be great.
The following 12 weeks went by in a blur. I, in three months time experienced almost the entire gamut of human emotion known and many I didn’t even know existed. I remember waking up some mornings with a knot in my stomach from the fear that today wouldn’t be a great day. I remember the drives home late at night after meeting one of the coolest families ever, after meeting the Dads I wanted to model and aspire to be. I remember the joy of seeing a kid find value in the books, to see our product as hope for change. I remember the hilarious Sunday meetings where John and I raced back to our awesome host family because we forgot the projector only to get there and laugh for hours because they already had it covered and the entire trek was in vain. I remember feeling lost and alone, like no one knew who I was. I remember crying in the car after trying to approach an old man who didn’t have kids who I then asked through tears if I could cry in his driveway. I remember the spring in my step when my watch would beep. I remember the sun coming out from the clouds after it rained was the most beautiful thing I’d seen as I stood atop a mountain in CT, surrounded by green as far as the eye could see. I remember presenting one set of kid books to 4 different families at once because of the church party at the house. I remember the rain, the heat, and the car breaking down. I remember the dogs and the hilarious pets. I remember laughing with families and at kids who just say the funniest things. I remember the family who had a dirt floor and barely spoke English but my hour long demo in Spanish at 10pm left me with a zero down order for an amount of books I truthfully didn’t think they could afford. I remember leaving some houses optimistic and others not even sure if they would come through. I remember the hurt of rejection at first, the toughening of skin. The mood swings from joy to despair. I remember delivering books to that family with the dirt floor, $418.75 paid in 1 and 5 dollar bills and coins in a bag. I remember the feeling of accomplishment I left CT with.
When I got back I made a full turn around, I stopped drinking and smoking, I went to church, my grades improved, my relationships improved, I became more involved, I did what I was supposed to do. That’s what I wish I could have said after my first summer. Instead my heightened level of confidence combined with my large amount of $ I made, combined with a hunger to party proved a disastrous combination. My partying became more extreme, my grades slipped in some classes. But to only say that would leave the summer in a negative light. I partied harder; but I partied less overall. My grades slipped sharply in only one class, while my grades improved in others. See the problem was that during the summer I had learned many lessons. Humility, hard work, the value of truth, the power of a positive mental attitude, trust, following through on my word. BUT I only chose to apply these concepts in specific times, not to my life as a whole. I tried to recruit a team but I ended up driving myself mad trying to mimic the full timers on campus. I was “Sammy Southwestern,” saying what my managers wanted to hear, blinders on the rest of the time. Needless to say my second summer wasn’t a shining example of growth in the southwestern program. For me it was actually much harder than the first. It pushed me to the limits of my confidence and then kept on pushing. I cried more, I doubted myself, I put blame on the people in my town, on the people I lived with, on the company, and on the job itself. I remember meeting some of the most amazing people ever and also many who I am glad I have the choice to never see again. My mood swings were even more extreme; the days I woke up with just the intent of loving the fact I got to interact with families I did great. The rest of the summer I did not. I did that more often than not. I remember cursing the neighborhood and then meeting a mother who when I left, I just was thankful I’d met her. I remember the exhaustion from the hottest summer in Baltimore history since 1920, I remember the dogs, the car problems the pain and anguish. I remember giving up.
But out of ashes come some of the most beautiful things in nature. When I got back I made the turn around, I stopped smoking entirely and drinking a lot less, I went and took the time to actually find my spirituality, my grades improved, my relationships improved, I became more involved, I did what I was supposed to do. I found myself; I became more centered. Surprisingly enough I actually ended up doing almost exactly the same the first summer as I did my second. But it was the pain and frustration from the second summer that humbled me to who I am now. My first summer told me I can do anything, my second summer taught me my life is what I make it. Today as I’m writing this I’m about to go out with my friends for some fun on a Friday night. All my homework is done, my readings are completed. My house is clean and organized. I’m the director of two programs at the Boys and Girls Club here in town, one of which is actually a pilot program for outreach with Southwestern Advantage. I’ve got practice tomorrow for my band which I lead and love playing with. I got to record over winter break. I’m recruiting and things are going well with bringing out a team. I’ll be meeting my girlfriend tonight wherever we go out to; I’ve been with her for almost 4 months now , I actually met her through a friend who did SW.
Essentially, I am happy and balanced in my life because I am me. I know that might sound hard to understand. But for the first time I am calm and at peace with where I am in life; with myself. I am excited for what’s to come in the future, in my life. I know I can do anything I set my mind to. But I’m almost more excited to see myself seeing it through. Looking back on the kid I was just two years ago, it’s amazing the changes I’ve been able to go through both professionally and personally. But these wouldn’t have happened without the Southwestern Internship. So thanks Will, Anthony, Caleb, Nick and everyone else for believing in me. It’s because of the summer’s I’ve spent knocking on America’s doors that I am here today. Proud to be me.