Jamal Sowell on Leadership, Veterans, & Escaping the "Bubble"

December 2, 2016

Jamal Sowell during a village medical outreach in Helmand Province, Afghanistan in 2010.
CREDIT: Combat Camera (Office of USMC Communication)

ALEX WOODSON: Welcome to the Carnegie New Leaders Podcast. I'm Alex Woodson.

Today I'm joined by Jamal Sowell, calling in from Bloomington, Indiana. Among many things, Jamal is a Pat Tillman Military Scholar and Blackstone Legal Fellow at the Maurer School of Law at Indiana University (IU). He is a former special assistant to the president of the University of Florida (UF)—Bernie Machen at that time—and a veteran of the U.S. Marine Corps who served in Afghanistan in 2010.

Jamal, thanks for calling in today.

JAMAL SOWELL: No problem. Thank you for having me.

ALEX WOODSON: Just to start, I read a few articles about you: One from the Orlando Sentinel in 2011 says that leadership didn't come naturally to you. It said that growing up in Florida, you were the youngest in your family, and you were a little shy. As someone who has accomplished so much at a young age, I was a little surprised to read that.

How did you learn to become a leader? What were some of the lessons that led you to where you are today?

JAMAL SOWELL: The process was very long because being shy, being quiet, and not being seen as the one who was going to make a major difference amongst my peers, I think that the major difference for me was having good mentors. I had a youth pastor years ago named Justin Felton back in Orlando, and he told me, "Hey, I see greatness in you. No matter what your peers are saying, no matter if you're getting beat up and bullied, there's things that you're experiencing now in order to help others." So it was a process that I had to learn.

College was really the time when I was able to use the the experiences of being afraid to talk, being bullied to empower others who were going through that same thing.

ALEX WOODSON: You went to the University of Florida for undergrad, and you were student body president there, right?

JAMAL SOWELL: Yes. With that, I had to go through a process. My first year, I got involved in campus. I ran for student government senate. I did not win; I tried out for a group called the Cicerones, which is the tour staff; I didn't get it. I kept trying out for things, and I just wasn't getting chosen.

Rather than go the route where I had to be selected, I just began to volunteer, get involved in church activities, and just do things to help people around campus. Eventually people started to see that I had a genuine passion for wanting to make a change without having a title.

ALEX WOODSON: Once you became student body president, what were some of the things that you did? What were some of the things that you focused on?

JAMAL SOWELL: My focus was really just to give students who did not have a voice access to student government resources and positions, because back when I was in school in student government you had to become a part of a powerful fraternity or sorority in order to get a position in student government. Essentially it was my goal to empower all students, regardless of their background, regardless of what group they were part of or not, and just give them access to have the same opportunities that I had as a student leader.

The whole concept was access and opportunity but also trying to bridge the gap culturally. As a student I got involved in the Jewish Student Union. I'm not Jewish, but I wanted to connect with students who I may not naturally connect with, so I joined the Hispanic Student Association and other groups around campus that helped me make an agenda that was inclusive to all students.

ALEX WOODSON: I'm just curious—when you joined the Hispanic Student Association or got involved with Jewish organizations, what was the reaction of the people that were in the group—the people that were Jewish; people that were Hispanic? Were they a little confused about why you were there? Were there other people like you who were interested in joining?

JAMAL SOWELL: It was a very good experience. I think initially it was like, "Oh, this is different. We have someone who is here who is not Jewish or not Hispanic in our meetings," but they were intrigued and happy that I came because I think that when you have other people from different backgrounds advocating for your cause, that speaks volumes about the message that you are trying to convey.

Yes, at first it was a bit different, but then I made some of my best friends over the years in that. In the summer of 2015, I did an internship in Israel, and I actually ran into one of my friends that I'd met from the Jewish Student Union, so that really was a major part of my college experience.

ALEX WOODSON: After college, you went to grad school at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst (UMass Amherst). Is that correct?

JAMAL SOWELL: Correct. It was a great experience because it was my first time personally living outside of the South, even though as a kid my dad was in the Army—he retired as a lieutenant colonel—and we lived in Virginia and Georgia—and the experience intellectually was amazing. I got to see the history of Massachusetts, the old sites for the Revolutionary War, and just had an amazing historic learning experience, but also an amazing intellectual experience that grew me as a person.

ALEX WOODSON: Definitely. I want to come back to that a little bit later.

From UMass Amherst, you went into the Marines. I read in some of the articles that you have a family history in the military, so was this always the plan for you?

JAMAL SOWELL: I knew one day that I would serve; I just did not know when. For me, it was just a burning passion that I had because of the fact that I was in college as a sophomore during 9/11, and I had so many friends who were all for the troops and who were for invading Iraq and Afghanistan, but they weren't willing to serve.

For me, it was mind-boggling. I asked myself, well, if someone who had my background with my grandfather serving in World War II, father in Vietnam, and brother who eventually went to Iraq and became a disabled veteran, I said, "If not me, then who?" For me, I knew that my time would come.

I enlisted in the Marine Corps Reserves as a combat engineer at a unit a few miles down the road from UMass Amherst. From there, after I completed my graduate degree, I went active duty as an officer.

ALEX WOODSON: When you were in the military, I assume this was another level of leadership that you learned. What specifically did you get out of the experience?

JAMAL SOWELL: In the Marine Corps they have the concept that "no Marine is left behind" and that you have to "lead from the front." With that, a person cannot be an effective leader if they're not willing to do what they ask their Marines to do, whether it's physical, training, or not having a shower for a week. In the Marine Corps, if my Marines did not have a shower for a week, I didn't have a shower for a week; if my Marines had to sleep out in the cold and the snow, I had to sleep out in the cold and the snow.

The ultimate lesson was following and leading by example because that instills trust and builds a bond because your Marines will know that you're not going to force them to do anything that you wouldn't do yourself.

ALEX WOODSON: Definitely. I've done a few podcasts with veterans, a couple in particular with Jayson Browder, who is also a Carnegie New Leader. He's a veteran of the U.S. Air Force, and he's the founder of an organization called Veterans in Global Leadership. One of his main areas of concern is about veterans coming home and just how difficult many of them find it to get into school or to succeed in school or to find a good job or just to get back into regular civilian life.

How were you able to do this after the military? I'm not sure if you had struggles of any kind, but from the outside it seems like you were able to transition pretty successfully. Did you go back to the University of Florida right after that?

JAMAL SOWELL: Yes. I joined specifically to serve in the global war on terror. That was why I joined; I wanted to go to war; I wanted to go to Iraq or Afghanistan. That was the specific reason why I joined.

I did not necessarily want to make it a career, even though that was in the back of my mind, so I always knew that once I served my time I would have to start to look at other options and everything—whether I was going to stay in for another four years or look elsewhere. My Master's was in higher education administration, so with that Master's I knew that I wanted to go back into college leadership one day and apply the lessons I learned from the Marine Corps into higher education in order to empower students just the way that I was empowered as a marine.

The hardest part about the transition is having a plan but also taking a mental break. I got back from Afghanistan in late September of 2010, and from there my end-of-active-service time was ending pretty much at the beginning of 2011.

For veterans who are transitioning, I would always advise to take a mental break because I went straight into working back at the University of Florida. I think that overall it's good to have a mental break because going from the environment of a deployment to now being in a civilian world and a civilian sector is totally different in your language and how you approach problems. That was the hardest adjustment at first.

ALEX WOODSON: Is there any other advice that you often find yourself giving to veterans beyond the mental break?

JAMAL SOWELL: I always say, "Ask for help." I think that being in the military, especially being in the Marine Corps: A-type personalities—which I love because the Marine Corps is all about leading by example, so it doesn't matter how good you sound or how good you talk; if you can't hike 10 miles with a 50-pound pack on your back, or if you can't run three miles in a certain amount of time, everything else is irrelevant because of the fact that you have to be technically and tactically proficient in your field.

Having that mindset, a lot of people don't want to show weakness, and they think that telling somebody a problem that they're having—a mental health issue; you may be struggling from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), but you don't know it—is always a concern with a lot of people in the military. A lot of Marines have this problem as well because you don't want that to hurt your career down the road.

I think asking for help will be better in the long run. Now that there are so many resources for veterans out there that the country has created, whether through non-profits or the private sector for veterans to excel but also for them to get the services they need, this is the perfect time to do that.

ALEX WOODSON: Another thing that Jayson told me that really struck me was that it has to go both ways. We were just talking about the civilian-military divide, and he said this during the podcast: "It's one thing to stand at an airport and welcome these men and women back after decades of war; it's another thing to get hand-in-hand with them."

What's your reaction to that? What do you see as the responsibility of civilians—people who haven't been in the military; people who maybe don't have family members who have been in the military? What do you think civilians need to do or need to think about when it comes to really welcoming veterans back into society?

JAMAL SOWELL: I think that the main thing is being supportive, creating an environment where veterans can be themselves but also where they have opportunities. The other month I wrote a proposal in my own free time about what the private sector can do in regards to veterans' jobs.

Now a lot of private sector businesses have these initiatives where they say, "Yes, we want to hire veterans," but there's nothing holding them to that; versus in the government you have the government preference points for veterans. Corporations don't necessarily have the same thing. They have their goals, but there is nothing really pushing them outside of good public relations and good press to hire veterans.

I think that to make it an environment to where businesses are really holding to their goals of hiring veterans is the biggest thing because everyone wants to work; everyone wants to make a difference on this Earth, and the best thing that a civilian can do is make the environment conducive for a veteran to transition from being in the military to now being a great civilian worker.

ALEX WOODSON: Another thing that I find interesting—my wife actually is pursuing an Ed.D. in higher education administration—she has two Master's in higher education.

JAMAL SOWELL: Awesome.

ALEX WOODSON: I understand that world a little bit. I might be wrong, but I don't think that there are too many veterans in that specific field. I guess my question is: Are there misconceptions about you in that field, or do people just want to learn about your experience? What's been your experience in this world coming from the Marines?

JAMAL SOWELL: That's a great question, because when I was in grad school at UMass Amherst, that's when I first joined and I'll never forget I had a professor in another department tell me: "You want to join the Marine Corps now out of all the times?" This is 2006, when the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the approval ratings were very bad because people were mad at the president.

Being in that environment, it definitely is different because academia at times is in an intellectual bubble; some of them have not served. But that was 2006; now the focus has changed, and a lot of institutions are now focusing on veterans' outreach, veterans' affairs programs. I can feel that the environment has changed from when I joined in 2006, when it was almost an odd thing to do it.

I'll never forget during my first year of grad school in Amherst there was a naked anti-war protest, and I had never seen that before. The environment was different, but I feel like now—regardless of where a veteran is—most institutions have programs and offices in place to make it a conductive environment. But you are right; in academia it is different because of the fact that a lot of people go from undergrad to grad school to Ph.D. and never really have any experience in the world of the military.

ALEX WOODSON: After the military, you were special assistant to the president of the University of Florida. What was your focus at that time? That sounds like a broad position; I know you did a lot of interesting things. What stands out for you from that experience?

JAMAL SOWELL: In that job, I had a broad portfolio. I worked with the legislature; I worked with the board of trustees specifically; and I did special projects for the president.

At that time, when I first started, the president of UF was the chairman of the Southeastern Conference (SEC), and during that time they added two new schools, Texas A&M and the University of Missouri.

He had a broad portfolio of things that he was doing. I would assist him on projects, whether it was with the new Florida governor who had just started at that time; whether it was issues for veterans—I really worked hard on that; issues of diversity and inclusion; campus controversies; I was that point person. It was a very exciting job, kind of like being an executive officer, because at the same time the president was so busy. To lead a school of 50,000 students is a very arduous task, but my goal was to ensure that the president did not have too much on his plate.

When it came to meeting with student protest leaders—people who had issues that they wanted to bring to the president—I was the person who they spoke to; I was the person who was on the phone all night talking to people who had concerns with the university, whether it was grievances or problems they had in different areas. I was the person who solved the problem with the help of many others who were great—faculty, staff members, and even students, who really helped me out during that time—because my goal was to get everybody involved in the process. Whether you are a student, staff, faculty, or even a local resident, everyone has something to contribute.

That experience was fun and exciting because it was never dull, because specifically my role dealing with the board of trustees—you had 13 trustees, and they were the ones who made the decisions, the high-level decisions for the university, and I was the one who disseminated the information out to them, in addition to keeping them in the loop about all things pertaining to the University of Florida.

ALEX WOODSON: That sounds like a very big job.

JAMAL SOWELL: It was very exciting.

ALEX WOODSON: Now you're at the Indiana University Maurer School of Law. I read in one article that at one time your goal was becoming a college president—The Gainesville Sun from 2014. Is that still the plan, or has that changed a little bit?

JAMAL SOWELL: I came to Indiana University in 2014—great experience being in a small college city. Bloomington is very much like Gainesville. It's a high-level research institution; a great international base of students. Being in Bloomington and being a Hoosier has been amazing.

I think that, yes, my goal is to lead a university one day, but that really came from great mentors of mine and people who I've known for years who I saw use their role as university president for something positive. I see being a college president—that role is so many roles in one: It's like being a mentor, a spiritual leader, guidance counselor, community organizer, academic, and scholar all in one. That role has so many hats, but also that person makes a difference in the lives of people.

For example, the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., always stated that he would not have gotten to where he was in life without his mentor, Dr. Benjamin Elijah Mays. Dr. Mays was the president of Morehouse College back when Dr. King was in school. Having that mentorship really allows any president to empower the future leaders of the world.

ALEX WOODSON: Just to wrap up, a big topic of conversation right now is the bubbles that we're all living in; you mentioned that yourself. In reading about you and talking to you now, it's pretty clear that you don't live in a bubble: You've been in the Marines; you've been in a Master's program at UMass Amherst where—we didn't get to talk about this—you pursued your interest in the transcendentalist writers; you've been active in the Pentecostal Church; you've been active in Jewish organizations. Is this something that you have to push yourself to do, or are you just naturally intellectually curious?

JAMAL SOWELL: I think it was a bit of both because my father was raised in a small North Florida city called Jasper, Florida, right on the border of Florida and Georgia, right by Valdosta, Georgia; a small town, maybe 1,000 people. He went to college at Florida A&M University.

He did not have the chance to go to integrated schools because the Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka decision that came out in 1954 really was not enacted in the South until later, after he got out of high school. He went to college at Florida A&M University, joined the Army, went to Vietnam, and eventually went to law school at the University of Florida. He always pushed himself to do more—to see the world, to travel—and because of that, he was my ultimate role model. He's a very quiet individual, but he led by example. If he had not pushed himself to go to college or leave, he would still be in his same hometown—which is a great city—but at the same time he wanted to see the world and make a difference. The example that he led—being in the Army; going to law school; being in Vietnam—really set the tone for my siblings and me.

I have a brother; he speaks Spanish and Portuguese. He also does Christian ministry and preaches. Over the summer he is in Brazil. I have one brother who was a minister in Kansas. He went into the Army in Iraq, and then I have a sister who lives in the Washington, DC area.

I think that having a father who really set the example made a difference, and also having a mother who was very supportive, who was—she was all about us being Renaissance men: She made me take tap dance lessons, ballet lessons; she made me learn how to play the saxophone; she made my brother sing; she made my sister become a dancer. Even though as a kid I may not have appreciated that, that really allowed me to go outside of my comfort zone.

Even as a kid, my mom made me read about the historic Jewish rabbis or different world leaders like Gandhi or those who had made a difference in the world, and that really sparked my interest at a very young age to realize that there's so much on Earth that I can do in order to make a difference because, "life is not given; no man knows the day or the hour," so I want to do everything I can to make a difference on the Earth while I'm still here.

ALEX WOODSON: That's terrific. These are things that we all should keep in mind right now. Thank you so much for speaking today. It's been a great conversation.

JAMAL SOWELL: Thanks for having me, and I'm glad I was able to do this. I get excited talking about education and military service. Whether one serves in the military or not, there are so many ways to serve our great country and give back to those who may not have those same opportunities.

ALEX WOODSON: Yes, definitely. Thanks again, and maybe we'll do this again soon.

JAMAL SOWELL: Sounds good. Have a great day.

ALEX WOODSON: This has been Carnegie New Leaders Podcast with Jamal Sowell. My name is Alex Woodson. You can find us on carnegiecouncil.org or iTunes. Thanks for listening.

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