A year ago, during HCLA’s opening retreat for the new class of 2023, thirty-five eager faces gazed around the room, curious to know what lay ahead and excited to embark on the next ten months of learning together. We greeted new friends, shared hopes and goals, contributed to class values, and talked about how incredibly fortunate we were to learn together in an environment such as this—a depth of discovery and connection to community like no other. Our gratitude journals would fill up easily that night upon reflection.

Fast forward ten months, and my gratitude journal is overflowing. This class counted as my second Hamilton County Leadership Academy. The first was in 2004 as a class member at the beginning of my career in tourism, and now this year as dean. While the curriculum and content has changed slightly, the experience of learning and connecting to community as leaders is the same. And the compelling feeling at the end of the program to give back to our community in some manner is still very real.

On our last day of class, we shared insights, ideas, and knowledge gleaned from our time together. We reminisced on times of hilarity and humbleness. But I think one of the most significant assignments on that last day was a personal plan for the next 90 days—a serious contemplation about what is next for each of us. Because even though the class experience is finished, the feelings of inspiration and motivation to connect to something bigger than ourselves can continue if we act on them. And that is the true jewel behind the Hamilton County Leadership Academy. The passion it instills to give back to a community that gives so much to us.

Over the course of our time together, I watched many of us grow in new friendships. I won’t be surprised if I see these new friendship groups continue as volunteer buddies for many years, taking action to give back. I marveled at new ideas that were sparked in conversation during class reflections. I won’t be surprised if new community programs erupt from these new thoughts with actions taken for the well-being of others. I appreciated new viewpoints shared around the challenges we face as diverse individuals with distinct backgrounds. I won’t be surprised to learn of hearts coalescing around the respect of our shared humanity.

Which brings me back to where we started. With gratitude. I have been inspired by this experience and by every member of this class. I am thankful for the time and devotion people spent participating in such a positive way. I am delighted by the connections I’ve made with new friends and colleagues.  And I am proud of my part in building something that felt bigger and more meaningful together than it would have been experienced as individuals.

I encourage everyone to consider getting involved, whether it is with Hamilton County Leadership Academy or a different local organization. Find ways to learn, connect, and lead in your community.  The act of devoting your time to learning something new in the community of others has so many positive benefits, not only to ourselves but to others as well. Learn, connect, and lead among your friends, your family, your colleagues, your community. I guarantee your gratitude journal will fill quickly just as mine has done this year.