The First Days: Essential Alumni reflect on their retreat experiences

The First Days: Essential Alumni reflect on their retreat experiences

Every fall new recruits to the Essential program begin their Leadership Austin experience among strangers who will soon become confidantes. It all starts at the opening retreat.

To many attendees, this 2-day getaway is a life-changing and path-altering opportunity. They call it eye opening and thought provoking. They find wisdom, perspective and connection. They speak of respect and admiration. Some swear that the retreat is nothing short of magical.

For more than 35 years, Leadership Austin has been hosting retreats in some form or another. Though the details may have changed over the years, the overall impact on its attendees has remained powerful.

To highlight this important piece of the Leadership Austin experience, we asked various alumni to share, in their own words, their impressions about their opening retreat.

Jeannette Peten, Essential 2002
Our class retreat was scheduled for a few days after the 9/11 attacks and the class debated whether or not to postpone. We decided to go ahead with the retreat and it ended up being such an incredible, transformative experience. We held a candlelight vigil. People shared a lot of personal stories and built a sense of community almost immediately. Of course everyone was affected by the attacks–we were all still in shock and grieving. The whole country was uniting and it helped our class unite quickly.

Personally, the retreat made my commitment to community even stronger. Community service was always important to me, but the retreat moved it up on my list. It enlightened and heightened my lifelong commitment to civic engagement.

Will Ingram, Essential 1995
At the end of one of the evenings of the retreat, I was able to have some very deep conversations with someone who held an opposing view on a topic that was important to me. Through that I came to realize that we both had similar goals and desires for the situation, but that our approaches toward those goals were very different. We realized that there was a way to move toward middle ground. Neither of us were the really the person we were perceived to be because of the difference of opinion and approach.
I came away with a new respect and understanding of individuals, their perspective, and their motivations.
Amber Carden, Essential 2009
Prior to the retreat, I was certain I would know a number of folks as I had been involved in the Austin community for more than 25 years. When I arrived opening day, it turned out I only knew one person. The best part of our class was the process we used to get to know the other 54 folks. It was a life-altering experience. I now see my classmates everywhere…How did I miss them before?!


Monica Williams, Essential 2012
One activity hit me hard. I’d always known that I was more comfortable shouldering the workload than asking for help, but I’d always assumed that was a strength. It took my being blindfolded in the woods for me to “see the light,” and now I try to identify those moments in my everyday work. It’s changed everything for me and I’ve been a part of some of the best projects in my career because of that realization.

Few of us get to spend real time contemplating our work style, where we fit in the community, what we hope to accomplish. The retreat forces very busy people to take a moment and form a tribe and explore those issues together.

P1000268Randy Cubriel, Essential 2016

When I think about the retreat, two moments stick out in my mind: 1) the classmate introduction and personal sharing sessions, and 2) the communication style exercise. During the classmate introductions, I was in awe of my classmates. They’re all successful and accomplished professionals, yet they’re compassionate and engaged in our communities in so many different ways. The communication style exercise was insightful in so many ways—not just to help me understand how to identify other styles, but to properly communicate with and motivate folks. It also opened my eyes to see things in myself and how others react to my style.

When I try to describe the retreat to people, I tell them that I learned more about my classmates than any happy hour could ever reveal—and I also learned things about myself.

Bob Dewitt, Essential 2016

I thought the biggest value that I would get out of the program would be learning about the issues and challenges of Austin. No, not even close. Rather, it was having the opportunity to meet world-class people from all walks of life who are kindred spirits. I am so humbled to know my classmates and to learn from them. The challenges that we will be discussing this year will now be so much easier to evaluate.

The retreat helped to escalate this incredible interaction with my classmates. If you assemble a great team, insurmountable challenges become workable. When you put the quality of people that you’ve assembled in a room and allow them to interact…magic happens.