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News & Events for the Smith College Community
Alumnae News August 13, 2019

A Handbook for Life

Rowena Caanen ’17
Rowena Caanen ’17, project and communication coordinator for Global Young Leaders, an initiative of Global Experts Foundation, photographed in the Netherlands.

How do you navigate life’s challenges, stay true to yourself and create the life you really need—not just the one society says you should want? These are questions young people have grappled with for generations. Now Rowena Caanen ’17 is helping to provide some answers.

As project and communication coordinator for the Netherlands-based nonprofit Global Young Leaders, an initiative of the Global Experts Foundation, Caanen created The Decision-Growth Cycle: A Model Based on Real World Experiences of Global Young Leaders, a comprehensive handbook that compiles the stories of eight young leaders from around the world who provide practical advice and tools for thinking through life’s major milestones and biggest decisions. It can be downloaded at no charge.

When Caanen embarked on her search for young leaders, she knew exactly where to look. Among the handbook’s contributors are two recent Smith graduates: Carmen Augusto ’16, originally from Mozambique, and Victoria Melnikova ’16 of Russia. After selecting the eight young leaders, Caanen set up digital and in-person meeting times for the group—including a week in Sicily, where the group honed the decision-making model—and worked with them to develop the handbook’s content. 

The decision-making model presented in the handbook puts a strong emphasis on discovering what is right for you, not the status quo. This, Caanen says, is critical to becoming a leader. “You can only be a good leader when you feel you’re in charge of your life,” she says. “And being in charge of your life means different things to different people.”

Here Caanen talks more about the handbook’s impact and how she’d like to take the decision-making model to schools, colleges and organizations around the world.

An authentic life
By learning to express who you are, what you want to say, and what you think, you’re creating a connection with yourself. From that connection, you feel happy. That’s valuable in your personal life and in your career because then you create the life that you want.

A project by young people for young people
This project started because of the anxiety over the many questions young people face: “What do I want to do with my life?” “What do I do after high school?” “What do I do after college?” Challenges are very different when you’re in the real world.

Looking for leaders, starting with Smith
When I reached out to Carmen Augusto ’16 and Victoria Melnikova ’16, they immediately said yes. Victoria said that she wished she had had a handbook like this when she was starting college. She is a web designer and actually designed the Global Young Leaders website. To find the rest of our young leaders, I talked to people from various high schools and colleges. We ended up with a group of men and women from all over the world.



The method
The young leaders came together in Sicily to talk about their life stories and how they got from A to B to C to D, with all the twists and turns. From there we focused on big decisions they had made and looked at the crossroads, the big turning points, and what brought them to where they are now. We looked at these decisions, not only from the moment they made the decision, but also what happened before, what happened after. From there we created a decision-making model that could apply to many situations.

“I don’t feel alone”
The handbook came out in March, and young people are responding with comments like, “I’m not the only one who deals with this pressure,” “I’m not the only one who worries about it,” “I don’t feel alone.” Because of the reaction, we want to follow up the handbook with workshops where we can bring together young people in the same way we did in Sicily. We already have the model. We’ve started with workshops in Amsterdam and soon will be conducting workshops in Rotterdam, Valencia, the Caribbean and Nigeria. We can also create workshops tailored to specific groups; for instance young people in the tech industry or for athletes, or workshops that focus on the challenges women deal with in creating their life.

Because of Smith …
One of the reasons I chose to study at Smith was the open curriculum. Having the chance to try out different things is one of the most important things that I will carry on in my life. And that is also one of the key conclusions in the handbook; it is important to try and fail and see what you like. Smith also prepared me to be independent. Being on your own for the first time, a lot of questions come up, which is what the handbook is all about.


For more information about bringing workshops to your area, email Rowena Caanen ’17 via the Global Young Leaders website.