Jean Sara Rohe: A New (School) Role Model of Fearlessness

Fearlessness has a new name -- and it's Jean Sara Rohe. (Read her terrific exclusive HuffPost blog here.) As you no doubt know by now, she is the young woman who bravely -- and with dignity -- confronted Sen. John McCain during his appearance at the commencement ceremonies of New York's New School on Friday, disturbed by his support for the war in Iraq.

Rohe was one of two distinguished students invited by the faculty to speak to the graduates before McCain delivered his speech. But when it was her turn to address the crowd, she announced that she was throwing out the prepared remarks she was going to make to address McCain directly.

With the Senator, and likely 2008 presidential candidate, seated just a few feet away (shades of Stephen Colbert taking on Bush), Rohe said, "The senator does not reflect the ideals upon which this university was founded," drawing cheers from the crowd. (The rest of her impassioned remarks are at the end of her blog.)

Can you imagine the courage that took? Not just to speak truth to power, but to do so in such a personal and public way?

After McCain delivered his speech, New School president Bob Kerrey took to the stage and praised both McCain's and Rohe's speeches as "two acts of bravery." And fearlessness.

Rohe is a role model to young women -- indeed all women -- everywhere. For fear of speaking up, speaking out, and speaking our minds is one women's greatest fears -- and the subject of the latest excerpt from my new book.


Before women can lead in the world, we first have to confront one of our worst fears: Speaking out in the world. Sure, many men are afraid of speaking out too. But it's different for women. Nothing makes us more visible and therefore more subject to the criticisms specifically reserved for women in power. Every time we speak out, we might as well slap a target on our backs.

Yet it's hard, if not impossible, to be a leader without being able or willing to publicly articulate your goals and beliefs. This is clearly a fear women have to learn to overcome. And I know from personal experience that it can be done.

Achieving fearlessness in expressing our views is not a one-step process. Nor will it be a smooth journey without some deep potholes along the way. But I can say this: You'll never achieve it without taking the first step. "First assume the position," as a friend put it.

Stephanie Kang, an 11th grader at the Archer School for Girls, chose to join her debate team to get used to speaking out.

"There was something about speaking in front of an audience that terrified me," she says. "I would constantly create excuses to avoid making speeches and was ambivalent about whether my ideas were smart enough or whether the audience would be receptive. I knew it was absurd, but I simply did not know how to get over it.

"Then I realized that it's all about taking risks and relying on impulse. How do I even know this fear is legitimate if I never take the opportunity to test it? Joining the debate team was a landmark for me. Throughout each debate, I would remind myself of the power and liberation of having and exercising a voice; and how I could not let a trivial fear squash that opportunity. This experience opened up a new window in my life -- I was not a victim but a conqueror. My justifications for my fear were merely façades, and I began to believe in my capabilities."

Of course, it's easy to move forward when you are not risking much. But it's when we risk being humiliated or attacked that our fear tells us to shrink and hold back. And it's at those moments that it's most crucial to keep going. That's what Jean Rohe did. "I wanted to go home and I was sick to my stomach," she wrote. "Then I was on stage staring out at thousands of people and trying not to vomit." But she kept going, and by doing so became a role model in fearlessness -- not because she wasn't afraid, but because she didn't let her fears stop her.