Nick Wendell is the director for student engagement at South Dakota State University in Brookings, South Dakota. He also runs a community nonprofit in Brookings called The Big Blue Birthday Box, in which he delivers presents to the doorsteps of children in need on their birthdays.

Name: Nick Wendell

City/Town: Brookings, South Dakota

Where else can we connect with you online?

Facebook: Nick Wendell

Twitter: @nickwendell

Instagram: nickwendell711

Who is your community?

I am a life-long South Dakotan with roots planted just west of the Missouri River. I have spent my entire adult life in the Sioux Falls and Brookings area. I try to surround myself with people who value their past but have a vision for their future. I am drawn to those who have a passion for their next big adventure and appreciate the mundane details of daily life. My community is rich with contrast yet bound by a common interest in people and places.

Give us a behind-the-scenes look at your average day.

I try to start most mornings by breaking a sweat (Cross Fit, a long run, answering emails). My deepest conversation of the day is the one I have with my eight-year-old daughter, Amelia, on our drive to school.

I try to be the first guy in the office, so that when others arrive I have had a few minutes to better understand what the day will entail. Most of my day is spent in-and-out of meetings with a wide range of folks – this morning, I had to hustle out of a meeting with the Bangladeshi Students’ Association so I wasn’t late for a presentation.

Somewhere in the midst of most days, I’m also either trying to get a Big Blue Birthday Box delivered or ensure that a member of my volunteer team has the supplies and information they need to get the box on a doorstep before supper.

What challenge in your life or work are you most interested in overcoming?

I find myself striving for congruence between my outward persona and my inner confidence. I don’t think this is a unique challenge among professionals in their thirties. I’ve been in the workforce too long to make a “rookie mistake,” but I don’t have a depth of experience that means I always have an answer. It is essential that I lead with confidence, but I still have days where I wonder if I’ve been promoted beyond competence. My biggest challenge is striking a balance between the me I portray to the world and my inner-dialogue.

Nick Wendell

If you could do any job, what would you do and why?

I have always been intrigued by the world of journalism. For as long as I can remember, I’ve envisioned myself in front of a camera delivering the day’s headlines. For some reason, election cycles always give me the itch. I’m a sucker for a great story. And I think journalism has a responsibility to not only inform, but record the collective history of an era.

What is the most beneficial aspect of living in the OTA region when it comes to your career?

Connectivity. I am so interested in where people come from and who shaped their lives. The OTA region offers me an opportunity to find a connection to people almost instantly. The region is becoming increasingly diverse – which I love – but I find that we still have more that connects us than makes us different.

At what intersection do you live your life?

I live at the intersection of contrast and connection.

Where do you think good ideas come from?

Confidence. Good ideas are born in a place where people feel confident and safe and supported. Children dream with clarity because their creative spirit has yet to be diminished. The most effective teams brainstorm in a chorus where everybody’s voice is valued. Good ideas emerge and are shared from a place of confidence.

What’s one current trend you think will change the world?

Citizen journalism. We no longer live in a media landscape where the public narrative is singularly controlled. Anyone can find a platform to tell their story from their perspective and create change.

In the words of Margaret Mead, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

What’s the best way to put inspiration into action?

When I want to move an idea from possible to probable I begin seeking champions. I find people who will be honest, supportive and hold me accountable. After I speak an idea out loud and am affirmed by someone I respect, I find it nearly impossible not to take action.

What’s the greatest risk you’ve taken?

After spending two years in the workforce, I made the decision to shift careers from advertising to higher education. I took a pay cut and began commuting 100 miles roundtrip daily. My new job came with a promise that I would complete a graduate degree within two years. Suddenly, I was working sixty hours a week and spending nights and weekends in the library. It wasn’t comfortable. It wasn’t practical. It wasn’t even very much fun at first. But, by taking the leap, I found my passion.

Who do you hope to leave a legacy for?

Like most parents, a huge part of what I do everyday is to make my daughter feel cared for, secure, and someday, proud. I don’t only want her to have even bigger opportunities and aspirations than I had, but I want the world she meets beyond my door to be better, more accepting and healthier.

I don’t know if I can change the world, but I refuse to leave her with the impression that I didn’t try.

Who is the most connected person in your life, and what personal characteristics make him or her so well-connected?

I had the opportunity to participate in the Leadership South Dakota program last year and consider my friendship with Rick and Val Melmer to be one of my biggest takeaways. They have lived in a variety of communities throughout South Dakota and have been intentional in their desire to not only meet people, but get to know their stories. Rick connects through his intellect and natural presence as a leader. Val builds connections through a genuine interest in others and her willingness to share her own experiences to benefit other people.

Who is the most creative person in your life, and why?

I am endlessly inspired by my sister, who works as a first grade teacher in my hometown. She infuses creativity into every corner of her classroom and finds new and interesting ways to reach individual students where they are. I am passionate about education and believe that first grade is the most foundational year of elementary school. The creativity my sister brings into her classroom inspires a love of learning in her students.

What passion project are you working on right now? 

As of today, I have a dual-focus. I am passionate about growing The Big Blue Birthday Box and finding a way to bring the program into more communities. I also want to share my message of #HeadUp related to Thyroid Cancer. #HeadUp to be aware of thyroid cancer symptoms. #HeadUp to detect a lump or irregular neck tissue. #HeadUp to look forward after diagnosis and through treatment. And, #HeadUp to send thoughts and prayers to the sky.

In the case of The Big Blue Birthday Box, I am hoping to extend the reach of the program, develop an online presence and inspire others to pursue their passion for enriching their community.

I would like the launch the #HeadUp Initiative to raise thyroid cancer awareness, specifically among young men, and create a network of support among people going through treatment for thyroid cancer and other endocrinological diseases.

I have never been a passive member of a community. From the time I could ride my bike to meetings, I served on the boards of my hometown youth center and church. I care deeply about the places I call home and the people I call neighbors. I wasn’t blessed with a beautiful singing voice, a mind for math or a killer jump shot. I was given the gifts of communication and creativity and strategic planning. When I have an idea or an opinion, I find a way to act.

I recognize my ability to influence others and try to do so in a positive way.