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Emily Williams Knight has an epiphany in an unexpected place

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Updated: January 24, 2013 6:51PM

I’d just said goodbye to my father at the door of the cardiac operating room, handing him over to a team of people I’d entrusted with his life. My fear was palpable. For the first time in my life, I realized my dad really wasn’t Superman — and there was nothing I could do about it. As I sat in the windowless hospital waiting room, I thought about the community I’d somehow become a part of. I’d formed an unspoken bond — based on fear and hope — with strangers.

I began to study the faces of those strangers, searching for comforting eyes or a reassuring glance. I knew each person had a story. Each person had a contribution to make. And each person was likely reflecting on the same thing: If we were the ones on the operating table, would we feel we’d done enough to make a lasting impact on the world and those we love?

Like a cold January morning, it hit me: I’d have just one chance to make my mark. I considered my own contribution, not just to my family and friends, but to my colleagues. If something happened to me, what would be said about me? What would people remember about me? And most importantly, did I believe I’d really given it my all?

Earlier in my life, it would have been easy to say yes. However, I’d just spent my first year as president of Kendall College — and the question was a bit more difficult for me to answer.

I considered the past nine months. I’d commuted from Dallas to Chicago each week, relocated my young family in the middle of the summer to a new city and completed a comprehensive accreditation visit. I’d attempted to balance things like student services, academics, financial aid and regulatory requirements, which had been incredibly complex. The overall experience of overseeing a four-year college had been, at times, daunting. Though I’m usually someone who thrives on change and chaos, I wondered how I’d made it through 2012 — there were certainly times when giving up seemed the better option.

Sitting in that waiting room, I thought about my father, just two floors away, fighting for his life. I suddenly felt a sense of urgency, a sense that time was quickly passing. I realized that I’d have to fight while I was still able — that I’d have to return to campus with the same vigor and excitement that I urge our students to possess. I’d still have time to leave my mark and make a difference. And no matter how hard the job might become, I’d have to remember that this was my one chance to get it right.

My father survived the operation, and that fact, along with my time spent in that windowless waiting room, taught me a valuable lesson: Never, ever give up. Leave your mark, positively impact others and ensure that when your time comes, you’ve left your children a legacy that your children can be proud of.

Emily Williams Knight donated her fee for writing this column to the Wounded Warrior Project.

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