What do you do in the face of adversity?
Do you back down? Do you counter it with resilience? Life was never meant to be easy, and it’s the hardships, or rather, how we get through them, that define us, change us, and help us grow.
Greg Wilkins, MSU-Mankato’s Associate Director of the Centennial Student Union and Student Activities is a living example of how adversities are a catalyst of change and personal growth.
In the face of adversity
Born in Chicago, Illinois, Greg Wilkins was brought up in a multi-ethnic and multinational family on the north side of the city in the Ravenswood neighborhood. As a cross-cultural neighborhood, it was steeped in urban culture and filled with people from all walks of life who spoke anything from English, Spanish, Polish, German, Greek, Swedish, to Italian. It was here that Wilkins and his family built traditions, celebrated their culture with neighbors, and most importantly, where his mother planted the seed of his future passion.
“After World War II, my mother left the United States to help rebuild Europe,” Wilkins said. “As a young boy, hearing the stories of her time in France and Germany inspired me to travel; My mind raced with possibilities.”
Wilkins’s optimism and acceptance from his surrounding community were high until the age of nine, when he and his family left the familiarity of urban Chicago and moved to the small town of Eustis, Florida. During the 1970s and 1980s, race relations were an extremely divisive issue that helped shape a portion of the adversity Wilkins would face during his lifetime. Being the only family of color in his neighborhood and church, Wilkins soon learned that they stood out to the rest and that racism was alive and thriving.
“Our family stuck out like a sore thumb; we were the pepper in the salt,” Wilkins said. “There was no escaping our differentness.”
His family, having grown during his time in Florida, is made up of seven children of varying races, including African American, Asian, and Caucasian. The family diversity, although unique, is not the only thing that differentiated Wilkins from others. His sexual orientation, fully embraced now, was a part that others didn’t take kindly to.
“When I was ten years old, I was ready to end my life – not because of growing up in a multicultural family but because people assumed I was gay and made me feel insignificant; I did not see [the] hope at the end of the tunnel,” Wilkins said. “My local community didn’t understand my global perspective, what it meant to be a queer kid, and my love of all things different. It was my mother who saved me when [she] said: ‘God does not make junk.”’
While the words of Wilkins’s mother gave him the reassurance he needed, he had found another source of support: the Young People’s Theatre at Bay Street Players. The theatre, a part of the Historic Eustis Downtown Entertainment District, meant more to Wilkins than performance and entertainment.
Life was about living; I already knew how to survive.Greg Wilkins
“As a performer, I learned the value of collaboration, taking risks, and learning by doing,” Wilkins said. “It made a big impact as I found a group of people that embraced difference as something special, rather than casting it out. I had found somewhere that accepted me and allowed me to grow.”
As a part of his growth, Wilkins, at the age of 16, moved to St. Louis, Missouri, to work an assortment of jobs that would support him and his decision to attend prep school. At the same time, he decided the suppression of his true self had gone on too long and officially came out to the world.
“I was no longer going to hide the person I was and was going to spread my wings and fly,” he said. “Life was about living; I already knew how to survive.”
As a newly open individual, it was time to move on to the next part of his life: college. As an undergraduate student, Wilkins changed his major five times out of a deep sense of curiosity. He often asked himself: how can I choose one path when I want to explore them all?
“I had no idea what I wanted to do because everything I saw and participated in was amazing; I wanted it all,” Wilkins explained. “For me, it was like going to an all-you-can-eat buffet, and you want to taste everything on the menu. My eyes were bigger than my tummy.”
I’m always tickled when a former student sends me a note, email, or stops by for an office visit and shares with me how I influenced their life.Greg Wilkins
Five major changes and two graduations later, Wilkins now finds himself as the Associate Director for the Centennial Student Union and Student Activities at MSU, where he has strived to better the students and their work on campus for the past 12-plus years.
“My team and I invite, involve, and inspire students, helping them shape the ordinary into the extraordinary while creating Maverick Memories that impact the lives of the one and the many,” Wilkins explained. “I’m always tickled when a former student sends me a note, email, or stops by for an office visit and shares with me how I influenced their life.”
A world of change
Despite a difficult upbringing, Wilkins chose generosity over animosity, fueling his passion for social justice by reflecting on his past adversities. Social justice, defined by Wilkins, is finding the balance between communities and the larger society to focus on wealth disparities, equity, equality, and opportunity. To reach as many communities as possible, he went global.
“As a lifelong learner, I find joy in getting to know others that are different from myself; hence, I seek to understand and learn with a global lens versus a lens of American exceptionalism,” Wilkins said. “By working, traveling, and volunteering abroad, it has informed my global perspective transcending nation-states.”
Wilkins began his work abroad in Monteverde, Costa Rica, but has since contributed his time in a ‘few’ places like Cambodia, Vietnam, Burma, Thailand, Chile, Argentina, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Russia, Australia, New Zealand, Singapore, Malaysia, Borneo, and Bangladesh. With the help of nonprofits and nongovernmental organizations, Wilkins has completed powerful work such as promoting HIV/AIDS education, sea turtle conservation, reforestation, teaching, building homes, advocating upcycling, working with impoverished LGBTQ youth, landmine awareness, women and girls education, and community art projects. As soon as Wilkins first experienced what the world had to offer and realized what he needed to contribute to it, he was ready to take on a journey of a lifetime.
“Once I got bit by the travel bug, I was hooked,” Wilkins said. “I decided that whatever my age would be [is] how many countries in the world I needed to visit – 20 years old, 20 countries; 40 years old, 40 countries.”
Creating a life of change, impacting the lives of the one or the many.Greg Wilkins personal mission statement
Having traveled a third of the Earth, Wilkins had exposure to opportunities abroad that have not only been insightful but have, in turn, contributed to the person he’s become today. And as for the future, Wilkins looks to the past to guide him.
“In 1985, as an undergraduate at Warren Wilson College, I wrote my personal vision statement,” Wilkins explained. “It’s something I hold close and [it] keeps me focused. I continue to live and celebrate the mantra of ‘creating a life of change, impacting the lives of the one or the many.”’
A universal challenge
The future of traveling abroad and fulfilling his mantra ceased in the wake of COVID-19. Amid the early pandemic turmoil in March 2020, Wilkins found himself in Italy, or rather, stuck in Italy. The country closed and seemingly went quiet, and the hum of the hallway fluorescent lights and refrigerator were the only things Wilkins could hear, as he was the only guest in a four-story youth hostel.
“Streets once filled with throngs of people now reminded me of a b-rated zombie movie as everything came to a standstill and [ I was] waiting for the film director to project ‘action!’’’ Wilkins said.
Returning to the United States also seemed like a movie, as chaos and havoc spread throughout the country. Unlike Italy, the U.S. wasn’t addressing the issue at a fast rate, and more importantly, wasn’t united on the best courses of action. Wilkins soon made a realization that being stuck in Italy may have been for the best.
“The Italians cooperated and worked together to find solutions in this trying time; People were reasonable,” Wilkins explained. “It was then and there I wished I had remained in Italy – despite not speaking the language, having a cavernous space to haunt all alone, and the city to myself. To top it off, I missed gelato, fresh bread, artisan cheese, and wine that cost less than a bottle of water.”
Wilkins’s morale may have been low, but his hopes were still high.
“I look forward to returning to Italy, or for that matter, any international destination,” Wilkins said. “Let’s see where the road may lead.”
The winding road has led Wilkins to his passions and to overcome some obstacles. Throughout times of adversity, he’s fought off the presence of failure, resisted the pressure to fit the narratives of others, and in the end, stayed true to himself. He’s proud of the story he’s telling, but the question he has for all of us is, are we?
“Each of us is the protagonist of our own story,” Wilkins said. “How do you want the story to be told? What is your role in the story? How do you want to be remembered? In the end, I have been happy, and I have been sad. I choose F-A-B-U-L-O-U-S!”