Leading by Example

Chancellor Bennie Harris serves as a mentor to rising senior Zach McQueen.

“Mentoring made personal”— these words are more than just part of the University of South Carolina Upstate’s branding campaign. They describe the experience of students like rising senior Zach McQueen, vice president of the Student Government Association. He has been mentored by Chancellor Bennie L. Harris ever since they met in a hallway on campus during what was, for each of them, their first year on campus.

“Dr. Harris has taught me the principles of servant leadership and the importance of meeting people where they are. He has helped me to know how to become a source of change,” McQueen says. “He also has taught me to listen to those around me, to better understand their unique perspectives and life experiences. He has taught me about integrity, empathy, and the pursuit of excellence. He has provided me with a compass, of sorts, that guides my own journey.”

This interview has been edited for clarity.

Q: When did you first meet Chancellor Harris?

A: His first day was my orientation day. We have sort of grown in this institution together. He stopped me and just asked me how I was doing. I knew him from the article on him in Upstate Magazine. That led to more hallway conversations.

This relationship allowed me to find out who I really am. When I came here, I was a nursing major for two days. I did not know what I wanted to do. I just knew I wanted to go to college. Dr. Harris helped me identify my strengths, gave me the opportunity to think about them, and let me decide what to do next.

This allows for earlier success. Having a mentor allowed me to find my path early on. I’m not going to have to spend five or 10 years figuring that out on my own.

Q: Why did you choose to get involved with student government at USC Upstate?

A: I kept hearing about “finding your avenue,” and as a commuter student I knew that was important. It worked out well for me. Student government was not something that I was involved in before coming to USC Upstate. I got involved and found my avenue.

Now I know that when I get out of undergrad, I’m going to get a graduate degree and then go into higher education administration. I’ll make that my career.

Q: How has Upstate transformed you as a leader?

A: It’s put me in the right place at the right time. If I were a student at an institution of 30,000 or 40,000 folks, that would not have happened. Because I was able to find my niche here, and because of Chancellor Harris, I was able to be around wonderful leaders, and they led me to other wonderful leaders who all really inspired me and developed me.

I imagine someday I might be the president of an institution. That’s my goal, though I take it day by day. I like small schools. I think that’s where I fit the best. It’s important to find the right place for you. That’s something Dr. Harris has taught me — the piece of paper doesn’t mean anything if you don’t have the skills to use it.

Q: What makes the chancellor a good leader and mentor?

A: There's a lack of pomp and circumstance to a lot of the stuff that he does. He’s there to answer questions and give advice. He’s someone who pushes us up the hill so we can stand on top of it and shout our message.

He’s certainly a servant leader. He helps with big life things, like career and family. But it’s also the little stuff — the opportunities you can take on today or tomorrow that will help push you into whatever else you need to do.

He also knows that sometimes you have to say uncomfortable things that people don’t want to hear, and to help people when they’ve made mistakes. But he always reminds us that we shouldn’t let those moments keep us from going and doing great things.

He is concerned about helping students reach their highest potential here. He has continued to connect me to opportunities to get me where I need to be.

He knows what his purpose is, and he knows how to fulfill his purpose. So for him to be a mentor to me, when that’s exactly what I need right now, has been helpful. He leads by example, knows what he’s gotta do, and he gets it done. And he’s willing to bring people along.

It’s not about Bennie Harris. It’s about USC Upstate. It’s about Spartanburg County. It’s about the Upstate region. It’s about the state of South Carolina.