Ten-year-old AJ Smith was sitting on the floor of his home armed with a poster board, markers and an idea. His new album cover was almost ready. It didn’t seem to matter that no album existed. He wrote down the titles of songs he had not yet written.
“You have to start somewhere,” he said.
That passion and drive to initiate something is the common denominator that allows him to communicate and reach out to others, whether as a soloist performing for his audience, a member of the NYU Lacrosse team, or an RA mentoring younger students.
Just last month, Smith was named a winner of NYU Steinhardt’s Songwriting Scholar Award — an honor created by the Songwriters Hall of Fame and NYU Steinhardt’s Department of Music and Performing Arts — and opened for the legendary band The Eagles at the Steinhardt Vision Awards Gala. The event’s aim was to raise money for scholarships. Before even being asked to perform, Smith knew he had to get involved. After all, as a beneficiary of scholarships himself, it was a natural impulse to try and give back to future NYU students. For Smith, songwriting was the vehicle through which he knew he could have the greatest impact.
“When I play a song that I’ve written for somebody, the goal is not just for them to enjoy it, but for them to walk away with an experience that maybe they can communicate,” he explained.
However, it wasn’t music but NYU’s lacrosse team that netted Smith a sense of community he had searched for during his freshman year. Because of his determined work ethic and strong sense of leadership, Smith was elected the team’s captain for his sophomore year. But while this was validation for what others saw in him, he sees it as much more.
“I look at leadership not necessarily as an accomplishment but an opportunity,” he said.
“I see it as a means to help other people find the sense of community that I found freshman year.” He added with a smile, showing that he has reached that comfort zone.
Now a senior in his third year as captain, Smith has used his position to elevate the program’s recognition with hopes of also lifting NYU, the first collegiate lacrosse program in the nation, back into the ranks of the National College Athletic Association. Winning games and attracting talented players to the program are important factors, but it isn’t sufficient to make that jump. Helping the women’s team rise to that same level while raising the profile of NYU’s athletic programs in general is also at the top of his to-do list. As vice president of the Club Sports Advisory Committee he helped create, he works to increase the presence of club sports on campus, raise school spirit and athletic awareness and bring athletic groups together.
Becoming an example for others on campus is something, he said, that is key to his success. As a second-year RA at Third North residence hall, he sees a great amount of responsibility in helping others develop skills that college allowed him to develop. This sense of reciprocity is part of passing the torch on to others — whether it is a resident, a teammate or a random student he sits with at a dining hall. Regardless of what role he is filling, the goal remains the same — ensuring that they have as positive an experience as he has enjoyed at a place that feels like home.
“I didn’t realize that it was possible to have so many different aspects of relationships and friendships that might not necessarily be in the same circles,” Smith said. “But I brought a lot of them together.”
A version of this article appeared in the Thursday, Dec. 13 print edition. Chris DiNardo is opinion editor. Email him at [email protected]