Creating the Leaders of Tomorrow

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Variety of Programs Teach Skills and Provide Hands-On Learning

Leadership skills such as decision-making, problem solving, and conflict management routinely top employers’ lists of desired talents for new college hires. In fact, the Job Outlook 2018 Survey conducted by the National Association of Colleges and Employers found that nearly 75 percent of employers seek leadership as a key attribute on résumés. Similarly, as the American workplace becomes ever more inclusive, employers recognize the importance of having leaders who can inspire diverse teams and communicate across differences. For this reason, a number of universities and nonprofit organizations offer unique programs that allow students to develop and practice leadership skills among diverse groups of peers.

[Above: Blue Chip students in their program t-shirts on the University of Arizona campus]

Visiting Professor Effley Brooks meets with student volunteers to assist in recruiting a more diverse student applicant pool to the Pioneer Leadership Program.

Pioneer Leadership Program
At the University of Denver (UD), the Pioneer Leadership Program (PLP) has been in place since 1995. Entering freshmen apply to the highly selective program, which accepts roughly 88 students annually and offers them an academic minor in leadership as well the opportunity to reside in a diverse living and learning community. Although UD has a predominantly white student population, over 40 percent of program participants are members of underrepresented groups.

Linda G. Olson

“Employers want leaders who can work with teams that are not homogeneous, so we select participants to create a diverse community with different perspectives,” explains PLP Director Linda G. Olson, PhD, who also serves as executive director of learning communities and civic engagement for the university.

Students are selected for PLP based on previous experience as well as having an interest in serving in leadership roles on campus, in their communities, and — eventually — in the workplace.

Throughout the four-year program, participants take PLP leadership classes that are highly collaborative and focused on teamwork while helping each person develop his or her own skills. For example, students work in groups to practice communicating across differences and making decisions that are inclusive of diverse perspectives.

Outside the classroom, PLP scholars lead community service projects that require them to research and propose solutions for meeting the needs of local nonprofit organizations and underrepresented groups on campus and in the community. Past projects have included developing a guide to help first-generation students navigate the process of applying for college admission and financial aid, creating performing arts curriculum specifically for students with disabilities, and writing an intervention guide to help middle school teachers better identify and work with students who have mental health issues.

In addition to these experiences, the residential component of the program makes PLP unique. “We believe the opportunity to live and learn together leads to a more complete understanding of what it means to lead in a diverse community,” says Olson, adding that PLP increased the number of freshmen accepted into the program from roughly 66 to 88 in 2017.

With 1,400 incoming freshmen applying to the program, Olson says this expansion represents UD’s commitment to meeting student demand for the leadership skills that will allow them to thrive in the modern workplace and give back to their communities. “Because so many students have indicated an interest, we are piloting a few new academic courses that focus on leadership that will be open to all students,” she adds.

Blue Chip students participating in a team-building experience on a high ropes course.

The Blue Chip Leadership Experience
The Blue Chip Leadership Experience (Blue Chip) at the University of Arizona (UA) began in 1999. Every year, nearly 600 freshmen participate in the program, which consists of workshops, team-building activities, and community service.

Tina Neil
Tina Neil

“We’ve designed the program … so that students can learn the foundational concepts of leadership, begin building a network, and learn to work with diverse groups of people [in their freshman year],” says Tina Neil, senior director of leadership and career education at UA. After completing the first year of Blue Chip, students can choose to continue with the program for the duration of their college career by taking specific classes and completing unique projects that benefit community organizations while allowing them to develop critical skills such as communicating across differences.

“Alumni often tell me that when they were interviewed for their first jobs, they were always referring to their experiences in Blue Chip as they answered questions about teamwork, decision-making, problem solving, and conflict management,” Neil says. “These are leadership skills that they gain in our program through service projects and classroom lessons.”

Blue Chip students participate in a case study competition in which diverse teams of peers work with local nonprofit groups to address real-life issues facing these organizations. In addition, the third year of the program requires students to complete internships with service organizations where they can gain practical experience working in inclusive environments and meeting the needs of diverse communities.

Throughout the program, diversity and inclusion topics are identified and discussed, says Neil. “No matter what field our students choose as their careers, they have to know how to work with and to lead groups of people from different backgrounds,” she explains. “We talk about how to recognize differences and how to be inclusive — to make sure everyone has a chance to participate in a decision.”

Students and faculty take part in the Teach For America Rise event
Students and faculty take part in the Teach For America Rise event

Teach for America Rise Student Leadership Conference
The Teach for America (TFA) Rise Student Leadership Conference is a national leadership program for college students. The all-expenses-paid conference saw 100 participants attend the inaugural event in 2017. The  four-day conference was created to help students become leaders who are prepared to address inequalities, says Apollonia Trujillo Gallegos, managing director for the TFA Early Engagement Team.

Apollonia Trujillo Gallegos
Apollonia Trujillo Gallegos

“The event was so successful, we are expanding it to allow 200 students to attend in 2018,” she says. “Applicants are sophomores or juniors who already have a leadership position or are emerging as leaders on their campus.” The conference is open to students in any academic major; TFA recruiters and campus liaisons make certain that all groups on campus know about the conference to ensure a diverse applicant pool, she adds.

Last year’s participants heard from community leaders and TFA alumni about their experiences and attended work sessions that covered personal leadership styles, the ways in which values affect leadership, team management, project planning and execution, and working across lines of difference. Through the use of a personal assessment tool, attendees also had an opportunity to identify their strongest attributes so they can “leverage their unique strengths to improve their leadership skills,” she says.

Interactive breakout sessions covered topics such as operating and managing an organization, building relationships, diversity and inclusion, and inspiring others.

“The goal was to engage and focus participants on leadership, and we accomplished that, according to feedback from participants,” says Gallegos.●

Sheryl S. Jackson is a contributing writer for INSIGHT Into Diversity. This article was published in our April 2018 issue.