• Leading the Way

    UChicago students benefit from leadership development initiatives
    Group of students wave at the camera

By Carmen Marti

When Katie Burkhart, a fourth-year student in the College, attended a leadership program last winter quarter, she was surprised at the approach. She and her classmates spent the evening playing improvisation games.

“That was such an unexpected thing for a leadership program,” Burkhart said. “But it was about non-traditional paths and how to have an entrepreneurial leadership attitude. I really liked that part of the program.”

That event, which brought to campus an improv comedian turned corporate executive, was part of the Student Leadership Institute (SLI), one of the three programs run through UChicago Leads, the home for all University programming in leadership development.

Launched in 2013 as a way to holistically teach students the leadership skills that lead to success, UChicago Leads seeks to develop capacities such as innovation, humility, resilience and adaptability, and interpersonal skills. UChicago Leads introduces a new leadership development model to UChicago students, one based on successfully finding your appropriate role on a team to accomplish goals.

“This method, which is more about developing personal leadership skills than how to become a CEO, has been a growing trend in student life programming,” said Jimmy Brown, Associate Director for Student Leadership Development at the University of Chicago. “We’re working on skills that lead to success, no matter what. It’s not about a position at a company, it’s about helping students recognize their natural talents.”

UChicago Leads includes three leadership development programs, student organization training, and advising for RSO leaders. The process begins the summer before first-year students come to campus. At that time, new students are invited to log into StrengthsQuest, an online assessment tool that helps users identify their talents.

Bruce Chi, a first-year student from China, said he’s finding StrengthsQuest useful and has applied to the Student Leadership Institute. “When I finished the StengthsQuest test this summer, it had already helped me. When I saw the scores, I realized it was accurate. It made me more sure of my skills.”

Another of the three UChicago Leads program, “A Way with Words,” focuses on communications skills and public speaking. Launched last winter, the workshop series is run in conjunction with consultants from Washington, D.C., who come to Chicago to coach participants. The course, which is open to all students, was so popular last year, that staff hope to provide it in the residence halls so more students have access.

The Student Leadership Institute, the most established of the three programs, launched in late 2011. Based on a curriculum of team activities and guest speakers, SLI involves workshops of 15 to 20 students who meet every other week for two hours during winter and spring quarters.

With limited space available, students interested in participating in SLI must submit a written application and then meet for an interview. Those selected for the SLI program participate in the speakers’ series, and at the end of winter quarter, they are placed in working teams of five or six members. A fourth-year peer mentor works with them on a proposal for a project that will make a positive contribution to the UChicago community. They present their ideas to high-level leadership at UChicago who select which projects to support with University funding. 

“This is where the resilience piece comes in,” Brown said. “But students not funded get put on funded projects.”

Thomas Remissong, a second-year student in the College, was on one of the teams that won funding last year with a proposal to engage young alumni in University philanthropy. In addition, Remissong was a member of one of two UChicago undergraduate teams to make it into the semi-final round of the 2013 Accenture Management Consulting (AMC) U.S. Innovation Challenge.

“I learned a lot from the Student Leadership Institute,” Remissong said. “The skills we demonstrated in the Innovation Challenge were leadership-oriented. And, I use those skills every day when I work in student organizations on campus. I wouldn’t be doing the things I’m doing today if I hadn’t taken SLI.”

Remissong said the true value of SLI was underscored when he was sitting in interviews with various companies. “I could refer to SLI for answers to half the questions,” he said. “They asked about skills, I knew my skills.”

It’s just that sort of confidence Brown is hoping to instill. “I know that asking students questions and asking them to reflect is invaluable,” Brown said. “I was given those opportunities as an undergraduate. It makes a difference.”

Essentially, UChicago Leads is based on a new definition of leadership. According to Eleanor Daugherty, Assistant Vice President for Student Life and Associate Dean of the College, it’s about engagement.

“We are teaching students to be captains of their own engagement,” she said. “We want to ensure that when they graduate they have tools to be engaged in their careers.”

And that they have been educated holistically. “We’re not just developing the mind and intellect here,” Brown said. “We’re developing the full person.”