Student Leadership Institute

By Anne Hartman

Tyler Chan hoped to gain a better understanding of himself and how he could use his strengths. Nala Bodden was looking to broaden her connections on campus. Liam Rossman wanted to be challenged to develop an innovative idea and see the project through.

These goals led Chan, Bodden, and Rossman—all first-years in the College—to join 27 of their peers in the Student Leadership Institute (SLI). Run through the Center for Leadership and Involvement, SLI is UChicago’s take on an emerging leadership program.

SLI unites first- and second-year College students, who explore aspects of leadership and the different ways to be a leader, and in the process gain a better grasp of their personal strengths. Students engage in biweekly sessions during Winter and Spring Quarters, and the experience is capped off with the presentation of student-developed projects, each aiming to better the UChicago community.

“We’re at a funny time in our lives, where most of us are changing communities, we’re apart from our parents, our values are changing, and we’re growing as people away from the people who have influenced us our whole lives,” Chan says. “Right now it’s a matter of experimenting, figuring out what you’re good at, what you’re not so good at, what you like doing. I think SLI is a step in building who you are as a person.”

During biweekly sessions, students are joined by leaders on campus and within the community, who give their perspectives on leadership and influencing others. Jessica Hulten and Matthew Sackel from the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center spoke about ways to implement positive change. Seth Patterson, the associate director of chapel operations at Rockefeller Chapel, gave his insights on public speaking and persuasion. In another session, students explored privilege and the responsibility that comes with leadership. The cohort also visited and learned from leaders at Heartland Alliance, an anti-poverty organization, and the Chicago Innovation Exchange, a center helping scholars and entrepreneurs translate their ideas into businesses.

“What I find most valuable from those sessions is hearing what people’s experiences have been,” Rossman says. “There’s definitely a focus on building leadership skills, but not so much on how you should be a leader, more on how we can discover for ourselves what we feel personally should guide leadership.”

The students’ definition of leadership typically evolves during their time in the program, says Carrie Grogan, assistant director of student leadership development.

“I think oftentimes students enter leadership positions or opportunities thinking that if you’re not president of an RSO or you’re not a CEO of a business you’re not a leader,” she says. “This institute, this experience really teaches them that leadership is everywhere, even among their peers, and they can all display qualities of leadership.”

The insights imparted during the biweekly sessions not only help redefine what it means to be a leader; they also give students tools for successfully working with others to carry out SLI’s capstone project, which has students working in smaller groups of five to brainstorm an idea that will benefit UChicago. Students develop these projects over Winter Quarter, and present their ideas to a panel of judges comprised of staff from various University offices, who give feedback and choose two to three projects to fund.

This year, the judges opted to fund three projects: the Life Skills Series, UC the World, and Pay It Forward. Over Spring Quarter, the groups fine-tuned their projects and developed a budget.  

Focusing primarily on first-year students, the Life Skills Series are workshops that help participants develop practical skills for college life. The idea, Bodden says, was developed as the group discussed their struggles to adapt to life on campus. Sessions will be held in Autumn Quarter and will cover a range of topics. A finance workshop will help students navigate taxes and loans, open a bank account, and effectively manage their money. During a fitness session, students can get familiarized with the Ratner Athletics Center, developing a fitness routine, and preventing injury. Students can also learn how to create quick, healthy meals in their residence hall and how to eat healthfully during a nutrition session. The SLI group is collaborating with different partners on campus—such as the Ratner Athletics programming office, Dr. Holly Benjamin of Student Health Services, and the RSO Moneythink—to develop the workshops.

“My favorite part is the knowledge that this is actually going to happen for our group,” Bodden says. “We can start to visualize it, we know it’s going to happen in the fall quarter, and we really hope it will have the impact we want it to have.”

UC the World will take UChicago students to different areas in Chicago, helping them not only gain a deeper appreciation for the city, but also the diverse cultures that reside within it, Chan says. The program will provide transportation to two local events each quarter. Students will visit Pilsen for Cinco de Mayo, Lincoln Park for Greek Fest, the Loop to shop the stalls at the Christkindlmarket, and Arlington Heights for the Japan Festival.

Pay It Forward aims to create a culture of kindness on campus. With their project funding, the group purchased umbrellas to be left around campus, in hopes that students would use them and pass them on to someone else in need of staying dry.  The group is also introducing compliment cards featuring a simple confidence booster, which students can hand off to a peer after they receive them. Next year, the group will work to fill care packages for campus security guards and pass out roses on Valentine’s Day.

Students presented their final projects to a group of students, staff, and faculty in May. Chan, Bodden, and Rossman agree that their time in SLI was worthwhile, giving them benefits that will last throughout their experience at UChicago.

“What I discovered is that being a leader is being able to see a need in any community and act on it and find ways to improve the situation and help progress societies and human interactions,” Chan says. “I think the Student Leadership Institute has made me more aware of the issues around me and the ways I can play a role in their improvement.”

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