By Belen Edwards
UChicago Leads, a program of the Center for Leadership and Involvement (CLI), provides students with campus-wide leadership opportunities, including a pre-orientation program designed to help incoming first years explore their leadership style.
“What we want participants to recognize is that in their time at the University, they’re never going to hear a universal definition of leadership,” said Casey Talbot, Assistant Director of Student Leadership Development in CLI. “We give them the tools to craft what leadership means to them.”
Like several of this year’s participants, Watson Lubin wanted to join the Leads Pre-Orientation Program to figure out this “universal” definition of leadership. However, by the end of the program, Lubin said he “learned that there was no universal strategy to leading. In fact, the best form of leadership comes from leveraging personal strengths and weakness on behalf of and for the goal or group in mind.”
Rose Pikman, another member of this year’s cohort, cited one activity as changing the way she thought about leadership. Talbot gave participants a series of statements, such as “good leaders are ethical” or “leaders are born, not created.” Students stood to different sides of the room depending on whether they agreed, then discussed their opinions.
“The exercise provoked us to think more deeply about leadership than we have ever thought about it in our lives,” said Pikman. “It made us pleasantly uncomfortable.”
Learning about the differing leadership styles comes in large part thanks to the fact that the Leads Pre-Orientation Program exposes participants to leadership in different areas, including sports and athletics, arts, politics, and civic engagement.
This diversity excited Kelly Zhang, another participant in the program. Zhang said that Leads “exceeded my expectations from the start when I saw the week’s itinerary and noticed that it included experts from a wide variety of fields, such as STEM, athletics, and the performing arts.”
Visits during this year’s Leads program included trips to Wrigley Field to meet management at the Chicago Cubs, Dark Matter Coffee to learn about entrepreneurial leadership, and Argonne National Laboratory to see how leaders in STEM fields operate.
“Some of the Leads Pre-Orientation Program is a little “brand name” exciting, but we also try to make sure that participants get connected to not just the fun, tourist-y parts of Chicago but also the part of the city where they’re living and learning and growing” said Talbot.
For example, Leads participants met with the Head Coaches of the Women’s Soccer, Volleyball, and Football teams, to see how skill sets they may have learned about on their visit to the Cubs can apply to campus leadership as well.
Similarly, they discussed leadership within neighborhood communities with a panel of community activists from the Hyde Park and Woodlawn areas. “They hear from this wonderful panel about what it’s like to be a leader in this community, what the challenges are, and how they see the University playing a role in making change on the South Side,” said Talbot.
As well as connecting with leaders across Chicago, participants in the Leads Pre-Orientation Program also connected with current student leaders at the University. Three peer facilitators who previously completed the Leads program helped facilitate activities with participants.
“Peer facilitators are making connections with the students so that they feel like they have a resource who’s a peer and who understands what they went through,” said Talbot. “That gives us an opportunity to provide another leadership activity for those students because the peer facilitators are learning how to be mentors.”
One of the peer facilitators this year was second-year Andrew Shen. “Last year's program taught me a lot about my leadership strengths and character traits, and I definitely felt that the peer facilitators helped bring that out in me,” said Shen. “I found being a peer facilitator to be even more rewarding because of the impact I made on the participants.”
Of course, participants bonded with one another and became familiar with their different styles of leadership. Lubin cited the “vulnerable conversations” students had with one another during the week as being one of his best memories of the program, as well as the sharing of everyone’s leadership stories on the last day of the program.
Yi Liu, another participant in this year’s program, also mentioned the impact hearing other participants’ leadership stories had on her. “We all came from different backgrounds and had different experiences,” she said. “Everyone brought a unique perspective to the table, and these stories really made me realize that I have much to learn from my peers in my next four years at the University of Chicago.”
Talbot remarked on the closeness of participants in previous years. “The biggest thing that we see is the community they build within the cohort,” she said. “We love to do a touchpoint halfway through the year where we check back with those thirty students, and we see how they’ve stayed friends, how they’ve stayed close.”
Now in its fifth year, the Leads Pre-Orientation Program has seen members of its previous cohorts win student leadership awards or become active within the Institute of Politics, the Office of Civic Engagement, and Center of Identity and Inclusion.
“We see these students get really involved in deep and meaningful ways across the university,” said Talbot. “We’ve given them the tools to seek opportunities elsewhere on campus and in Chicago, and we want them to take this incredible potential that they have and put it to use in every possible place they can.”