Intensive program teaches students a ‘healthy disregard for the impossible’
by Michelle Simmons
March 23, 2010
In January, students and staff participated in Dickinson’s first LeaderShape program, building community and creating a “blueprint” for change.
In mid-January, while many students were enjoying their final week of winter break, 60 students and six administrators were tucked away at Black Rock Retreat in Quarryville, Pa. They were participating in LeaderShape, an intensive six-day leadership program.
The program’s aim was to provide opportunities for emerging student leaders to tap into their potential within a safe and supportive—but challenging—environment. “LeaderShape views leadership as a process,” said Tim Poirier, associate dean of students and one of the staff facilitators. He added that the program contains two elements that are distinct from others. First, it encourages students to believe in big ideas, to cultivate what it calls “a healthy disregard for the impossible.” Second, the program emphasizes “leading with integrity,” which requires an honest self-assessment of personal values.
Dickinson’s involvement with LeaderShape began in 2007 with Ronnie and Bob Bailin, parents of Emily Bailin ’07, who had received the William F. Hufstader Senior Prize, an annual leadership prize awarded to two graduating seniors.
“The Bailins wanted to provide the opportunity to encourage student-leadership development because they appreciated the experience that Emily was having through her own leadership experiences,” said April Vari ’82, vice president for student development.
Vari had previous experience with LeaderShape and recommended the program to the Bailins. “I saw firsthand what a meaningful and really transformative experience it was for students,” she said. That summer, the family funded 14 students’ attendance at the LeaderShape Institute, housed at the University of Illinois.
The participants returned energized. “I went into LeaderShape with many interests and passions but with no ideas how to unify them or act upon them,” wrote Kelly Rogers ’10, a policy-management major from Stroudsburg, Pa. “It wasn’t until I sat down at LeaderShape and actually sketched out my values that I realized what I want my future to look like.”
Impressed with the results, the Bailins decided to help bring the LeaderShape Institute to Dickinson and offered to subsidize three annual programs. The first session was this January in nearby Quarryville.
“We were looking to encourage students with potential and to expand the pool of students who participate in leadership activities,” Vari said. “We also tried to select a cohort of students that represented all the many interests among our student body. A key to the success of the program is assembling a diverse group of students.”
During six packed days, students and facilitators worked in “cluster families” of 10-12 individuals learning how to build community, challenge the status quo, identify core values and create action plans.
At the end of the week, students wrote testimonials about their experience, highlighting lessons learned and what they planned to achieve as student leaders and beyond. “LeaderShape was an experience that challenged us to be the global citizens Dickinson tries to create,” wrote Bryn McNamee-Tweed ’11 of Austin, Texas, who has a self-developed major in health, community and the global South. “Asking us the rare question, ‘what’s your vision?’ led us to define what is most important to us.”
Others mentioned the power of community. “This conference enabled individuals from the atypical groups on campus to go outside their comfort zones and embrace each other,” wrote Stephen Williams ’11, a political-science major from Mechanicsburg, Pa. “Individuals grew and developed into a tight-knit community who helped each other discover who they were and encourage[d] their wildest dreams to become tomorrow’s reality.”
Turning dreams into reality and building bridges across student-interest groups are exactly what Vari hopes will be the program’s long-term outcomes, and she’s tapping into the participants’ energy to help transform Dickinson.
“The day after the students returned, we had a one-day session where we asked them to ‘consult’ and problem solve with us about campus challenges and opportunities,” she said. “This was a useful way for us to gain student perspectives on a variety of topics that might be woven into the next strategic plan, which will focus on students.”
The students continue to meet regularly with student-development staff to discuss social programming, residential-living models and other campus-community initiatives.
And it turns out that LeaderShape deeply affected not only the student participants, but the facilitators as well. “Perhaps the most refreshing aspect was that the LeaderShape experience—and the opportunity to engage in sustained and meaningful conversations—reminded me just how much personal and professional satisfaction I derive from helping students make sense of and learn from their experiences,” said Poirier. “Being part of such a transformative experience was very enjoyable.”