Each fall at West Virginia University, there will be those freshmen who stand out: She’ll persuade with tact. He’ll build a consensus. They’ll start fledgling groups on campus.
They got to the university a little earlier than their cohorts to poke around the campus, ask that tenuous first question of professors and build a successful college career out of their enthusiasm and WVU’s guidance.
They are Honors Leadership Academy graduates.
The academy is three summer weeks with five hours of classroom time a day. Yet, during what seems like a short time, the students are challenged on how they present themselves in class, their views of the world and the way they view themselves.
Chris Smith, a native of St. Albans, sees himself becoming a law student and then a sports agent. The WVU junior says that without the program, he doesn’t think he would see himself as a leader.
“I don’t think that I would have been as inspired to get involved with my peers to try and make a change because HLA at its core showed me that everybody has the potential to be a leader, and everybody has the potential to change something they love,” Smith said.
The course propelled Smith into the Leadership Studies department at WVU and led him to co-found a group that coaches students in impromptu speaking, the Mountaineer Association for Public Speaking.
Before HLA, he had thought leadership was something for politicians only but by learning more about his leadership style, he had the confidence to lead others.
Smith believes that the program shows that WVU has faith in the state as a whole and the students it is training.
“I like it when people have faith in me,” he said.
Lauren Snyder, a Boone County resident who just finished her freshman year, is a chemistry major and plans to become a doctor. In her first year at WVU, she’s been an active advocate for the program that helped her to enter class discussions with confidence and professionalism.
“I’ve actually started recruiting honors kids that I know from high school that are going to be coming up here living in this dorm” at the Honors College, she said. “I already have a good friend coming to HLA because of me.”
During the academy, she says, she became a more solid writer, changed her views on poverty through class discussion and learned to exercise patience when classroom discussions didn’t go her way.
“I feel like the class molded me into a better person,” she said.
She’s active in her sorority, Kappa Kappa Gamma, and is putting what she learned about leadership at the academy to use.
“It really helped me when we’re working on charities and we’re working on group activities to take others’ perspective into account and not necessarily do just what I want to do or do what one person wants to do,” she said. “It helped me to form a general consensus of all of the ideas and push them into one solid foundation for a project.”
Dr. Lisa DeFrank-Cole, who founded the program two years ago, said she wanted to introduce freshman honors students to leadership early so they can start college with a firm footing and have a positive impact on the campus.
DeFrank-Cole said it’s exciting to see how the HLA graduates are already applying their lessons when they return to campus for the official start of the year.
“They’re already thinking about what organization they can join and run, and if there’s not something here that they want to be a part of, that they could start something on their own,” she said.
“There’s no way to know where they’re going to go in the future, and what they’re going to end up doing,” she said, but “the idea that the sky is the limit is something that they get by coming, and there’s less fear about the future.”
DeFrank-Cole built a discussion-based class that involves group trips and real-world experience that has included meeting Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-WV, in Washington, D.C. The program takes students from theory to experience while acclimating them to campus.
It also teaches them life skills such as critical thinking, open communication and self-confidence.
Dr. Keith Garbutt, dean of the Honors College at WVU, says the program provides an environment that allows students to keep trying no matter what the outcome.
“One of the things I think is important that not only the leadership academy but the Honors College and even the university as a whole can provide for students is a place where they can try things and where occasionally they can fail. Now that sounds odd, but I really do believe we learn by our failures.”
Teaching responsible communication and leadership skills helps students in their own careers, but it can also have a powerfully positive effect on the lives that DeFrank-Cole’s students touch.
“I don’t think wars are working very well, and I think if we can move more towards communication and helping our future leaders be appreciative of other people’s cultures and appreciative of other people’s opinions and perspectives then that’s going to help our leaders in the future,” she said.
As part of her effort to promote cultural understanding, this year’s Honors Leadership Academy from July 11 to July 31 will include students from a university in Bahrain.
Though HLA students are learning important life skills and concepts, DeFrank-Cole hopes they still have fun.
“I hope that they’ve had fun and they understand that learning goes on for a lifetime and learning can always be fun,” she said.
By Diana Mazzella
WVU News & Information
CONTACT: Lisa DeFrank-Cole, Director of WVU Leadership Studies Program
Follow @wvutoday on Twitter.