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Leadership development adds special dimension to undergraduate education

On a beautiful Saturday in late September, nearly one hundred students gathered in the LSU Union to participate in the Live Gold Leadership Conference. One of several programs created, directed, and produced through Campus Life, a division of the Office of the Dean of Students, the conference provides students with practical leadership development education that they can then apply within the various organizations they represent.

George Kelly, mechanical engineering, and James Loupe, business management, worked together during the conference.
Brenda Macon/LSU University Relations

Since the first conference in 2012, diverse groups of students—from a wide range of backgrounds and representing organizations as diverse as they are—have taken advantage of this opportunity to improve their leadership skills and to cultivate habits that will help them to become effective leaders. The one-day conference gives participants a chance to meet other leaders on campus, including students and staff. At the 2013 conference, the keynote speaker was LSU baseball coach Paul Mainieri, who spoke on the five key elements of leadership: confidence, courage, communication, charisma, and integrity.

"Great leadership is the ability to get people to do what you want them to do, how you want them to do it, and when you want them to do it because they want to do it," Mainieri told his audience. "Your job as a leader is to inspire people to do what you want them to do."

Following his address, the students worked hard at a series of activities that would help them sharpen those skills and habits that they hoped would help them lead not only the student organizations to which they belong, but also to learn how to translate those leadership qualities to their future careers.

For example, Rachel Scott, a senior whose major is early childhood education and who is currently a student teacher at Woodlawn Elementary, is using the leadership training at LSU to help her feel more comfortable speaking with people she doesn't know well and to be the best teacher she can be.

"I have always been a shy person," she explained. "Because I want to be a teacher, I know that I need to face my fears of speaking to people I don't know. When you're a teacher, you're seen as a leader."

Scott is also on the Student Advisory Board for Student Support Services, is a member of the Association for the Education of Young Children (AEYC), and is active in her church.

Melanie Stapleton, another senior in the group who is majoring in choral music education and minoring in English, had a similar goal. The Plano, Texas, native aspires to become a choral music educator, first at the high school level, and eventually to pursue a doctorate of musical arts and to teach at the collegiate level.

"This year I became president of Spectrum at LSU," she said. "I went to leadership training in order to become a better leader for my organization. By becoming a better leader, I will in turn be a better educator."

In addition to being in the leadership of Spectrum for the last three years, Stapleton is also the past president of LSU's student chapter of the American Choral Directors Association (ACDA). Her experiences have given her the confidence to work for change and to make an impact on campus.

Kaitlynn and Mischael, two student participants, worked together to complete the bingo activity.
Brenda Macon/LSU University Relations

The opportunity to work with other leaders from around campus is a draw for many of the students. Sophomore business management major James Loupe, for example, attended at the suggestion of Asha Vyas, one of the counselors in Student Support Services, and found that the experience is just what he needed.

"This training allowed me to partner with other leaders from around campus, most of whom shared my interests," he reflected. "Because of this I was able to relate to other students as well as learn from different points of view."

Vyas, who works with Student Support Services—one of three Trio programs on campus—served with other staff members from across campus as a facilitator at the conference. One of her job responsibilities is to motivate and encourage students in the program to develop their leadership identities.

"Our program is very diverse," Vyas commented. "And I am pleased to report that a large portion of the student attendees (29 of 98) at this year's conference are Student Support Services students."

At the conference, students broke into two groups for the afternoon StrengthsQuest sessions, which included an advanced leadership development segment. Among the students participating in this advanced segment were several students who are actively involved not only in campus organizations but also in undergraduate research programs.

For example, Courtney Rourke Irwin, mechanical engineering senior and president of the LSU chapter of Engineers Without Borders USA, is working with faculty mentor Assistant Professor Michael Martin on a project for NASA. Irwin became involved in leadership on campus during her very first semester at LSU, becoming a Community Council senator for the residential college complex. That experience led her to look for other ways to get involved on campus, including participating in Leading Edge, another Campus Life program. Leading Edge is for first-year students, requires two-week commitment from participants, and provides leadership education and personal development opportunities throughout the year.

Despite her previous involvement in Campus Life programs, Irwin was excited about the conference. "I haven't participated in any leadership conferences like the Live Gold Leadership Conference, and I can hardly wait to participate in the program again next year!"

Her fellow Engineers Without Borders officer—he's the vice president of the group—Zack Faircloth was also a participant in the advanced leadership segment. Faircloth, a Stamps Scholar and electrical engineering sophomore, also organized club baseball at LSU and is the program chair for his fraternity.

As a recipient of the Stamps Foundation Scholarship, Faircloth has already participated in leadership training at conferences at the University of Illinois and the University of Michigan. The LSU conference is one more place to hone his skills.

Zach Faircloth (left side of table) and Amanda Mayhall (end of table) participate in several organizations on campus.
Brenda Macon/LSU University Relations

"I wanted to take the skills and advice directly back to the clubs that I work with," he explained. "Leadership opportunities like this are grounding. They help me refine my mission and keep a goal-oriented perspective and positive outlook."

Like Faircloth, many of these participants, especially in the advanced group, are involved in multiple groups. Amanda Mayhall, for instance, a sophomore math major, is an Honors College Advocate, a member of the Student Governing Council in the Office of Strategic Initiatives, the Ballroom Dance Club, and the Student Activities Board, and is an S-STEM Scholar. She considers herself a natural leader, and she is determined to make the most of LSU's opportunities for leadership development.

"Through these programs and conferences," she said, "I've learned a lot about myself as well as how to better interact with others. Because I will likely work in a team in whatever career path I enter, being an effective team member and communicating properly are extremely important."

The undergraduate participants aren't the only ones to find the conference beneficial. Staff who, like Vyas, served as facilitators also found the experience to be exhilarating. Other staff who were involved include the organizing team of Vyas, Melissa Hogle (University Recreation), Kathy Jones (Campus Life – Involvement), Shelby McGaha (Graduate Assistant, Campus Life – Leadership), and Rachel Spencer (Campus Life – Leadership). Associate Director of Campus Life and Assistant Dean of Students Jacob Brumfield worked with the team as a facilitator, as did Zach Mills, a graduate student in Residential Life.

Mills is not too far removed from the experiences of the students he is now helping to train. "I first got involved in leadership training and development working at a summer camp in Northern Ontario from 2007-2012," he recalled. "The camp had a leadership development program that focused on developing specific traits of a leader (such as effective communication, initiative, planning, etc.). After getting involved with that and eventually becoming the director for it, I was hooked."

"I really see a great opportunity for developing traits of leadership in a college setting," Mills added. "And it is something I seek to integrate into my interactions with students. I see every opportunity as a chance for learning and growth, and I think it is important that we provide students with those structured opportunities for growth."

The Live Gold Leadership Conference is but a part of a larger initiative within Campus Life to provide students with as many opportunities for personal and leadership development as possible. Other programs include Leading Edge for first-year students; Geaux Lead! which is an off-campus, four-day retreat that focuses on leadership in a global community; LEAD Louisiana which introduces students to community leaders throughout the state by visiting cultural events and festivals; and Leadership LSU for fourth-year students that includes networking with community leaders.

Obviously, the leadership development programs are a group effort, supported by many units and individuals. Ultimately, however, the person responsible for making sure all of these balls stay in the air is Rachel Spencer, who winds up the effort and then stands in the background and watches as it spins like a beautiful, well-balanced top. With ten years of experience working in student affairs and recreation at other universities, Spencer made her way to LSU in 2012 and immediately started working to pull together and coordinate leadership development opportunities for students.

"Our leadership programs sponsored through Campus Life are designed to attract a diverse population, and any LSU student is welcome," she said. "We hope that students who attended the conference will have a better understanding of their leadership strengths and talents so that they can see themselves in leadership roles in the future."

If the responses from participants are any indication, the efforts of Spencer and all of those who worked to bring these opportunities to LSU students are paying off dividends already and are likely to produce a brand-new crop of fresh leadership for Louisiana, the nation, and the world in the near future.