Student leadership development thrives at URI

KINGSTON, R.I. — November 15, 2001 — Last spring, 12 University of Rhode Island seniors who were in their final semester of URI’s leadership minor program, piled into two vans, drove 14 hours to West Virginia, and set off on a two-day white water kayaking adventure that would take them through Class V rapids and lessons in initiative, team work, reflection, and self-awareness. Exactly the kind of lessons that URI’s Center for Student Leadership Development, which sponsors the leadership minor, hopes to instill in students.

“The program is academically rigorous, challenging, uses practical application, and theoretical skills in both the classroom and activities outside the classroom,” explained Christine Wilson, assistant director for Student Leadership.

The Center, which began in 1988 as a leadership program called “Free FLITE,” encompasses a variety of programs, workshops, the leadership minor program, and an outdoor adventure leadership development program.

The 18-credit minor in leadership studies that combines academic and experiential learning components began in the fall of 1998. The minor is interdisciplinary, combining the departments of political science, women’s studies, business, communication studies, and philosophy, among others.

“It is a unique partnership between academic affairs and leadership affairs. There are not too many minors in leadership. It’s groundbreaking,” said Bruce Hamilton, director of the Memorial Union, Student Involvement, and Center for Student Leadership Development.

The philosophy of the leadership classes is to teach students theoretical background and then practical application. For example, after students read Major in Success by Patrick Combs, they had to outline their own future course of success and what they will do to achieve it.

Sometimes one of the most difficult aspects of the classes is the different approach. “The student reaction has been positive, but it really changes the paradigm of what class is for them. Our class is not about the grade, but about the cause,” explained Steve Simo, coordinator of Student Leadership.

Currently, 105 students are enrolled in the minor, 400 students take leadership classes each year, and another 1,000 students participate in some way in the Center. It’s not surprising why…students who take part attribute a greater sense of leadership and personal development to the program.

“It’s definitely made me feel more comfortable with saying how I feel and taking a leadership role on campus. I’ve made so many friends and so many connections. It’s made me a better leader,” explained junior Kristine Braley of Auburn, Maine, a pharmacy major, who is an advisory board member and peer minister of URI’s Catholic Center, was a FLITE peer leader, and works at the Women’s Center.

The outdoor adventure leadership development program is coordinated by Simo. The program provides students and student organizations the chance to enhance experiential learning outside the classroom, while developing skills such as communication, teamwork and relationship building. The program coordinates retreats, plans outdoor activities such as the kayaking trip, mountain biking, or white-water rafting, and offers time on a high-ropes course.
“We try to provide an experience that is based on the outdoors, anything that is going to put students in a different environment, where they can apply theories and strategies they learned in class,” said Simo.

The benefits and successes of the Center are not limited to the URI campus, but reach out to the Rhode Island community. For example, one student advises a group to address diversity issues at Narragansett High School. Another student trained more than 200 Girl Scouts in leadership. Other students organized seminars and conferences open to the local community.
In the coming years, the Center will continue to expand in its outreach, its offerings to students and its role in the URI and local community. “I want this program to not only exist, but to thrive,” said Hamilton.

For Information: Christine Wilson, 401-874-2726, Jan Wenzel, 401-874-2116, Jennifer Smith, 401-874-2116