MSU leadership students inspired to make a difference

Jen Poser

ERIK PETERSEN/CHRONICLE
Montana State University student Michael Edwards talks Wednesday at the Procrastinator Theater during a presentation by MSU Leadership students.

By GAIL SCHONTZLER, Chronicle Staff Writer
The Bozeman Daily Chronicle
Posted: Thursday, December 9, 2010 12:15 am

Being a single mom and trying to earn a college degree while raising two children -- one disabled -- has taught Sara Landry a lot about leadership.

Landry, 36, told classmates Wednesday at Montana State University that her 12-year-old son has significant health problems, including epilepsy, autism and diabetes. To help him, she has had to become a problem-solver, multi-tasker and a teacher.

Life has given her, she said, "a first-hand crash course in how to be a leader."

Landry said she wants to start a support group for kids like her 8-year-old daughter, to "shine a spotlight" on siblings who often get overlooked when parents are preoccupied with a child with disabilities.

She is one of about 40 students just finishing MSU's fall classes in leadership foundations. Started a year ago, the class encourages students to find what they're passionate about, come up with plans for their future and ways to work for change.

"We're sending out students who want to make a difference in the world," said Deirdre Combs, an adjunct University College instructor. She said she was "ridiculously proud" of the dozen students in her class who presented their leadership ideas Wednesday morning at the Procrastinator Theatre.

Brittany Gjersing, a liberal studies major, said a life-changing moment for her was when a 15-year-old high school friend committed suicide. She felt devastated.

Gjersing said now she wants to find ways to extend suicide-prevention programs to high school students across the state. She plans to get training at Bozeman's Help Center hotline, join a suicide-prevention club and study the latest research on prevention.

"I know with love and passion, I'll be able to bring the change they need," Gjersing said.

Michael Edwards, 29, who served with the U.S. Marines for 10 years in Kosovo, Afghanistan and Iraq, said he came to MSU with a plan to study engineering and build an affluent life.

But at MSU, Edwards said, he met amazing friends and teachers who inspired him to change his priorities and revive a forgotten dream. Instead of a "life of self-service," Edwards said, he wants a life "of service to humanity."

"I want to inspire the entire world," Edwards said, though he confessed he's not yet sure how he's going to do that. "I'm terrified," he said, about re-ordering his priorities. He plans to continue at MSU and stay involved in the Leadership Institute.

T.J. Charlson, 33, said leadership for him means being a good single father to his two "wonderful" boys, ages 10 and 12, despite his own handicaps.

Charlson said he has been a rodeo cowboy, a soldier in Kuwait, Iraq and Bosnia, and the survivor of a car crash, which left him with two traumatic brain injuries. He said he has been pronounced dead three times and told he would never learn again or remember what happened yesterday.

But Charlson said he seems to have nine lives. The school of hard knocks, he said, has taught him empathy and the importance of structure and relationships. He's thinking of becoming a motivational speaker.

"My vision is to be the best father I can for my boys, to help define their dreams and make them shine," he said.

Also speaking Wednesday were Ahmad "Eddie" Alrwias, an engineering student from Saudi Arabia, who said he wants to follow his passion for cars and work on improving automobile quality, and Yanet Eudave, who wants to help Hispanic families in the Gallatin Valley overcome problems of isolation and depression.

Carmen McSpadden, head of MSU's Leadership Institute, said this class is the first step for students to earn a leadership certificate with their diplomas. Students must also take four classes in other fields that relate to leadership, and then do a senior capstone project.

Those who have completed the leadership project include Teresa Snyder, now the Montana student regent, and Jenna and Jessa Thiel, who started a support group for local Hispanic children, Tias y Tios.

"There is a group on campus thinking about how they can serve ... how they can contribute," McSpadden said. "I believe it's very inspirational."

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