Montana State University

Spring 2011

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Mountains and Minds

Innovative MSU programs tap into students' potential to lead

Are leaders born or made? April 25, 2011 by Melynda Harrison • Published 04/25/11

Innovative MSU programs tap into students' potential to lead
Leadership is like tennis or basketball--some people have a natural aptitude, but with dedication and practice anyone can excel, according to Deidre Combs. "Anyone can improve their backhand or forehand, just as anyone can become a better leader," said Combs, a nationally known corporate consultant and coach, as well as the designer of Montana State University's leadership fundamentals course. "So much of leadership is about desire and an innate drive to make a difference in the world."

Two programs at Montana State University--the Leadership Institute and the Leadership Fellows Certificate Program
--help mold students into leaders and give them the skills they need to be successful.

These programs are unique in the four state region, according to Carmen McSpadden, director of the Leadership Institute and the Leadership Fellows Certificate Program. And while other schools have leadership programs, they are usually part of their business programs. MSU's programs stand out for their interdisciplinary nature and focus on creating leaders in all fields, she said. They prove that leaders aren't just born--they can be made.

"Our experience working with hundreds of students allows us to identify key leadership skills and traits and suggest ways to greater mastery, so that they may be more effective at leading, thus becoming 'a natural born leader,'" McSpadden said.

The Leadership Institute

When she came to MSU, Sasha Dingle didn't think of herself as a leader.

"I thought of leadership in the traditional sense of executive power, and that didn't apply to me," said Dingle, a recent MSU psychology graduate from Jericho, Vt. "Through the Leadership Institute, I've discovered that a leader can effect change in subtle ways--taking on a support role, mobilizing and empowering others. This style of leadership is incredibly compatible with my personality."

Dingle came to MSU to race on the alpine ski team, but a torn knee her freshman year left her looking for something else to do. With her time freed up from ski training, she studied abroad in New Zealand. That led to an interest in travel and an exposure to another kind of skiing--freeskiing. She graduated from MSU in December, a semester early, to compete on the Freeskiing World Tour and has continued to travel around the world. She plans to return as a graduate student in the fall.

Travel led to firsthand observations of injustices in the world and an interest in alleviating some of those inequalities. With an undergraduate scholar grant, Dingle set out for the Dominican Republic to study women and poverty.

Her desire to right some of the wrongs in the world lured Dingle to the Leadership Institute. She hoped to pick up skills and develop her leadership qualities so she could more effectively make a difference.

Launched by the Associated Students of MSU in 1997 to support leadership development for students, the Leadership Institute's objective is to provide, coordinate, plan and organize leadership opportunities. The institute provides a variety of student-focused leadership opportunities designed to enhance and provide essential career and life skills. It is staffed by student associates who plan and organize conferences and trainings. They also bring film series, dynamic lunch discussions and quality keynote speakers, such as Jane Goodall, to MSU.

Dingle is also a McNair Scholar, one of 25 MSU undergraduates who are either first-generation college students, low-income or traditionally underrepresented minorities who have demonstrated strong academic potential and are committed to attending graduate school and pursuing an advanced degree. As part of the MSU McNair program, students are given financial support for summer projects and paired with a faculty mentor. As a McNair scholar, Dingle worked in rural and tribal areas in Montana with the non-profit Hopa Mountain to evaluate their youth leadership program.

"Sasha is a very deep thinker and brings an academic approach to trying to solve global issues, but she isn't afraid to roll up her sleeves and get involved," Combs said. "She is an engaged academic."

"The Leadership Institute empowers students to do more, to contribute to the university and community, and to reflect on how they will have impact and purpose now and in their future," McSpadden said. "We provide students with specific opportunities for strong personal growth in the areas of communication, team building, conflict management and problem solving. Students are challenged to think critically--and they meet our challenge successfully."

Last fall, as part of her institute job, Dingle organized and ran the 2010 MSU Leadership Summit that brought speakers and provided workshops to inspire students.

"We wanted to reach out to students in different majors and with different cultural backgrounds to show that instead of our differences splintering us off, they can be our greatest strengths," Dingle said.

"The Leadership Institute has helped me feel like I can interact with people on a professional level. I've learned a lot of nitty-gritty details that I can use on any project in the future to create a vision and champion change."

Dingle's next mission is to tackle issues on MSU's campus that aren't generally discussed, through the national program, Sustained Dialogue Campus Network. Sustained Dialogue focuses on transforming relationships that cause problems and conflict. At MSU, Dingle is bringing students together to discuss and find solutions to issues of race and sexual orientation on campus.

"These are the things people aren't talking about, but that affect our campus," Dingle said. "This is a safe space to talk about issues and move forward with action plans."

Dingle is just one of the many students who have blossomed through participation in the Leadership Institute. Another is Griffin Stevens.

"He is very quiet and very low-key, but he works hard and keeps appearing in wonderful places like the University Honors Program and Engineers Without Borders," said Combs.

Stevens, a mechanical engineering senior from Bozeman, has been on the institute staff for a year-and-a-half. He helped organize a series of workshops for leaders in student organizations and worked on bringing the internationally acclaimed poet and civil rights activist Maya Angelou to campus (Angelou had to cancel due to health concerns).

Stevens is also an ASMSU senator who jokingly calls himself a "lazy leader."

"My style is to delegate and give others the opportunity to do things while being there to guide and support," Stevens said. "If we do well, others get the credit; if not, I take the blame."

As past president of Engineers Without Borders, Stevens had the opportunity to fine-tune his leadership skills on two trips to Kenya. The group is working to supply 58 primary schools with clean water, sanitation and wells.

"Griffin implemented what I call a hub-and-spoke type of leadership with EWB," said Otto Stein co-faculty advisor for EWB and civil engineering professor. "He was able to get other students who wanted leadership roles to step up and lead."

It was through EWB that Stevens was introduced to the Leadership Institute. Katy Hansen, a past president of EWB and former Leadership Institute student associate, encouraged him to get involved.

Hansen, a past vice president of ASMSU, was recently awarded a 2011 Rhodes Scholarship, arguably the most prestigious scholarship in the world. The MSU alumna is currently working on collaborative water conservation projects between Israel and the Palestinian Authority.

"I learned a great number of practical skills at the Leadership Institute that I still employ daily, including how to run effective meetings, collaborate with peers, aggregate separate visions, plan workshops and conferences, advertise to various target groups and create strategic organizational plans," Hansen said. "More importantly, I was able to practice making decisions about time-allocation and personal boundaries. Carmen McSpadden brilliantly counseled me through times of overcommitment and indecision, encouraging me always to really listen to my heart."

"The Leadership Institute is a great experience to have," Stevens added. "It's one of the best things you can do on campus."

Leadership Fellows Certificate Program

Unlike the Leadership Institute, students who enroll in the MSU Leadership Fellows Certificate Program commit to 16 extra course hours, and many hours volunteering, to graduate with a certificate that is a testament to their leadership skills.

One of those students is Rick Haluszka, who always thought of himself as a leader growing up in his small Hi-Line community of Harlem, Mont. Whenever he was part of a group--whether as captain of the Harlem High School football team or in academics--he took on a leadership role.

When he came to MSU, Haluszka found himself in a community many times larger than the one in which he grew up. Being a leader was more difficult in the bigger setting, but the Leadership Certificate program gave him an opportunity to reassess his strengths and goals.

"I think some people have a natural quality or ability to lead," said Haluszka, a junior in health and human performance/kinesiology who also plays tight end for the Bobcats. "But anyone who has a desire to lead can develop the needed skills."

The Leadership Fellows Certificate Program started in spring 2009 when students from the Leadership Institute identified a clear interest in leadership training, according to McSpadden. The Leadership Fellows Certificate Program is a collaboration between the Associated Students of MSU, the MSU Leadership Institute and University College.

The academic program challenges students to investigate leadership through case studies, service-learning and exploring their own leadership style. It aims to equip students with critical and ethical thinking skills so they can become positive agents of change in their communities.

"We started with one section of leadership foundations (an introductory class in the Leadership Certificate program), and this spring semester we have three sections, with waiting lists. It has been thrilling to witness the student support and interest for meaningful leadership development," McSpadden said.

One of the first people to graduate with a certificate was Teresa Snyder Borrenpohl, a past president of ASMSU who now sits on the Board of Regents for the Montana University System.

"I was drawn to the Leadership Fellows program because the curriculum is universal. In every interaction--professional and social--you must consider your actions and how they affect others," said Borrenpohl, a native of Great Bend, Kan. "A focus on leadership is the easiest way to build relationships, streamline a vision to gain universal ownership and navigate through adversity. An education in leadership is a complement to any degree and an asset to employers."

Service-learning is one of the key components of leadership training at MSU. It's more than just volunteering. It is a focus on learning by doing, according to Combs.

"You show up as a volunteer and apply the skills learned in class," Combs said. "There is self-awareness and awareness for the learning process."

The service component aims to get students involved in the MSU and Bozeman communities.

"Given the increased emphasis on service at the university and the direction to integrate what students learn in the classroom with what happens in the community, we knew we needed to step up our service-learning to create the leaders of the future," said Greg Young, vice provost of undergraduate education and head of University College where the Leadership Certificate Program is housed.

For his service component, Haluszka works with Big Brothers/Big Sisters. Outside of the Leadership Fellow Program, he is active in Campus Crusade for Christ and co-leads Bible study groups for athletes. He regularly gives his time at events that support Bozeman-area senior citizens and schoolchildren by playing the guitar and singing at community functions.

As a McNair Scholar, Haluszka's summer project was to spend six weeks researching whether it is healthier for young athletes to focus on just one sport or to participate in multiple sports. He is also a recipient of the 2010 Montana Athletes in Service Award, given to four student-athletes (two from MSU and two from The University of Montana) recognized at the Cat-Griz game for commitment to civic engagement, years of service and the impact that his service has on the community.

"Service learning is so important and applicable to my life," said Jessa Thiel, a global and multicultural studies major from the Flathead Valley who is currently enrolled in the program. "I'm gaining skills that I will use for the rest of my life."

Thiel, whose twin sister, Jenna, was also in the program before she graduated last June, believes an effective leader has to have strong time management skills. The program has taught her to be a more adaptive leader and how to increase her self-awareness.

"Everyone has established technical skills these days," Thiel said. "You have to have social skills and adaptive traits to be successful."

Thiel and her sister started a nonprofit organization called "Tias y Tios"--or "Aunts and Uncles" in Spanish--that has become her service learning project. "Tias y Tios" provides activities for Latino children, and others, encouraging them to get them more involved in the community, as well as academic tutoring and mentoring.

"We are trying to serve the diverse populations in the Bozeman area and celebrate where we are all from," Thiel said.

Thiel came to MSU as a leader--her resume already full of leadership activities from high school--and MSU's leadership program has taken her leadership skills to another level.

"Whether leaders are born or made is the age-old question and continues to dominate the study of leadership," McSpadden said. "Students enrolled in the Leadership Fellows Program take the time to explore this question, as well as grow their personal leadership skills. What better way to learn about leadership than to lead?"