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Learning to lead

Since the concept of the “natural-born leader” has fallen by the wayside, colleges and universities across the nation have stepped up their efforts to help create and prepare student leaders. The College of Agricultural and Life Sciences at the University of Wisconsin-Madison is meeting the demands of industry and society by implementing a new undergraduate leadership certificate program during the Fall 2005 semester.

The new certificate program evolved from other leadership development opportunities offered in CALS during the past few years. The first leadership retreat for students in CALS attracted more than 30 student leaders when it was offered in January 2004. It was followed by a Fall semester, one-credit leadership seminar taught by Richard Barrows, CALS associate dean; Christina Klawitter, CALS student services coordinator; and Luoluo Hong, dean of students. The idea for a leadership certificate grew out of many conversations with CALS faculty, staff and student council members.

“The students said, ”This is what”s missing from our education and we want to participate,”” says Klawitter. Students have been actively involved planning the retreats, the fall leadership seminar and the new leadership certificate program.

Ryan Becker is one of those students. He graduated with a dual degree in life sciences communication and genetics in Spring 2005. As an upper classman, he was active in intercollegiate FFA and Alpha Gamma Rho fraternity, was a CALS student ambassador and served as president of the CALS student council this past year. He says he found the leadership opportunities invaluable in understanding his leadership style and how he operated as a leader in a group setting. “That”s important to have that kind of combination in the real world. You can implement everything that you”ve learned in a group setting because obviously you can”t lead in a vacuum. You”re going to have to, at some point, interact with other people to accomplish a goal.”

The goal of the leadership certificate is to prepare students as leaders who understand and appreciate not only their preferred leadership styles but also the variety of leadership styles that exist and the variety of people they will encounter in a variety of settings both on- and off-campus.

“Higher education was historically the place that prepared leaders,” says Gerry Campbell, professor of agriculture and applied economics and faculty director of the Community Scholars Program. “The emphasis on leadership education has sometimes gotten lost in preparing students in the scientific disciplines in which our college excels. The questions we”re talking about have to do with people”s social, personal and psychological interactive skills, which complement the scientific disciplines in our college. I think this is really, really important for undergraduates.”

The leadership certificate program is based on nine learning objectives called competencies. Each competency has two components: a conceptual component for building knowledge and a behavioral component for building skills. The competencies range from exploring personal and professional ethics to understanding organizations. To meet the requirements for the developing communication skills competency, for instance, students can document examples of public speaking and can choose to participate in a listening assessment.

According to program committee members, the beauty of the competencies as they are now written is that they are flexible; there are multiple ways to meet the requirements. “They document how to meet the skills at specified levels” chosen by the students, says Rich Hartel, a food science professor and member of the leadership program committee. But the methods students use to master the competencies were purposely left “wide open,” says Hartel, allowing for creativity and individuality.

Students pursuing the leadership certificate will work with faculty or staff mentors to determine how they can best meet the competencies. Mentors will challenge students to think more deeply about how their theoretical knowledge fits with their practical experiences. The result will be a portfolio of “evidence,” containing such things as papers, presentations, videos and community projects. In order to create consistent standards, all of the students in the two-year pilot program will be required to have each of their competencies certified by the entire committee.

However, the certificate program does not end with checking off requirements from a master list. There is also a self-reflection component. “It is the key to advanced development,” says Hartel. “The students will learn most in thinking about what they did, how things worked and what they could have done differently.”

Robin Kurtz, a faculty associate in the bacteriology department, has woven the discussion of scientific ethics into a senior seminar she teaches. As one of the leadership committee members, she helped devise the assessment rubrics for the ethics competency. She says that people from industry who have talked to CALS professors about the skills they need from students entering the workforce emphasize three things: their ability to work with people, think on their feet and be leaders. “That”s the thing that this leadership certificate might be really useful for,” says Kurtz.