I spent Wednesday/Thursday (1-24/25-07) at Coastal Carolina University introducing them to the concepts of Deeper Learning in Leadership. I had a full day of meetings on Thursday during which I met with students, faculty, and staff. Besides assisting campuses, I intend to use these trips like this to help me refine and to actually test the ideas I've proposed in Deeper Learning in Leadership.
The meetings with staff and faculty all included lively exchanges. Each new group presented new challenges and questions about how to create a campus environment that would foster leadership. The campus has primarily relied on cocurricular experiences and involvement to provide leadership opportunity. There was not much in relation to programs and specific leadership-focused events or services. However, there was broad enthusiasm for leadership which could stimulate a shared commitment among a broad number of people. There were some discussions about student affairs staff feeling that they were not respected and appreciated for what they did. This was accepted as just the way it is at most campuses. This realization is sadly true when I think of the many colleagues with whom I've talked and the campuses I've visited over the years. It is a very sad commentary about the status of student affairs in most of higher education - it is more or less assumed that student affairs staff will be treated as 2nd-class citizens in the academy.
Coastal Carolina looked as if it was a relatively diverse campus but, when I asked, I was informed that it isn't quite representative of the population statistics of the state of Carolina. Students of culture came out in large numbers and reported having great experiences at Coastal. Staff shared with me that the graduataion rate among African American students is higher than that of white students - an incredible accomplishment compared to the lack of parity in graduation rates at most colleges and universities. I asked why students of culture were more successful and the immediate response was that these students are proud to be at Coastal and seek to succeed in order to have the chance to advance in life and to make their families proud. This is contrasted with some other students who come from privileged families in the northeast corridor. Evidently, these students come to Coastal for the beach, for the abundant nightlife, shopping, golfing, and good weather. What a contrast? I don't want to make judgments but I find it very interesting that students from more modest socio-economic backgrounds succeed at higher levels than more privileged students, a factor of motivation and aspiration rather than ability. What does that mean for the future of both sets of students and many more?
I found that I had prepared too much material for the formal presentation which will require that I cut down the content in future presentations. I also began to wonder if the thrust of my presentation - helping students discover their leadership potential - might not be inverted to start with the leadership journey of staff and faculty. In some ways, how can our institutions serve students and help them develop their leadership potential to the fullest if they, themselves, have not done the work to create a good environment for all faculty and staff who work and contribute so much to these campuses? I haven't come to a conclusion that my presentations should be reoriented but some of the points I make about organizational barriers and paradigns certainly have an important place in Deeper Learning in Leadership.
One of the most moving moments during the visit to Coastal was with a large group of students in the last of my major meetings. It was a very diverse gathering. One African American first-year woman sat to the right of me. She had asked a couple of questions during the earlier part of our meeting but just as we were about to close, she asked, "What's the most important thing I can do to become a leader?" I paused a moment and then said that the most important thing was to cultivate authenticity in everything that she did. I explained a little more what I meant and I embellished authenticity with a few other attributes but she seemed very satisfied with the notion that authenticity was at the core. It was also interesting that her question stimulated an outpouring of advice from other students around the circle. And, another student assured her that she would have the experiences that she needed at Coastal to do whatever she wished to do. What a nice way to end a visit at a campus seeking to dig deeper to cultivate leadership in its students...