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Stretching Themselves, Setting the Tone: Student Leaders Flourish

by Doralisa Pilarte

“If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more, and become more, you are a leader.”
- John Quincy Adams

Maria Damte ’13 arrived at Marymount University as a freshman with an impressive record of achievement. In high school, she was on the Honor Roll for three straight years. She was elected student government treasurer in her sophomore year and president in her junior year. And she did all this while holding down part-time jobs that enabled her to fulfill a key goal: buying plane tickets to travel to her native Ethiopia in two consecutive summers to participate in a United Nations project on AIDS education.

Which makes it all the more surprising that at her Marymount orientation in the summer of 2009, the Nursing major from West Orange, New Jersey, was behaving in so disruptive a manner that the orientation leader in charge of her group, Melanie Cope ’11, felt compelled to take Maria aside for a gentle but firm heart-to-heart.

That, as they say, was then.

This is now: A rising junior at Marymount, Maria is in her second summer serving as an orientation leader herself, training the new recruits and remembering her freshman slip-up with a wry smile and a shake of the head. She recalls why she was disruptive: “I remember being very uncomfortable because I was questioning my choice and thinking maybe I had made a mistake in coming to Marymount. At the end of the first day, I really wanted to leave. What I most remember, though, is Melanie. She was responsible for our group, and it was clear that she really cared about us. She even came in to our rooms to say good-night! That was the first time I saw the caring for the whole person that is so evident at Marymount. And that’s what changed my mind.”

As Maria quickly learned, at Marymount, student leaders set the tone. And the University is committed to providing its young leaders with guidance, assistance, and encouragement. Lessons in leadership are interwoven throughout the tapestry of a Marymount education, and those lessons – often taught by example – start early.

From the beginning of their freshman year, through every stage of their college careers and all the way to the final preparations for entry into the world of work, Marymount students are taught, mentored, and groomed to become smart, ethical leaders who put service to others and the common good ahead of self. In a world that’s increasingly centered on “me,” these students can’t help but stand out.

Some young people arrive at MU with lots of leadership experience under their belts, ready to take on ever higher levels of responsibility. Others are late bloomers. All are welcome; all will grow.

Dr. Chris Domes, vice president for Student Development and Enrollment Management, says, “We’re great at helping students who arrive with leadership experience to rise to the next level; we polish them and broaden their worldview. But we’re even better at helping kids who have never seen themselves as leaders, kids who arrive here thinking that they can’t possibly make a difference. We teach them to reevaluate that assumption.”

Davon Speight ’11 of Portsmouth, Virginia, was one such late bloomer. He says, “Coming out of high school, I didn’t think college was right for me, so I took two years off, and during that time I learned the importance of a college degree. When I arrived at Marymount, my self-esteem and self-confidence were pretty low. I hadn’t ever run for anything, and I was a very shy person. But I quickly fell in love with the welcoming atmosphere that I encountered here. The man I was then and the man I am today are totally different.”

By the time Davon graduated, he had been an orientation leader, a resident assistant, a campus safety advocate, and a leader on the men’s basketball team. All of these positions – where he had to serve others, guide and protect others, and be responsible and accountable to others – turned Davon into something he never thought he’d be: an effective and self-confident leader.

He reflects, “If I hadn’t had these positions, I would not be the person I am today. I wouldn’t have the determination and perseverance to pursue and achieve my goals. These campus jobs challenged me to rise higher. I used to stereotype others, but I learned how to approach people, how to give people the benefit of the doubt. I have been stretched as an individual. These experiences helped me understand my own values and morals, and I have developed people skills by helping others.”

Dr. Domes notes that learning to be a leader is about more than acquiring a set of skills; the fuel for this journey is attitude. He points out, “Marymount is located right next to the most powerful city in the world, full of people who lead and command. But we tell our students this: Leadership is not holding an elected office; it’s not about how high on the pyramid you sit. It’s people stepping up to the plate and out of themselves to help others in a positive way.”

One leadership-development mechanism at Marymount is the Fall Leadership Series, consisting of six workshop sessions. While intended primarily for freshmen, the sessions are open to all students and participation is voluntary. And, as Maria Damte attests, they can be a life-changing experience.

She says, “Those workshops put me on a new path! We spent a lot of time talking about what leadership really means, and we learned about the nuts and bolts of leading others: time management, delegating, working in teams, resolving conflicts. I found it totally enlightening and inspiring.”

The workshops also focus on the importance of developing one’s own leadership style. Participants complete the Myers-Briggs Personality Inventory and finish up the experience by writing statements of their personal leadership philosophies.

Brandon Jenkins, MU’s coordinator of leadership development, explains why instilling leadership skills in undergraduates is important: “It’s very simple: Employers want to hire self-starters who can lead.”

He also points out that the workshops are less about what to think and more about how to think. Jenkins says, “We don’t give the students clear-cut answers about how to do things; instead, we teach them how to navigate the decision-making process, think about alternatives, and ultimately choose a course of action.”

He adds, “I really believe that the best way for a student to find his or her place on campus is to get involved as a leader. Leadership fosters personal and professional growth as nothing else can.”

Marymount student leaders with a passion for social causes recently got a boost in their aspirations when the University sent eight students to the first Social Change Advocacy Conference, a cooperative endeavor of 12 colleges and universities in the Washington, DC, area. The conference was designed for undergraduates interested in helping to shape local, national, and international public policy to address their areas of concern. Held at the University of the District of Columbia, the program was designed to “provide students with an understanding of how advocacy works, introduce them to successful leaders of nonprofit advocacy, and give them the tools to create their own advocacy campaigns.”

Maha Mokaddem ’13, a Nursing major, was one of the MU students selected to participate. She says, “My father-in-law founded a community-service program that is now active in 117 elementary schools in Rhode Island. It is my dream to develop a similar program in our community and turn it into a successful organization that will empower youth to make positive choices and contributions.”

After earning her B.S.N., Maha plans to do graduate work in nursing with an emphasis on critical care. She adds, “Eventually, I want to use my leadership skills to develop public health programs. I hope to work in the United States, but I would also like to serve overseas through an organization like Doctors Without Borders.”

Another participant in the Social Change Advocacy Conference was freshman Lisa Shine, also a Nursing major, who, in her first semester at MU, co-founded a new campus club called Marymount United.

Lisa explains, “Marymount United is dedicated to equality, inclusion, and social justice; its goals are to strengthen community through education and to give everyone on campus a place where they can belong. Attending this conference helped me improve my understanding of social change and how to bring it about.”

Dr. Domes observes, “It’s interesting to consider how many of the clubs that we have on campus now were initiated by students. The Blue Crew, the Caribbean Students Association, the Mixed Martial Arts Club, the Green Society, Marymount United, and several others were founded by students who saw a need or an interest that was not being addressed. Part of helping our students to become leaders is empowering them to put their own ideas into action.”

Service is another way to lead, points out Father David Sharland, Y.A., Marymount’s chaplain and director of Campus Ministry. The majority of the programs and events sponsored by Campus Ministry – from the annual Special Olympics Basketball Tournament to retreats and the popular Alternative Spring Break – are run by a squad of 20 student leaders, with support from the department’s staff. Each August, right before the incoming freshman class arrives, the Campus Ministry staff and returning student leaders in the Campus Ministry Association take a four-day leadership retreat to talk about their plans for the coming year, and to discuss and pray about their roles as leaders.

Father Sharland says, “We talk to them about leading by serving and point out that Jesus washed the feet of the disciples. So, using Christ as a model, we teach them how to lead others by serving others. That’s the philosophical side of our leadership training. Then we talk about the mechanics: organization, planning, teamwork, and so on. In addition to this annual planning retreat, we meet with our student leaders for an hour every other week to discuss upcoming events and how to evangelize on campus to get more participation. Our student leaders work together as a team; they encourage and support one another, and this helps them blossom.”

Noah McGrath ’13, a Criminal Justice major and Politics minor from Reston, Virginia, says, “I’m not the most outgoing person; I keep to myself and generally don’t talk to people unless they talk to me first. But at Marymount, Campus Ministry activities have helped me come out of my shell.”

Noah first became involved by attending Campus Ministry’s Dollar Dinners, which offer a home-cooked meal for $1, followed by a talk by an invited guest who speaks about living the Catholic faith. Noah soon began helping to prepare the meals, which are cooked and served in the Commuter Lounge in The Lodge. He says, “I’d be working in the kitchen with other students, and we’d start talking. Next thing I knew, we were friends.”

Noah next became involved with a campus faith-sharing group. As his participation snowballed, so did his motivation to do more. Soon, Noah was an altar server, an extraordinary minister of Holy Communion, and president of the Chess Club!

He says, “I feel as if I’ve grown spiritually and as a leader. My organizational skills have definitely improved, but it’s more than that. I strive for a life worth living, a life based in goodness and service. In this way, I’m leading by example.”

Being an example is also on the mind of Farah Traih ’12, a Biology and Math double major from Amman, Jordan. An Honors Program student, Farah is planning to attend medical school to become a neurosurgeon after graduating from Marymount. When she’s not studying, she’s busy on campus: Farah is vice president of the International Club, an active member of the Muslim Student Association, and a peer mentor and peer tutor. She has also helped to organize interfaith-dialogue programs on campus.

She says, “When I arrived at Marymount, I decided to lie low the first year because I was carrying 18 credits of Biology and Math courses, while going through many difficulties adjusting. But all these people kept coming up to me to ask that I join their club! Once I joined the International Club, I had all these students reaching out to me, guiding me, and helping me. I certainly have grown a lot. The main transition for me has been going from being taken care of, to taking care of others. That’s partly why I became a peer mentor: I want to help freshmen who are having a hard time and maybe even thinking about leaving Marymount.”

Aline Orfali, director of International Student Services, reflects, “The International Club and other leadership opportunities on our campus provide international students with a level of support and leadership development that they might not have had in their own countries.”

Frank Rizzo, associate vice president and dean for Student Development, points out that leadership education isn’t just good for students; it’s also good for a university’s bottom line. He says, “Statistics support the value of leadership development. Students who become more involved in campus life tend to do better academically, and they tend to stay around and graduate.”

Dean Rizzo underscores the advantage of Marymount’s size. He says, “When a parent asks, ‘Why should my son or daughter come to Marymount?’ one of the things we say is this: ‘Here, your child will have the opportunity to be a student leader, whereas in a large state school, he or she would have more likelihood of getting lost in the crowd and being just a number.’ And that really is the case. We cast a wide net to encourage involvement; we are consistently reaching out to more students, to match anyone who is interested with an appropriate leadership opportunity.”

And those opportunities are numerous: MU students serve as resident assistants, orientation leaders, admissions ambassadors, peer mentors, club presidents, student government officers, and athletic-team captains. Dean Rizzo emphasizes, “Wherever they are putting their time and talents to use, we stress that leadership is not just a title. It’s how well you do your job, how you represent your organization, how you carry yourself.”

Smart handling of the pressures that come with leadership responsibility is one of the topics tackled at Marymount’s Student Leadership Conference, held each spring, where the importance of self-care and achieving balance is emphasized. Dr. Silvio Menzano, director of Marymount’s Counseling Center, says, “A great deal of growth and development happens in these four years. College is often the first time young people are surrounded by peers and without much parental supervision. It’s a very significant developmental shift. Students need to learn strategies for maintaining their physical and emotional health, for making good choices and setting priorities. This is true for all college students, and no less so for student leaders. Ambitious, motivated young people sometimes tend to get over-extended. So we talk about the importance of establishing a healthy balance.”

Dr. Menzano also notes the role that student leaders can play in helping to create a campus environment that is healthy for everyone. He says, “Leadership is about taking responsibility, being accountable to others, behaving in an ethical manner. Leaders who are ethical will set the tone and say, this is fair and this is not. For example, bullying can only continue in a setting where no one takes responsibility, where no one is a leader. Part of the education of our students is teaching them that being a leader requires courage. It doesn’t mean you’re not afraid, but it involves risk-taking. Effective leaders know how to take effective risks.”

Debra Warren, director of Athletics, agrees with Dr. Menzano, and adds that a well-run intercollegiate athletics program can be a very effective mechanism for growing student leaders who are ethical, fair-minded, and service-oriented. She says, “A dedicated group of athletes with a defined purpose, engaged in community service and academic achievement – that’s a force to be reckoned with. They have a great influence on their peers and on the campus climate. Athletes tend to be high-profile individuals; it’s important that they embody the best of what and who we are.”

Every August, Chris Domes presides over Marymount’s annual Student Leadership Dinner at a local restaurant, with about 150 students and staff in attendance. It’s a tradition of long standing, dating back more than two decades, and it’s also a great way to kick off the academic year.

In his remarks, Dr. Domes addresses some aspect of leadership. He has told the students about his own leadership development as an undergraduate at St. Bonaventure University – how becoming involved in a soup kitchen project helped him realize just how lucky he was; how taking part in many campus activities led him to become better organized; how being held accountable forced him to mature. He also talks about how Marymount University views leadership and service as two sides of the same coin.

But the story that Dr. Domes is most fond of telling is the one about his maternal grandmother, Marge, who lived with her family on a dairy farm in upstate New York and was a school bus driver for 45 years.

He says, “Grandma Marge was five-foot-one and couldn’t reach the pedals, so her husband put wood blocks on so that she could drive the bus. There were 40 bus routes in a five-county school district and only two operators of school buses in that entire region: the largest school bus company in the world, and Grandma Marge. One time during a historic snowstorm, she was the only bus driver who got all of the kids home when school closed early. She didn’t have much formal education, but she was well read and entrepreneurial. She knew a lot about the community and the families in that region, and eventually became the town historian.”

The point of the story, Dr. Domes stresses, is that leadership means service, and anyone can lead.

He says, “It shows students that leadership comes in many guises. To me, my Grandma was a great leader because she served her community without fanfare and the people there looked up to her. At her funeral in 2002, there was a huge crowd. In many cases, three generations of families were there.”

He continues, “After I tell that story, students often come up to ask me questions. It makes them think about the people in their own lives that they probably hadn’t thought of as leaders before. Right there, it’s a paradigm shift for them.”

When Maria Damte attended her first Student Leadership Dinner, she felt inspired but also a little scared. She recalls, “I asked myself if I could ever be capable of juggling so many positions, like my peers seemed to do.”

Clearly, Maria has come a long way from the disruptive freshman of summer ’09. After completing the Leadership Series with Brandon Jenkins, she dove head-first into campus life. She joined the Commuter Activities Board and eventually rose to the position of co-president. She joined the International Club, where she has helped to organize events and performed at the International Banquet. She’s a member of the Student Nurses Association and an officer with the Student Government Association. She was selected to serve as a resident assistant. Best of all, she has achieved an impressive grade point average and a whole new outlook. Today, Maria is a member of Marymount’s Student Conduct Board and an Academic Integrity panelist. Most significantly in the arc of her own development, she has stepped up to the plate and become an orientation leader – like her first Marymount friend and mentor, Melanie Cope. But how can one student do so much?

Maria says, “I want to do for other students what my orientation leaders did for me when I first arrived at Marymount. I want to show, by my effort and example, that Marymount is a great place to be – a place where you can become your best self and help others to do the same.”