Elmhurst College In Depth

Taking the Lead

At the LeaderShape Institute, students bond, brainstorm, reflect on lessons learned and, occasionally, execute a perfect Tarzan rope-swing.

It was Alex Wilczewski’s turn to go through the spider’s web. He and eight other Elmhurst students were standing in a forest clearing at a retreat center in Woodstock, Illinois, about forty miles northwest of campus, mulling the obstacle in their path: a web-like tangle of ropes strung from tree to tree, with dozens of tiny bells attached at key junctions. The group’s challenge was to get Wilczewski and his lanky, six-foot-plus frame through a rope ring about five feet off the ground and at the center of the web, without setting off those bells.

“No way,” said one of the students.

“No problem,” said another.

The exercise was part of the Elmhurst LeaderShape Institute, a six-day learning experience offered this summer by the Office of Student Affairs with support from the Center for Professional Excellence. Wilczewski and his teammates were among a group of thirty-one students who had applied for the chance to spend some of their summer break brainstorming, bonding, reflecting on lessons learned and, occasionally, executing a perfect Tarzan rope-swing. The idea, as LeaderShape’s materials explain it, is to “empower each student to lead with integrity.”

“We want our students to be able to take their big ideas and work backwards to put their vision into action,” says Laura Wilmarth Tyna, the director of leadership and civic engagement. “That means developing relationships, setting realizable goals, and walking the talk.”

One of the lessons of activities like the spider-web challenge is that exercising leadership might have as much to do with listening and collaborating as it does with commanding and controlling. Wilczewski, who had confessed that “I was the shy guy in high school,” turned out to be one of the team’s more vocal members, ready when needed to volunteer an idea or encouragement. As his team navigated the tangle of ropes, taking care not to ring any of the bells, they found themselves literally watching each other’s backs. “Watch your shoulder!” one would yell. Another would caution, “Don’t back up!”

Getting Wilczewski through the central rope loop turned out to be not all that difficult. He carefully eased himself into the arms of a few teammates, laid back rigid as a stick, and let them pass him through the loop to another bunch of teammates waiting on the other side. “A lot of this is just a matter of getting comfortable enough to interact with people,” the former “shy guy” explained after he had survived the spider’s web. “It’s a lot of fun.”

Elmhurst is one of some 70 colleges across the nation offering LeaderShape programs. The idea originated with Alpha Tau Omega fraternity in 1986; it proved so successful that LeaderShape soon incorporated as a not-for-profit enterprise. Since the mid-1990s, Elmhurst has sent more than ninety students downstate to annual national LeaderShape retreats near Urbana-Champaign. The summer retreat in Woodstock, however, marked the first time Elmhurst had hosted its own LeaderShape retreat specifically for Elmhurst students. Funding was provided by the Student Government Association.

Admission to the program is by application. Wilmarth Tyna says the College aims for a mix of students, “not just the super-involved students but also some who aren’t so active as leaders on campus.” The retreat is conducted by Elmhurst staff members, with “guest leaders” working with the students. Last summer’s guest leaders included Lee Daniels, the former speaker of the Illinois House of Representatives; Wes Becton, the director of the DuPage Medical Group and an Elmhurst trustee; and S. Alan Ray, the College’s president. Each of the retreat’s six days addresses a different theme, with students working on building relationships within their groups, exploring their visions for the future, and making a commitment to work toward their vision.

“We ask them to articulate a specific vision of something they’re passionate about, and then we ask them to hone in on it,” says Wilmarth Tyna. “By the end of the week, they’ll have a plan and know what steps to take to realize it.” Moreover, LeaderShape’s lessons don’t end with the retreat. Throughout the school year, participating students meet with on-campus mentors who help them refine and realize the goals they identified in Woodstock.

LeaderShape is one of several campus initiatives, including an evolving orientation and new first-year seminars, which allow students to focus intently not only on academic subjects but also on personal growth. Some students, like sophomore Leona Liu, take advantage of all three programs. Liu says they have become a distinctive part of her Elmhurst experience.

“My friends at big state schools don’t have these kinds of opportunities,” she says. “They’re a great chance for us to learn and grow.”

Click here to visit the LeaderShape Institute website.

Photo by Genevieve True

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