Student leadership at the University of Virginia is about more than heading an organization or serving in a prominent role.
“Being a student leader at U.Va. means you are willing to roll up your sleeves and tackle tough challenges head-on,” President Teresa A. Sullivan told the inaugural cohort of the Meriwether Lewis Institute for Citizen Leadership. “Being a student leader here means you work as partners with the University’s leaders as we navigate difficult issues together.”
On Sunday, the president addressed the 25 rising third-year students in the pilot class for the institute, which was created as part of Sullivan’s strategic plan and funded entirely by a donation from U.Va. parents Rebecca and Bill Sanders.
The fellows will spend six weeks examining how they and other student leaders can address challenges within the University. The summer course, along with a “Leadership Across Disciplines” course completed this spring, will prepare the Meriwether Lewis Fellows to undertake independent projects in their third and fourth years addressing specific issues within the University.
During the summer program, students will hear from faculty and staff from across the University as well as from prominent alumni. Additionally, they will meet with the deans of each of the University’s schools to discuss school-specific challenges to better understand broad impacts across the University.
“There are so many leadership programs that look externally, which is wonderful. But this one applies what students are learning to issues here in our own backyard,” said Margaret Grundy, assistant to the Vice President and Chief Student Affairs Officer and an administrator of the program.
The summer program allows students to take a step back from coursework and extracurricular activities and focus on longer-term goals for their time at the University.
“You start the school year with a lot of ideas about what you want to work on, but then the other shoe drops,” said third-year student Abraham Axler, president of U.Va.’s Student Council. “I am looking forward to taking such a large block of time in the summer to think about strategic goals.”
By the end of the summer, the cohort will develop a presentation for University leaders addressing a specific set of challenges. Each fellow will also identify the issues that he or she would like to address in individual projects, either focusing on a particular student organization or examining broader issues on Grounds.
Axler plans to focus on how University students interact with alcohol, including potential policy changes and collaborations among students, administrators, police, parents and others. This means partnering with stakeholders to better work with – and even potentially change – current laws and policies, he said.
“I don’t think anyone has an easy answer,” Axler said. “This summer will give me time to work with a lot of smart peers and think about the resources that the University is providing.”
Third-year student André Sanabia is interested in the retention of minority students throughout the admission process. He plans to develop strategies for understanding the challenges that minority applicants face and encouraging them to choose U.Va. once they are offered admission.
Fellow third-year student DeAnza Cook hopes to use the summer to put into practice skills she has been learning in class and to learn from other student leaders.
“The institute will provide a space for leaders across the University to come together to cooperatively tackle different issues,” she said.
For her individual project, Cook is interested in increasing multicultural awareness in student dormitories, focusing not just on racial and cultural differences, but also on gender and sexuality.
“To understand why this program is so valuable for U.Va., we need only to reflect on the academic year that just concluded,” Sullivan told gathered students and administrators Sunday. “One of the reasons that we were able to emerge from that period of chaos and controversy and enter now into a period of recovery is because our students have provided strong leadership the entire time.”
At the conclusion of her remarks, Sullivan urged the students to focus on leadership traits that made the institute’s namesake, Meriwether Lewis, one of the most renowned explorers in American history: curiosity, team-building, preparation and commitment.
“If you have these qualities, other people will notice and they will look to you for leadership, just as Thomas Jefferson looked to Meriwether Lewis to lead that great exploratory quest more than 200 years ago.”