February 18, 2008 – Last Friday night, cars full of students from the various schools of the Atlantic Coast Conference pulled into the Scott Stadium parking lots at the University of Virginia. Dressed in their school colors, the students were ready to represent their respective schools. However, these ACC rivals were not gathering for an athletic competition, but rather to participate in the 10th annual ACC Student Leadership Conference.
Organized by the ACC Inter-institutional Academic Collaborative, the conference is an effort to promote student leadership and encourage interaction among the member schools outside of athletics. The ACCIAC is funded by revenue from the ACC football championship and administered by the presidents of the ACC schools. Approximately 80 students representing the 12 ACC schools came to Charlottesville for the weekend to find common ground and share ideas about what it means to be a leader in their community.
"The purpose of this particular conference is to enhance the individual capacities of the students that attend as they undoubtedly will be facing major leadership roles after they leave college," ACCIAC coordinator David Brown said. "It is also to enhance the particular passions and programs that each of the students brings to this conference with the idea that things might happen differently back on their home campus during their college years."
While planning this year's event, U.Va. associate dean of students William Ashby and director of student involvement Christopher Husser worked to incorporate a broader idea of leadership than had been used in past years, with the help of increased funding from the ACC.
"When we were asked to take on the hosting this year, we kind of questioned, 'What's really the intent, what's the purpose of this?'" Husser said. "Well it's a leadership conference. And we felt like leadership is not something that is inherent only to elected officials. In fact, you have people who are just as much, if not better, examples of leaders in the community, in student organizations, in the whole variety of the spectrum that represents student life."
Ashby and Husser encouraged participating schools to send a diverse group of student leaders that included members of student government, and also leaders in community service, student organizations and campus community life. According to Husser, this year's theme, "Aspiring for Impact: Evolving Perspectives of Student Leadership," was inspired by the idea that although student leadership can mean different things for different people, it should always aim to have a positive impact on the community.
Brown opened the conference at a dinner Friday night in the Bryant Hall recruiting room by asking students to remember what they learn at the conference and to take those lessons back to their own schools. That night, the students also heard a lecture from Peter Newman, a visiting professor from Australia in U.Va.'s Department of Urban and Environmental Planning. Newman is an expert on environmental sustainability, a topic highlighted in the conference's sustainability plan competition.
"We wanted to create some aspect of this conference that would live beyond the weekend," Husser said. "We picked sustainability because it has a lot of relevance right now."
According to Ashby, the competition was an opportunity for the students to apply skills they had learned over the weekend to a problem they will undoubtedly confront in their future leadership positions.
"It will be up to this generation to address the environmental crisis creatively, using entrepreneurial strategies to mainstream green lifestyles," Ashby said. "If this weekend is representative of the mindset of this generation about the issue and the strategies they will develop to address it, I am hopeful that solutions will be abundant."
In the competition, cross-school teams drafted plans to increase environmental responsibility at all the ACC schools. The students presented their ideas to a panel of judges Sunday morning, with the possibility that their suggestion would actually be put into action. The winning team proposed an "Atlantic Conservation Challenge," a contest in which each school would track factors such as energy and water consumption. They would then implement a strategy to decrease the usage at their school and compare the reduction to the other schools, while taking size of the school into consideration.
The weekend's activities also included workshops on Saturday that ran on three different tracks. Students could choose which set of meetings they wanted to attend based on their type and level of leadership. On Saturday night, John D'earth, a member of the performance faculty of U.Va.'s McIntire Department of Music, delivered a keynote address about musical improvisation. Following the speech, the students watched improvisation in action at a performance of the Blue Man Group at John Paul Jones Arena. The two activities were meant to inspire the conference participants to use creativity and adaptation in their leadership roles.
While planning the conference, Husser aimed to remind both the participants and the wider University community that collaboration with other schools can be a valuable resource, as the students at different universities often confront similar situations and problems.
"Why not try to collaborate and bridge gaps, and get to know one another and develop resources across different schools?" Husser asked. "Why not try to reach out beyond your particular campus?"
For Tamira Roberson, a third-year student and member of the U.Va. delegation, the conference provided a chance to develop skills she hopes to use while in college and in the rest of her life.
"This generation is going to be the leaders of the future," Roberson said. "Giving us the opportunity to branch out now and mature within our leadership roles and to see other people and their leadership roles is really important in terms of our future."
For more information about the 2008 ACC Student Leadership Conference, visit www.student.virginia.edu/~acc2008/.