HUNTSVILLE, Ala. (Oct. 1, 2013) - As a young man raised in Harvest, Ala., Taylor Reed has grown up with the same conservative values as most of his Southern peers. But when he attended the 2012 Atlanta LeaderShape Institute as a representative of The University of Alabama in Huntsville (UAH), he came face to face with the fact that not everyone ascribes to the same worldview.
"In the South we're used to being in the majority and we're used to everyone kind of believing the same things," says Reed, a junior majoring in mechanical engineering. "Most of us are conservative and Christian, so down here, if people's beliefs are completely opposite, you think, Why? How do you believe that?"
But at the LeaderShape Institute, where UAH was the only Southern school, he says "it was a culture shock - everyone was like, 'I can't believe you believe that.' So it tests your morals." To his credit, though, Reed decided to open himself to the experience rather than shut down or become defensive about "how it feels to be in the minority."
As a result, he says, "I have more respect and more of an understanding of others' beliefs. I don't think it changed my views overall, but it did change how I see others and help me see why others believe the things they do." And that is exactly the spirit of acceptance that LeaderShape is hoping attendees of its six-day Institute will adopt.
A non-profit corporation formed in 1998, LeaderShape's mission is to develop young adults to lead with integrityTM, which it does by hosting national sessions of the LeaderShape Institute each summer. Over the course of a week, university students from across the country gather in groups - or "family clusters" - of 10 to 12 to discuss and plan for how they can make a difference in their respective communities.
Each year for the past two years, UAH's Leadership Office has sponsored six students to attend the Institute. Kacey Schaum, UAH's Assistant Director for Student Life, says the significant expense is a worthwhile investment because the sessions enable students to dedicate a few days of their otherwise busy schedules to self-reflection.
We got to see how, in being a leader, you have to know yourself as well as you know the people are you leading.
"LeaderShape is a unique opportunity for our campus leaders to grow. It allows them to spend a week away from campus to fully dedicate their time to their own leadership development without the distractions that occur in their daily lives," says Schaum.
Moreover, she continues, LeaderShape "exposes our students to the diversity of student leaders from other universities, which they may not receive at UAH." And that, in turn, "challenges them to work with those who are different than them, which ultimately pushes them to think differently and lead differently."
And while the Leadership Office already offers UAH students many excellent programs, it can't offer what LeaderShape does, which Schaum says is a completely different experience - and perhaps more importantly, one whose benefits extend beyond more than just the attendee.
"Our hope is that these extraordinary student leaders come back after the week better than when they left. We also hope they bring back what they learned and share it with their peers and make a difference on our campus," says Schaum.
Two students who attended the Institute this past summer were sophomores Chelsea Maynard and Claudia Mesnil. Unlike Reed, Maynard and Mesnil were not the only ones from a Southern university. But like Reed, they were still overcome by the diversity of perspectives. "The experience of being in so many cultures was a shock," says Maynard.
In her case, differences arose not because she is Southern but because she is white. "There were a lot of conversations about white privilege," she says. "I felt people were upset at white people for being privileged, but we can't help with what skin we're born with." It was especially hard for her, says the elementary education major, because "controversy makes me sick to my stomach!"
But through discussion within her family cluster, Maynard was able work through those and other touchy issues in an environment of openness and trust. "In small group we broke it down and accepted it, and then figured out how we could work together," she says. "And that's what I took away: it's what you do with white privilege and how you impact the world that matters."
Mesnil, a Puerto Rican student who is double-majoring in elementary education and Spanish, says she felt she brought a unique viewpoint to her family cluster. "I felt like my voice always needed to be heard. A lot of the discussions I felt like I was bringing a different perspective into things than everyone else," she says.
At the same time, by having that different perspective, she was also challenged in her beliefs, just as Reed had been the year before as a Southerner among mostly Northern peers. "I thought that was interesting," she says. "We got to see how, in being a leader, you have to know yourself as well as you know the people are you leading."
But figuring out where you stand is just one of several components integral to effective leadership. Another is listening to others and respecting their contributions regardless of any differences. Maynard shares a quote from her time at the Institute that she feels sums it up: "Are you listening to understand, or are you listening to form a response?"
Indeed, all three students say that listening was a major touchstone during the week - and not only listening, but also understanding where the other person was coming from. To that end, one activity included having each member of the family cluster write down and then share his or her life story.
For Reed, whose traditional family life had been relatively unremarkable, the experience was eye opening. "I would never have imagined the things that were said and the tragedy that everyone had been through," he says. "One girl had been on the streets for two years. Someone else had lost their whole family."
And it was just as impactful for Maynard, who is now a resident assistant (RA) on campus. "I don't know if I could have spent time getting to know my residents whole heartedly before, but this made me accept them more and respect them," she says. "We feel like we don't have time for that, but it's about making time."
That's a good skill for anyone to master, she continues, but it's especially important for a leader. "You're the representative. If you're not listening to their concerns, how can you help them?" she asks. "So I've been trying to really look out for signs of people who have more going on in their life."
But as the three students learned upon their return from the Institute, that's a lot easier to do in a small group setting or family cluster than it is to do across a bustling 400-acre campus. "When I got back, all my conversations I wanted to be, like, sharing my life story and them sharing theirs!" says Reed with a laugh.
Yet rather than being daunted, as they might have been before their LeaderShape experience, they're more determined than ever to apply what they've learned. "I have been trying to talk to and meet more people, and to connect and open up with them," says Mesnil. "Even if I meet people at a party, I'll start talking to them about important issues."
She's also recently founded a new group on campus, the Hispanic Student Organization, which is dedicated to bringing Hispanic and Latino students together to raise awareness and celebrate Hispanic culture. And eventually, she says, she wants to start an educational outreach group to help improve local schools.
Reed, meanwhile, says he'll walk up to total strangers, forgoing the easy company of people he already knows to help someone who looks like they could use a friend. "Since I got back, when I see people alone, instead of hanging out with my 20 friends, I can hang out with them and get to know them better," he says. "Those people are the ones who need someone to talk to."
And one day, he continues, he hopes to return to the LeaderShape Institute - only this time as a facilitator. "You have to apply and be chosen and go through training," Reed says, "but nothing can stop me because I want to help other students have the same experience as I had."
Facing challenges so that he can act as a guide to others? Those sound like the words of a born leader.