LEAP turns first-year students into community leaders

By Sarah Destin '14

Wertimer may be a bit isolated down at the bottom of the Hill, but location fosters close-knit bonds in this small, entirely first-year dorm. In past years, Wertimer has housed academic programs, such as the REAL Program, through which residents took a class together in the fall of their freshman year. However, the LEAP Program moves beyond the purely academic sphere of education and instead seeks to cultivate leadership skills through numerous group activities.

Meghan O’ Sullivan ’15 and Jack Boyle ’15 designed the LEAP Program as a Levitt Leadership Institute Commitment Project. In the fall semester, students are broken up into groups of eight to 10 students who work with upperclassmen mentors to complete group activities and participate in a Leadership Speaking Series. In the spring semester, these students will put their leadership skills to work and complete a group leadership project that has a positive impact on the campus.

“LEAP was solely conceived of by graduates of the Levitt Leaders program. They wanted to foster leadership skills among first-year students in a residential setting, and LEAP was born. The program doesn’t have an academic focus per se (like REAL), but instead seeks to expose students to leadership resources and promote a culture of leadership on campus,” said Senior Associate Dean of Students Meredith Harper Bonham.

One component that makes the LEAP Program different from past residential-based programs is the fact that students initially designed the concept of the LEAP Program.

“Last spring, when the Levitt Leaders pitched the residential component to me and my colleagues, we immediately recognized the chance to provide another community-building option for first-years that can ease their transition to Hamilton. Since then, Travis Hill, Tristan Rios and I have collaborated with the student leaders Meghan O’Sullivan and Jack Boyle and with Chris Willemsen in the Levitt Center to launch the program this fall,” said Bonham.

The administration had no idea how many incoming students would be intersted in devoting their time to the LEAP Program, especially because its format had no precedent on the Hill.   “Since this was the first year we offered LEAP, we had no idea how many first-year students would commit to the program, and hoped that we would have enough to fill Wertimer residence hall. We were stunned when 54 students (the number eventually grew to 59) signed up! Since that exceeded the available beds in Wertimer, we created additional spaces for LEAPers in Root residence hall. In addition, we received an enthusiastic response from potential LEAP mentors, and had no trouble staffing the program,” said Bonham.

O’Sullivan feels that so far the leadership training activities have been creative and successful. The most recent activity was based on Iron Chef and served to help students learn about negotiation skills.

“The basic premise was that each LEAP group would get a set of ingredients of only one food group. For example, one group got only vegetables, one group got only meat, one group got only dairy, etc. Each group needed to make a meal, and couldn’t make one using only that one type of ingredient, so the groups had to negotiate with each other and find an equitable way to trade and distribute the ingredients. Some of the negotiations got a bit heated, but I think everyone had a lot of fun and learned a lot about how to negotiate with people when resources and time are limited,” said O’Sullivan.

O’Sullivan feels that one of the most powerful parts of the LEAP Program is the fact that it shows how students can enact real change on campus.

“What I really want to drive home about this program is the power of students to truly effect change on campus, and the importance of being driven towards a vision,” she said. “If you can dream it, it can happen. It might not be easy and it will probably require much more work than you’d ever anticipated. However, it’s amazing what a group of students can do together after talking for a few hours in a conference room, and it’s amazing how people can motivate each other to accomplish daunting tasks.”


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