Take the Lead: A Transformative Leadership Series at Oberlin College

Oberlin designated 23% of its FWS funds to community service in 2004-05, engaging 175 undergraduates in service with 23 nonprofit agencies. “Take the Lead: A Transformative Leadership Series” is a series of monthly trainings for students to learn how to be more effective leaders. The series is offered jointly for all students who are working or serving in the community, including community service FWS students, leaders in student organizations, Bonner Scholars, athletes, mentors, and AmeriCorps students.

Oberlin College

Linda Arbogast
Center for Service and Learning

Oberlin College is a liberal arts college founded in 1833 with an enrollment of approximately 2,800 undergraduate students. Oberlin was the first coeducational college in the United States and the first to make the education of white and African American students together central to its mission. Oberlin designated 23% of its Federal Work-Study (FWS) funds to community service in 2004-05, engaging 175 undergraduates in service with 23 nonprofit agencies. Overall, 55% of Oberlin students take part in service during college. In 2004, Oberlin was awarded a Learn and Serve America grant for the primary purpose of strengthening the infrastructure of its community service Work-Study Program (CSWSP).

Leadership Training for Students

“Take the Lead: A Transformative Leadership Series” is a series of monthly trainings that give students an opportunity to learn how to be more effective leaders. The sessions meet the needs of different Oberlin College offices and programs because the series is offered jointly for all students who are working or serving in the community. Community service FWS students are required to attend, while students in many other programs are encouraged to attend. These include leaders in student organizations, Bonner Scholars, Peer Liaisons through Academic Services, Athletes, Oberlin College mentors, and the AmeriCorps Learning and Labor Program, to name a few.

Each month, faculty or staff from Oberlin sponsor one training session and either present the topic themselves or bring in outside experts in the field. The sessions last approximately an hour and a half and cover a variety of topics pertinent to student leadership.

Why “Take The Lead” Was Created

As the Program Director for the Community Service Work-Study Program, I am responsible for developing leadership training for student participants in CSWSP. Our 175 CSWSP students must be prepared in a number of ways to work off-campus, serving the needs of the town of Oberlin as well as the broader needs of Lorain County, where Oberlin is located.

It is the philosophy of the Center for Service and Learning, where CSWSP is housed, that students should understand the region where they will be working, both socially and environmentally. They also need a basic understanding of professionalism and the specific requirements of the CSWSP. I attempt to meet these needs during a half-day orientation program for the students early in the fall semester. Each of the 23 agencies where CSWSP students serve also conducts an on-site orientation specific to the mission of their agency for the FWS students they hire each semester.

Having gained a basic understanding of the community and the local agencies, we also want students to understand their role as representatives, or even ambassadors, of the college. They must begin to see themselves as student leaders and, as a result, need ongoing training and reflection time to process their new roles.

How the Series Was Organized

I began by organizing leadership development sessions myself, calling on people from other departments as necessary. In doing this, I realized that other departments were also developing similar sessions for their student leaders. The series could benefit other departments that wanted to offer high quality training to their students, but didn’t have either the time or the resources to do it alone.

A meeting was organized to talk about joint student leadership training. We invited people from various departments who offer some type of training to students. At the meeting, staff members and faculty interested in student leadership issues proposed topics that they would be willing to present to the students. A selection committee of the three primary organizers of the series chose the topics and scheduled the year-long series.

A brochure outlining the sessions was created and distributed campus-wide. At Oberlin, students identify as “activists” much more frequently than they do as “leaders,” and can even be uncomfortable with the concept of “leader.” The brochure that outlines the series is careful to indicate that the trainings apply to student activists as well as student leaders.

The Leadership Workshop Series

In the first year we held six leadership trainings. With one exception (noted below), all sessions were led by Oberlin College staff and/or faculty. Topics included the following:

Community Building

Participants learned different perspectives on community building. A panel of individuals from the Oberlin community working in education, health, small business, and faith-based sectors talked about their roles in strengthening the community. Panelists suggested strategies for the students to get involved during their four years in the town of Oberlin.

Conflict Resolution and Communication

This session was led by Leah Wing of Amherst College, who is a professor of legal studies. Dr. Wing described an approach to mediation training and intervention that incorporated a social justice lens. Theory and practice was discussed, enabling students to leave the workshop with hands-on tools for how to resolve conflict and communicate more effectively.

Mentorship

This workshop outlined the concept of mentoring, provided attendees with strategies to make the most of a mentoring relationship, and helped students develop their own mentoring skills.

Group Process

Participants were introduced to group process and dynamics. Topics related to group life were examined including functions, roles, communication, and leadership.

Effective Teamwork

The focus of this session was to learn how to maximize collaborative decision making and mobilize group energy for effective action.

Balance and Boundaries

This workshop helped students balance and connect academics, extracurricular activities, and career explorations. It discussed how the typical “overcommitted” Oberlin student can prioritize commitments.

Lessons Learned and Future Plans

The significant things we learned from the first year are:

  • We need to standardize evaluations of the sessions so we are better able to assess the overall series at the end of the year.
  • We need to vary the times of the sessions so that they can appeal to a broader spectrum of students.
  • It is critical to keep the series as high profile as possible. This means advertising it heavily at the beginning of fall and spring semesters. Effective advertising includes brochures, flyers, on-line events calendar announcements, and banners in the student union.
  • Since some students are required to attend (e.g., Bonner Scholars and CSWSP students) and others encouraged, it is important to keep a sign-in sheet that clarifies what program the students are in, if any.
  • Sessions should be scheduled during times that don’t conflict with other important events on campus, including mid terms and finals, reading periods, religious holidays, and convocation speakers.
  • Whenever possible, snacks and other refreshments are a nice touch and add incentive for students.

We continue to improve the program each year. Next year we plan to create an additional incentive for students who attend all the sessions, such as a framed certificate, a gift certificate to the bookstore, or a dinner event where the students are recognized. Our goal is to get more departments and programs involved, thereby expanding the number and type of students who attend the series.

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