by Carly Gregerman, ’19 and Jen Walsh, Director of Student Engagement and Leadership

We all know them.  The passionate-to-the-point-of-over-extension go-to people on campus.  No matter WHAT they’re involved in, they seem to be involved in EVERYTHING . . . those beautiful names-we-know-before-faces . . . as influencers and idea generators, people movers and shakers, opportunity makers and opportunity takers.  

But is that the archetype of student leadership we should be holding up? In this first part of a LONG conversation, Jen Walsh, Director of Student Engagement and Leadership shares her insights with sophomore (and highly recognized student leader, resident assistant, and Campus and Community Outreach Coordinator) Carly Gregerman as to why Beloit’s leadership culture is strong and thriving.

You can find the audio of the extended interview here:  


Carly: Leadership seems like a bit of a buzzword; what does it mean to you, exactly, and why is it important?

Jen: You’re right, leadership is completely a buzzword, and it has been for a long time. It’s definition has gone through different iterations; the one I kind of land on and try to talk about here at Beloit is leadership as a kind of everyday change maker. When people traditionally think of leadership they think of the iconic leaders in our generation, or in our lifetime, or in our history.  You know.  I mean you could probably name some . . . like who are the people you think of as leaders?

Carly: Yeah, I think of President Obama and…

Jen: Exactly. People who have ascended to a leadership position.

Carly: Yeah, like a miraculous sort of peak leader.

Jen: Yep, and not to say that they are not leaders, because they most certainly are, but that’s the example that’s set for us as human beings.  We don’t recognize the everyday things that people do that’s also direct leadership.  I say this often but I think leadership comes down sometimes to simple acts of kindness, acts of leadership that happen all the time.  Here on campus, one of the first things I noticed when I interviewed was that people hold the door open for one another. A small thing for sure, it’s a cultural thing that we just kind of do just cause we’ve learned it, but what does it do? It helps the person behind you so they don’t have to lift the door, it shows graciousness and kindness.  If they appreciate it and they say thank you, it creates social connection.  There are so many things that interact in that small gesture which I think are leadership; somebody showing that it’s more than just them and they aren’t just holding the door for themselves, it’s about the community that they live in. So I love that example because it’s such a small thing but it makes such a huge impact that anyone can do all the time.  So that’s kind of been how I have been defining leadership, by everyday actions that you do. I think also sometimes people think that club leadership is sometimes the only way you can be a leader, but there’s lots of other ways to be a leader.

Carly: So you brought us to my very next question, thank you for that! What are seven habits of highly successful student leaders?

Jen: Well, I cheated a little bit. Author Stephen Covey has explored the seven habits of highly effective leaders in a book of the same name.  And I think that I can largely agree with most of them, I mean anyone can probably pull off the seven habits,  which are similar to another model I use which is called The Social Change Model of Leadership.

The Social Change Model of Leadership starts with the individual.  To develop your leadership skills you should regularly reflect about what you contribute, how you make decisions, how you view effective leadership, how you prioritize life commitments, and all of that.

The idea is that once you have those things answered — the roots of the tree right? — you move on to working with other people, thinking about others, empathizing with others, understanding others’ positions, and listening and managing meetings and facilitating discussions.

Finally it’s about the larger community we live in. Deciding how you want to impact the community you live in is the goal of all leadership development.  The goal is to make some real change on a larger level . . . otherwise you get stuck with your own priorities and can get really selfish and don’t really move past that.   The Social Change Model, as I see it, is to be a true change maker in the group or community or family you are in.

Carly: Thank you so much. Okay, so . . . can you give us two examples of students you’ve worked with who have exhibited these habits? . . .  Just like two of the best people you have ever met, no pressure.

Jen: Gosh, god it’s really hard, and some of them aren’t necessarily here either because I have worked at several institutions. I don’t really wanna name names, cause I just feel very strange about that.  Not everyone does all the seven habits of leadership perfectly, and some people I would point to make mistakes.  Some of the best leaders are people who can do that. Make mistakes, own it, and learn from it.  Seeing leadership as a process is so valuable, and thinking about the learning that comes through the mistakes you are making and through the challenges you have with other people, is a critical feature of great leadership . . . because you can’t be a leader and not have conflict, right?

Carly: And you can’t be a leader without growth you know? Nobody is born the perfect leader.

Jen: Nobody is born a leader at all, in my opinion.  It is all kind of learned through behavior and challenge.

Carly: How much initiative you take to really work on what you’re lacking, and confidence in what you have strengths in.

Jen: … and there are definitely strengths involved and natural skills that you have that make you a good leader, but you gotta like foster those, and you can’t just like…

Carly: You gotta be humble as well. You have to be confident but humble.

Jen: Right.  That’s what I really value when I look for student leaders here and other places–when they can go:

  • Yep, you know what?  I totally messed up, or
  • I made a bad decision, or
  • It impacted people in a way I didn’t mean to and guess what I’m gonna make some changes to do things differently next time.

I love when people are self aware and can move on from mistakes. Another thing that makes people very effective student leaders is being able to prioritize time.  Students at Beloit are very…they have got a lot going on!  There’s class and perhaps athletics and perhaps other outside forces of jobs and things that take up a lot of time–so much that it’s sometimes hard to think about taking something else on.

Being able to motivate yourself to find those things that you are passionate about and then prioritize your time to make those passions a priority is key.  Of course academics always comes first, but then we should prioritize extra-curricular commitments outside of that.  

That’s a challenge; I do this work, and I admit that I still struggle with how to prioritize my time and how to be thoughtful in how I make decisions, and what I need to say no to.  That’s the other piece of it.  Not just prioritizing but understanding when your plate is full, and saying yeah, I know you want me to do that thing but I can’t and I’m sorry.

Carly: And seeing . . . this at least for me has been a constant struggle . . . but being able to say no to some things that you are interested in so that you can still remain passionate about the things that really matter to you and be able to take care of yourself at the same time.  I feel like too often college students will take on more than they can chew.  There are so many amazing things out there, but at some point you just gotta realize that your self-care and the things you are really passionate about are a little more important.

Jen:  But there’s a process, there’s an exploratory process too, right? Leadership involves being able to figure out what your passions are . . . but once you figure it out, yeah you do have to pare it down. I talk with students too often about the 100% vs 20%.  Would you rather do 20 things at 10% or 10 things at 60%? You gotta think about how much time and dedication you are gonna put into the things you say you wanna do.

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