Stephen Covert ’93 sees information about all kinds of collegiate leadership programs cross his desk as principal of Pine View School for the Gifted in Osprey, Florida. An email from his alma mater stood out. It described a program that “will serve as a springboard for already stellar students to learn from leaders and use their passions – whatever they may be – to truly make a positive difference in our communities.”
Part of what Covert liked was the idea of capitalizing on students’ interests, whether they already exhibit leadership tendencies or not. Taking a seed and encouraging it to bloom. That’s the impetus for a new UMW initiative – the Presidential Emerging Leaders Program, or PELP.
“When I started college, I had no clue what I wanted to do, who I wanted to be, or what skills I might possess or needed to develop in order to live a more purposeful life,” said UMW President Troy Paino, who will play a key role in the program, set to launch this fall. “We do not assume that students come to us fully formed. We assume they come to us with tremendous potential.”
The innovative program matches first-year students’ distinctive strengths to the leadership style that suits them best. Covering topics like communication, conflict resolution and cultural humility, the yearlong cohort-type program will help selected students build relationships and become engaged across campus. All the while, they will strengthen their own inner leader and use those skills throughout the UMW community.
A uniquely UMW way to harness students’ passion and potential had long been discussed, said Director of Undergraduate Admissions Melissa Yakabouski, who began putting a plan into action last year. Surveys showed strong student interest, and with leadership experts and resources already in place at UMW, she called on her colleagues to pull the pieces together.
“Just like parents, we’re trying to form good humans,” said Sandrine Sutphin, Director of Student Activities and Engagement (SAE), which will serve as PELP’s hub. “We’re not expecting all of them to become SGA president. We just want to help them determine what kind of leader they want to be.”
By design, PELP has an informal air, with no prior leadership experience required. Applicants are asked to exercise creativity in answering questions like “who do you admire?” and “what is your superpower?” They can use prose, videos, TikTok posts or whatever format best fits them. Selected students – the inaugural group will include about 30 – will meet regularly for peer-to-peer and experiential-style learning, with ample time for reflection.
Participants will be exposed to everything from personality tests to physical challenges. “Ropes courses allow students to work together in teams,” said Director of Campus Recreation Kelly Shannon, who has played a role in developing the program. “Such exercises reflect on how students can apply lessons learned to their day-to-day lives.”
As they work to target their own strengths and weaknesses, PELP members will be introduced to Mary Washington movers and shakers, including current student leaders, faculty and successful alumni. “That starts with the president,” Yakabouski said. “I think that’s powerful.”
They’ll also connect to campus clubs, cultural activities, organizations and departments, honing in on their college callings while polishing their own personal brands.
“Research is pretty clear that student engagement is directly related to student success,” Paino said. “The more a student is actively engaged with others, campus life and their studies, the more they will get out of college … and hopefully have a transformative experience.”
After their tenure in PELP, students are encouraged to serve as mentors for future participants, who, in turn, will define their own leadership styles.
“We often think that leaders have to fit all these criteria, but it’s really much simpler than that,” said Coordinator of New Student Programs Britni Greenleaf. “Everyone is a leader. It’s about what kind of leader you are and why you are here.”