Transforming Students into Leaders
Poise. Professionalism. Team-building skills. Resourcefulness. Students in BU’s Summer Leadership Program gain far more than a paycheck.
By Corinne Steinbrenner (COM’06)
Photo courtesy of BU Orientation
Recent BU graduate Adanta Ahanonu is preparing for a big presentation to her company’s senior leadership. She’s only 24, and she’s only been with the Hanover Insurance Group for a year and a half, but she’s not sweating it. Public speaking is a skill she mastered years ago.
In 2008, during her sophomore year, Ahanonu (CGS’08, SMG’10) was one of about 90 BU students selected for the University’s Summer Leadership Program. Each year, students interview for these coveted positions in January, are notified of their acceptance in March, and in April begin the rigorous training that will prepare them to lead BU’s summer Orientation and community service programs. As coordinators for the First-Year Student Outreach Project (FYSOP) or advisors for BU Orientation, these students accept the responsibility of donning BU’s official red polo shirts and introducing incoming freshmen and their families to the University community.
Orientation Director Shiney James (CAS’99) organizes the 100-plus hours of training that helps these students become experts on Boston University and masters of public speaking, conflict resolution, etiquette, organization, and teamwork. “We take a lot of pride in working with our students and helping them grow as individuals—not just to do this job, but to go out and be successful afterwards,” James says.
Case in point: Ahanonu vividly remembers learning a lesson in professionalism in her early weeks as an Orientation student advisor. “There was a weekend when I had to be in Philadelphia for a family function,” she recalls. “I emailed Shiney a day or two before saying, ‘Hi Shiney. Just wanted to let you know that I can’t make training. Thanks for understanding.’ I thought that was a fine letter at the time, but Shiney wrote back a long email explaining why my email was out of line, what the best way to request that time off would have been, and how far ahead of time I should have written the email.” The response initially hurt Ahanonu’s feelings, but then James explained that she wasn’t simply being critical, rather, that she wanted Ahanonu to understand that her future success would depend on being able to communicate professionally with her employers. “And that’s something I’ve taken into my career—how to effectively and appropriately communicate with others,” Ahanonu says.
Training in teamwork and communication aren’t the only perks of a Summer Leadership Program position. Students are paid an hourly wage and are given free campus housing for the summer—a valuable commodity. They attend workshops in creating résumés and cover letters, study group dynamics, learn every inch of BU’s campus, and meet BU staff members who can support them throughout their college careers. “I always tell our students to find a mentor over the summer,” says James. “They get to meet academic folks, student-life staff—a whole array of different professionals on campus who are not faculty who can mentor them in a way that’s different and enriching.”
Veronica Faller (ENG’13), who served as an Orientation student advisor last year, says the program helped her become more self-aware. “I learned a lot of things about myself—the way that I work with other people, the way that I convey information. So it was a summer of self-discovery, in addition to all the things I learned about BU.”
“It’s a really fun summer,” Faller adds. “You get to meet a lot of people—many of whom are freshmen, and their younger siblings, who quickly come to idolize you.”
While Summer Leadership Program positions literally involve hours of fun and games, any student expecting a laid-back summer is in for a surprise. “It’s not just a summer job,” warns Mac Wrixon (CAS’12), who worked as an Orientation student advisor the summer after his sophomore year and as a coordinator of programs the next year. “It’s a busy summer with long weeks. It’s definitely more work than your typical part-time job at Dairy Queen.”
The Community Service Center and BU Orientation each employ just a handful of professional staff, so most of the herculean task of planning, organizing, and executing BU’s summer programs is entrusted to students in the Summer Leadership Program. “The level of responsibility you have is a level you’ve never had before,” says former FYSOP coordinator Sam Smith (COM’13, SMG’13). “We had to do things like call different nonprofit organizations all over the Boston area and try to coordinate service with them. My co-coordinator and I contacted 60 to 70 different organizations over the course of the summer. It’s really scary at first to realize that you’re in charge of this, and you have to put this program together somewhat from scratch.”
But each year, students find a way to accomplish their assigned tasks, and they walk away with skills and confidence that few other summer jobs could have provided. “I feel that a lot of times students focus on getting outside opportunities, things like internships,” Smith says, “and they really miss out on the opportunities on campus, even though they offer great professional development and levels of responsibility that you won’t get in any internship.” Besides, he adds, “after you’re done with college, you’re never going to have the opportunity to spend the summer working for a huge program that your college offers, whereas you have your whole life to go get a job in the business environment.”
For some students, the Summer Leadership Program offers both full immersion in campus life and excellent exposure to their future field of work. “We learned so much about the inner workings of higher education that had I had an interest in pursuing higher ed as a career, it definitely would have been a possibility,” says former FYSOP coordinator Zhandra Ferreira-Cesar (CAS’10, SPH’12). Instead, working in the Community Service Center inspired Ferreira-Cesar to pursue a master’s degree and a career in public health. “I fell in love with community service during high school, but it wasn’t until FYSOP that I realized that I could lead a volunteer project,” she says. Now a public health researcher, Ferreira-Cesar is pairing the knowledge she gained in her graduate classes with the skills she developed in the Summer Leadership Program to confidently and articulately advocate for improvements in public health.
That’s the ultimate goal of these campus positions—to provide professional training to complement students’ classroom preparation. In fact, says Lindsey Kotowicz (SED’07), director of the Community Service Center, the Summer Leadership Program provides such meaningful experiences that she’s careful not to hire the same students multiple times. “I don’t want any students in here who think they have it all figured out and aren’t going to grow from the experience,” she says. Bringing in new student leaders each summer infuses the program with fresh energy, she says, and allows a new group of students to step up to the challenge. ■