University of Wisconsin–Madison

Third Year: Growing as a Leader

The phrase “leaders of tomorrow” is used often in college; your student may hear it during orientation, at convocation, or during commencement ceremonies. Developing leadership skills — which are valued by society in general and employers in particular — is a central purpose of higher education. But what does it mean to “be a leader”?

“Leadership is not just about the position you hold,” says Mark Kueppers, assistant dean and director at the Center for Leadership & Involvement (CfLI). “A lot of times people refer to student leaders and that’s basically based on someone’s position or title. We really look at leadership more as the process of engaging in change.”

Like involvement, leadership takes many forms on campus, and CfLI is spreading awareness that leadership can — and does — occur in any setting. CfLI views that process of change — the evolution of beliefs, values, and behaviors at personal, group, and societal levels — as a continuous phenomenon, regardless of whether students notice it.

“Students can [be leaders] from any place, in any position, and they are doing that,” Kueppers says.

Campus involvement opportunities, such as clubs, athletic teams, and volunteering, serve as great ways to find leadership experiences. The Morgridge Center for Public Service — which creates partnerships between the university and off-campus communities and hosts Badger Volunteers, the largest volunteer program on campus — sees leadership as a fundamental outcome of its programs.

“Our programs ask students not only to complete a task, but to reflect on the situations they experience,” says Mark Bennett, former communications specialist for the center. “We see personal growth in many students once they step off campus and into new communities with new faces, challenges, and opportunities.”

“I think what [involvement] really means is to intentionally engage in something that you’re drawn to for the purposes of your continued development,” says Kueppers. “That’s also a broad phrase, but it’s really about taking advantage of the opportunities that exist so that you can continue to grow into the person you’re hoping to be.”

However, successful involvement means balance. A common concern for students, as well as their parents, is becoming too involved and not having enough time for everything. CfLI offers a simple solution: scale up — not back.

Junior year gives students a chance to reflect upon their accomplishments so far, while also creating new goals and seeking opportunities in leadership that they can build on during senior year. While they’ve been doing a balancing act with school and socializing, they’ve learned valuable time-management skills that they can apply as leaders. And they’ve made connections that help them feel more comfortable in leadership roles.

Becoming a leader creates a multitude of positive experiences and outcomes for students, including the chance to work with people from different backgrounds, learn more about individual values, and identify what motivates others to get involved or take action. Leadership also builds on the ability to work as part of a team; the best leaders learn how to work with others for a common goal.