University of Manitoba: undergraduate experience

A new model for learning to lead

Diversity, difference and unconventional thinking are hallmarks of a new University of Manitoba student leadership development program

Nardine Abdelsayed, a second-year science student at the University of Manitoba, says she came out of the very first meeting of the school’s Student Leadership Development Program inspired and motivated to make a difference—“And feeling like I can.”

Her words are testament to the impact of the program’s novel approach. Not only does it expose students to a wide range of leaders and leadership approaches, but it also gives undergrads the chance to work side by side with PhD and master’s students in acquiring and applying a broad and diverse set of leadership skills.

That diversity of ages, academic levels and disciplines—everything from agriculture to kinesiology—enriches the leadership-building experience for all participants, and deepens undergrads’ connection to the university.

“There’s a tendency in universities to keep undergrads and graduate students separate,” says Cora Dupuis, Student Leadership Coordinator with the University of Manitoba’s recently created Student Life office, which runs the leadership program. “We’re finding a broader mix brings richer perspectives.”

Learning from leaders

The Student Leadership Development Program launched as a pilot in January 2013 with an initial cohort of 26. Its curriculum is built around a series of weekly workshops featuring different leaders as guest speakers—people from the community, or faculty at the University of Manitoba, and from farther afield.

The program seeks to expose students to the most diverse set of leadership perspectives possible: one week’s guest might be a business professor; the next a First Nations community leader; the next the head of a local non-profit agency. After seven weeks, the program culminates in a ‘capstone’ project that gives participants the chance to apply their new leadership skills to benefit the campus or greater community.

“We’ve left the capstone criteria very open-ended for students and let them run with it,” says Ms. Dupuis. “One group is planning a free community skate on our outdoor rink. Another is hosting a kids’ sports-equipment drive, and a third is creating a video map of our campus tunnel system for new students.”

In each case, students are given the opportunity to experience leadership as creative, collaborative and something that requires cooperation.

Learning for life

“The lessons about leadership are broad and apply to much more than large-scale projects,” says Nardine Abdelsayed, reflecting on her experience of the program. “We’re taught to think for ourselves about issues, not just depend on other people’s opinions. That lesson is, in my opinion, one of the most important.”

With the success of the pilot, Cora Dupuis says Student Life would like to expand to two simultaneous cohorts in fall 2013, extending the benefits of the program to 50 or 60 students.

“This program helps expand your mental boundaries as to what you’re capable of,” says Ms. Abdelsayed. “School helps you learn about the world, but this teaches you about yourself.

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