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LeaderShape calls students to action

Senior Ruth Misener attended LeaderShape in 2006 because of the passion a friend had for the program, but she is returning in 2007 to share her own.

"I'm going back to LeaderShape this year because I want to see more people make the same self-discovery journey I made," Misener said of the annual six-day leadership development and community-building program that takes place every Independent Activities Period. This year it runs from Jan. 19-24.

MIT LeaderShape is a partnership between MIT and LeaderShape Inc., a non-profit organization in Champaign, Ill. LeaderShape Inc. provides the complete curriculum for MIT LeaderShape and for other campus-based LeaderShape sessions nationwide.

The program, which came to MIT in 1995, is designed to develop a number of skills in problem solving, professional ethics and decision-making. But it does more than that, says program director Tracy Purinton, from the Division of Student Life.

"It is about students and faculty learning and living together," Purinton said of the program that takes place at the Wonderland Conference Center in Sharon, Mass.

A variety of topics and activities are covered over the six-day period, including action planning, team building, group decision-making and conflict resolution. It is open to all undergraduates. The students and faculty work in small clusters as well as all together in the whole group. Over the course of the week, many strong bonds are formed, Purinton said.

"This is an oasis for them to have time to reflect," Purinton said. "It has really changed the Institute in a number of positive ways."

Each participant creates an individual plan of action designed to bring positive change to the campus community. The plan is then carried out during the following academic year.

Over the years, LeaderShape action plans have produced such innovations as Alternative Spring Break, a program that allows students to use their spring break to do volunteer work projects; the five non-academic freshman pre-orientation programs; and varsity women's ice hockey.

The 70 participants attending LeaderShape this week applied last October. They are coming for a number of reasons. Freshman Wendy Chen is hoping to continue the leadership experience she had in high school. "These activities made me a more responsible person who can guide a group of students," Chen said. "LeaderShape will supply me with valuable knowledge to take leadership to a higher level and lead the world in the future."

Senior Nicholas Pearce is hoping to take the skills he gains in LeaderShape out into the real world next year. "I have had a lot of student leadership experiences with campus organizations as well as with student government and the faculty governance structure," he said.

"Currently, I am working on the Student Leadership Development initiative and am interested in learning leadership in the setting that LeaderShape provides," Pearce said.

"I've been here almost 50 years, and I've been almost everything--an undergraduate, a Ph.D. student, a professor, president. But I never really understood how magnificent our young people are until now, after having spent six days away with them at MIT LeaderShape," said President Emeritus Paul Gray, who formerly participated as a cluster facilitator.

"At MIT, they spend all their time trying to be what we put forward as the model: the intensely rational, smart, driven person. Too often, they don't get to be or explore all those other things that are life," Gray said.

Misener hopes that by returning to LeaderShape this year in a mentoring capacity, she can help the new participants grow. "If I can be of any help to them in their quest to learn more about themselves, so much the better," she said.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on January 24, 2007 (download PDF).

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