The Class of 2018’s Leadership Experience And Preparation (LEAP) program’s 12th and final meeting took place on Nov. 16. Sixteen Hamilton first-year students along with four LEAP mentors, gathered in a KJ classroom to escape the cold, Clinton November day, and discuss what goes into making an effective leader.

Gretha Suarez ’15 and Taylor Elicegui ’16 have worked for the past year as co-directors for LEAP. According to Suarez, this year’s program changed significantly from last year’s inaugural LEAP program.

Last year was the first time that LEAP was offered as an opportunity for incoming first-year students. LEAP began as a brainchild of several students working with the Levitt Leadership Initiative in the spring of 2013. Suarez was one of these students, and credits her passion for the commitment project with her own experience as a Hamilton first-year student.

“I didn’t really get involved my first year here, I was just too overwhelmed,” explained Suarez. “I realized sophomore year that being a Hamilton student meant being involved with making positive change, and it made me think: if I were able to get first-years hooked on creating change on campus and in the community, it would be a great LEAP,” Suarez added, with a laugh, “I didn’t mean to be corny, but the phrase just fits.”

Under last year’s model, students were able to apply online for the leadership initiative before arriving at Hamilton; those applications were reviewed and, if selected, the students were assigned to live together in specific residence halls. This model yielded 60 LEAP participants, along with 16 mentors; participants met weekly with these mentors to take part in experiential leadership learning. While the weekly meetings remain a foundation for the course, changes this year brought a vital new component: academic association.

“The decision was made this year to ground [LEAP] firmly in with the Hamilton curriculum. This meant tying the program to a class, instead of having it as a residential program [as it was last year]” said Suarez.

The class Suarez is referring to is The Pursuit of Happiness, a philosophy course taught by Professor Rick Werner. During summer registration, incoming students were given the chance to sign up for the class; upon registration, students automatically became members of the 2014-2015 LEAP experience. Without a residential requirement, a commitment to LEAP meant only a responsibility to actively participate in the weekly meetings—however, participation would not reflect in the student’s classroom grade. “Professor Werner insisted on making the meetings non-mandatory—he proposed, and the LEAP mentors agreed, that forcing students to take on leadership roles would not be productive. Instead, it became the job of the students to engage or not, to attend or not,” said Suarez. “It’s accountability, but on another kind of level.”

The results of the many changes are remarkably positive.

“It’s been a learning process for both for Taylor and I, and for the Levitt Center staff, but the students who are in [LEAP] right now have actually capitalized on the opportunity,” explained Suarez. “They’ve been really good about asking questions and pushing to understand what they’re getting out of the leadership activities; they’ve decided on their own that they think this is important.”

LEAP meetings take place separately from Professor Werner’s classroom, but the conversations during the Sunday sessions are designed to respond to the philosophy discussed in The Pursuit of Happiness. “We picked a class that would not usually be associated with ‘leadership,’ because we wanted to prove that leadership can be integrated in many ways, at many levels,” said Suarez. Each meeting centers on a different aspect of leadership: self-awareness, active listening, and conflict management, to name a few.

While scheduled LEAP programming has drawn to a close for the academic year, the students will continue to work on a capstone project that doubles as a public service initiative for the Hamilton community. In addition to this, Professor Werner will take on the advising of the 16 students for the spring 2015 semester.

According to Suarez, this year’s success has prompted discussion about a possible expansion of LEAP for next year’s participants. This could mean having multiple classes that affiliate with a LEAP discussion group, or organizing separate programs for the fall and spring semesters.

Whatever the future may hold, one thing remains certain: Hamilton College’s commitment to becoming a campus that inspires leadership is stronger than ever.

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