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Leadership immersion experience puts concepts into practice for Penn State Smeal management students

December 10, 2018

Leadership Immersion Experience
Leadership Immersion Experience puts concepts into practice.

At the end of each semester, Jennifer Eury has asked her Management 355 students to offer feedback on ways to improve the class, which explores leadership and change in organizations.

Eury, a clinical assistant professor of management and organization in the Penn State Smeal College of Business, said most students agreed that the class could be improved if they were able to test the principles they learned in class. 

“The students overwhelmingly suggested an out-of-class component to put into practice what they’ve learned and to strengthen their leadership skills,” Eury said. 

Until this year, though, Eury couldn’t give the students what they wanted. 

Leadership Immersion Experience
Leadership Immersion Experience

Eury is one of five Penn State faculty members who are serving as fellows in the Faculty Academy for Engaged Scholarship during the 

2018-19 academic year. The Faculty Academy accepts proposals annually, and is intended to deepen University-wide discourse, practice, and recognition of engaged scholarship at Penn State. 

Combining her knowledge of the curriculum with the goals of the Student Engagement Network, Eury submitted a proposal for just the type of out-of-class activity her classes had clamored for — a leadership immersion experience on the ropes course at the Stone Valley Recreation Area. 

“Research has shown that engagement opportunities, whether outside of class or embedded in course projects, are transformative for students,” said Mike Zeman, program director of the Penn State Student Engagement Network. “Experiences that enable students to make a psychological investment or connection and incorporate learning into their lives enhances the overall student experience.” 

The academy granted Eury funding and she was able to take two sections of her class to Stone Valley on a Saturday in late autumn. Eury said she was excited to introduce the new learning opportunities.

“Although I use a number of active learning strategies to engage the students, nothing compares to the opportunity for students to step outside of the classroom and to practically apply their leadership skills. The ropes courses, and the many scenarios associated with them, provided the students with an opportunity to move beyond their comfort areas,” she said. 

“They learned to trust each other. They learned to listen to each other, to create plans, and to solve problems. They practiced communicating with meaning. And, most of all, they used their leadership strengths to navigate and embrace challenging situations.” 

 But, first, some students drew on another important aspect of Eury’s class, journaling and goal-setting. 

“Before attending the leadership immersion, I took a moment to consider what my goals of the day were and how I wanted to go about achieving them. That morning, I read a copy of my leadership action plan that we did earlier in the semester to remind myself of my overarching goals of the semester,” said Aileen Barrett, a junior finance major. 

“To my surprise, as I now sit here reflecting on the skills that stick out to me most during the immersion, three of them are part of my focus area for improvement. During the immersion, I used my leadership skills to be present, empathetic, and confident. These behaviors required me to be communicative, understanding, encouraging, self-aware, and, most importantly, positive and uplifting.” 

That day, students were faced with completing team challenges on a course that was specifically designed for teams to bond and develop their skills as a team, and also as leaders. 

“I realized that leadership isn't as ‘cookie cutter’ as some resources make it out to be; it is also not necessarily innate or teachable. A lot of leadership is learned through experience. It is learned through the failures and the successes of other people and your own,” said Shivani Sharma, a junior majoring in corporate innovation and entrepreneurship. 

Leadership Immersion from Smeal College of Business on Vimeo.

Nijah Bise, a sophomore majoring in management, said she thought she was a ‘natural born leader’ but wanted to explore what made her a leader. She also said that her mother often reminded her that she needed to work on her trust issues. The leadership immersion forced her to meet her trust issues head on. 

“Even in school group activities, I always had to be the dominant one making decisions because I was afraid if I left it to others, it would not be done correctly. For the first time in my life, I feel like I just let go and leaned on my teammates for the answers and, most importantly, support,” Bise said. 

“I caught myself holding on to teammates’ shoulder the entire time, to walking across the two logs with a teammate and putting my entire body force on him. All I could think about was ‘if he steps a little too far back, I am falling.’ Trust is such an important leadership quality and you cannot become a leader without trusting your team. How can I gain the trust of future customers and employees if I do not trust them myself?” 

The final piece of the experience was self-reflection journaling Eury required of the class and then sharing those reflections in class. 

“The most helpful piece was the reflection done in class afterward, which helped us to determine what there was to be learned from the experience and ultimately helped me to see my personal leadership skills and those of my classmates,” said Ryan Francella, a sophomore majoring in management. 

Elina Fantilli, a junior management major, said the combination of the concepts learned in class, the leadership immersion experience and the reflection and class discussion that tied them all together, revealed future uses for what the students learned. 

“When we are sitting in class, it’s one thing to say that we trust people and we understand them. However, it’s a whole different scenario when you’re high up in the air and trust is the only thing you have to complete the challenge at hand,” Fantilli said. 

“Because of that experience, we are able to put trust into a perspective that we all experienced together and now we can take what we learned and apply it to our own relationships and future careers.” 

Eury said that was the intended outcome of building an experiential learning activity into her course.

“In so many ways, the lessons that the students learned through this one-day experience, in the context of our course, centered on leadership and change,” she said. “They translate into a wide range of experiences that they will encounter in the professional workplace.”

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