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W&M explores service through workshop for high schoolers, book club

  • Zoom screen showing book club participants with chat screen on right hand side
    Leading an Examined Life:  William & Mary students in the new book club discuss and chat online on Zoom.  Courtesy photo
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William & Mary has introduced two new programs emphasizing the theme of service.

The virtual programs are the Courageous Leadership Institute for high school students and a W&M student-created book club where 20 students weekly discuss topics such as servant leadership, moving from values to action and resilience.

Drew Stelljes, assistant vice president of student affairs, spearheaded both programs and explained that they are designed to encourage thinking beyond oneself, especially during a pandemic.

“Through speakers and small group discussions, we challenged participants to identify and refine their values and rumble with vulnerability on the road to becoming more compassionate and courageous leaders,” Stelljes said.

“Engagement is a cornerstone for leadership development and positive change. And engagement has not waned during the pandemic. In fact, we are witnessing an increase in courageous leadership from emerging adults. We repurposed our residential leadership program for an online platform — and it worked.”

The previous program, called Leadership Design, was inspired by Board of Visitors member Karen Kennedy Schultz ’75, according to Stelljes. After canceling it this year because of the pandemic, organizers saw an opportunity to be of service to high school students who may not get a chance to engage with university-level material on leadership.

This past summer the CLI convened rising 11th and 12th graders for three four-day sessions of virtual learning, discussion and reflection on topics such as leadership, values and vulnerability. W&M students and alumni served as small group moderators with approximately 50 high schoolers from all over the country participating in each session.

Organizers are planning a similar format for the fall, running two hours a week for four weeks.

“We have ambitious plans for the CLI,” Stelljes said. “We are deeply committed to living our community values of belonging, respect and integrity so that the double doors of inclusion are swung wide open for everyone. We will launch CLI this fall for hundreds of interested high school students. 

“We work each day to come closer to realizing our shared vision of creating an engaging learning environment for all, where individuals flourish and the bonds of community are strengthened. The CLI helps us engage curious learners and courageous leaders.”

Shivani Gupta ’20 served as a small group moderator.

“Facilitating discussions with CLI was a deeply satisfying and welcome throwback to discussions on leadership from college,” Gupta said. “It continually amazes me how unique, yet interconnected all perspectives on leadership are, revisiting conversations on leadership traits adapted to our current situations, including the pandemic.

“All students who chose to engage in CLI virtually are already well-versed in adapting to new circumstances and communication styles — an important trait for leaders. Learning from the perspectives of CLI students has inspired me to continue exercising courageous leadership in my work and community as an alum.”

In another major role for alumni involvement, former W&M Board of Visitors Rector Michael K. Powell ’85, D.P.S. '02, is leading the W&M student book club, which is called Leading an Examined Life, along with Cameron How ’20. Fifteen to 20 students meet virtually each week for the discussions.

The group grew out of a CLI leadership panel that was so lively that Powell offered to host another Zoom discussion as a follow-up.

“After doing so, we realized that there was immense value in continuing our discussions, so we set up a weekly Zoom group called Leading an Examined Life,” Powell said. “The name, of course, is taken from the teachings of Aristotle on happiness and leading a good life. In short, we are exploring the path of wisdom as distinct from just knowledge. This involves how to build one’s character for a life of meaning and success.”

The group has read about and explored various angles of knowledge, bias, influence and success. Titles have ranged from David Brooks’ “The Road to Character” to “Creating the Good Life” by James O’Toole, “Triggers” by Marshall Goldsmith and “The Mayo Clinic Stress Free Living Guide” by Dr. Amit Sood.

“It has been a wonderful experience for me as a moderator,” Powell said. “It helps me explore my own thinking and beliefs with a group of smart, eager and engaged students. And I think the students and graduates get a safe space to explore their own beliefs and approach to their lives.”

The book club was one of the most meaningful parts of this past summer and helped him feel personally close to the W&M community during a time of social distance, according to How.

“From a student perspective, this book club has been exceptionally useful as I inwardly traverse the tumultuous moral landscape of our country right now,” How said. “Michael has been intentional in holding a space for us to discuss the societal and personal implications of COVID-19 and the George Floyd protests, among other timely issues, in a forum that is open and non-judgmental.

“It has been as meaningful to learn from an accomplished, thoughtful and truly wise person, as it has been to have him moderate a space where students can unpack what is happening in our country and in our lives from a position of curiosity and community.”

Matt Boyer ’21 called the book club the single greatest experience he has had at W&M.

“Michael Powell's mentorship and years of wisdom have opened my eyes and mind to thoughts and practices that are changing my life,” Boyer said. “One of the greatest gifts any person can receive is mentorship. At the helm of our Leading an Examined Life book club, Michael Powell has created a space to pursue two of humanity's greatest gifts — wisdom and happiness.”