Photos courtesy of Joe Brown, Emily Conlon, Atia Hart and Philippe Seck
I should not be awake and functioning right now. That thought kept blaring through my head as I stared bleakly at the time on my phone. As the cogs began gradually turning in my brain, I remembered why I had set my alarm for 3:15 a.m. It was time to travel to Texas.
As I quickly assembled my luggage and rushed past the surprised security guard in International Hall, the adrenaline hit me full force. It was hard to imagine that I was departing for Austin, Texas to attend the Hatton W. Sumners Student Leadership Conference at the University of Texas. I was making the trip with three fellow Springfield College students, sophomores Philippe Seck and Atia Hart, and junior Emily Conlon, accompanied by Dr. Emmanuel Vincent.
We left the Springfield College parking lot around 4:15 a.m. and departed from Bradley Int’l Airport by approximately 6:15 a.m. From there we took a sleep-filled flight to Dallas, Texas and then a brief connecting flight to Austin. Tired but full of anticipation, we marveled at the sight of the bright green grass and warm temperatures that had us immediately shedding our coats and sweatshirts. After getting changed into our professional attire at the Hilton Garden Inn, we boarded the shuttle buses with a plethora of students from various states and colleges on our way to the suites in the Longhorns’ stadium.
We were encouraged before the trip by Dean David Braverman to avoid clinging to each other during the daytime activities and instead spend our time mingling amongst other students. We quickly discovered that the format of the four-day conference reinforced that, because we were immediately split up and inserted into teams of approximately 15 students. These teams served as our first foray into connecting with complete strangers.
“The small groups were awesome because we got to meet those students from Mexico and those students from Texas,” Conlon said. “I think having people from all over gives you those different school perspectives of how they do leadership and how leadership is a very broad topic.”
I met people from all over, including Mexico, Texas, California, New York and Indiana throughout the conference. It was an illuminating experience to learn about each of their views on leadership and varying perspectives on topics.
“It was very eye-opening just with the diversity of students that attended and how I was very unaware of the amount of other leaders out there,” Conlon said.
Springfield College first started sending students to the conference in 2006 when Braverman initiated the trip. Braverman first began working with Dr. Howard Prince, the founder of the leadership conference and director of the Center for Ethical Leadership, at the University of Richmond when Prince was the founding dean at the Jepson School of Leadership Studies and Braverman was the assistant dean for the college.
When Braverman moved to Texas A&M University in Kingsville, he reconnected with Prince, who had moved on to the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas. Prince invited Braverman to send four of his students to the Hatton W. Sumners Student Leadership Conference that Prince had founded, and kept that of- fer open even after Braverman moved to SC.
“It’s such a unique experience and opportunity for our students up here because it’s very different. It’s leadership, but it’s a different way of looking at leadership than what we do,” Braverman said. “It’s really helpful for our students to get a chance to see [and] interact with people who have differ- ent perspectives, different understandings [and] different ways of going about it and also networking with those people as they learn to expand their horizons and grow as leaders.”
We spent the first two hours of the conference in our teams, participating in icebreakers like the adjective name game and questionnaire bingo to ease the tension and break down our barriers. Before we could eat dinner, we were assigned the task of selecting a team name. After some deliberation, my team settled on “Party Rockers.” Not exactly a leadership-inspiring nickname, but it would prove useful down the line.
Throughout the conference, we listened to four speakers, all of who showcased leadership in their own way. Sal Guinta, the first living recipient for the Medal of Honor for service in Iraq or Afghanistan, led off the speakers on Thursday. He discussed his experience in the army in a very down-to-Earth manner and stressed transparency in leaders, which he showcased by the way he talked and revealed details about his life.
Prince took a much more academic approach, using a PowerPoint presentation to progress through the keys of ethical leadership on Friday morning. That evening, Jon Bul Dau, one of the lost boys of Sudan, recounted his early life in a moving tale that spoke of how a leadership role was thrust upon him. Ginger Kerrick, the first non-astronaut International Space Station Capsule Communicator for NASA, who is currently a flight director, rounded out the speakers on Saturday night.
“I think they had a very good selection of speakers just with different experiences in their lives. Personally Ginger Kerrick was my absolute favorite. She was incredibly fascinating and inspiring,” Conlon said. “How she pulled herself up is what I really took from her story. She had a very, very positive way of going about life.”
Other than attending the speaker sessions, we also participated in much more intimate, interactive workshop sessions that focused on topics such as Adaptive Leadership, Inspirational Leadership: Motivating Teams, and Networking: Building Connections and Confidence. There was such a heavy emphasis on networking and building connections with other students that even our thirty-minute breaks between sessions served as opportunities to interact.
“It seemed like a long time to just have a break, but it ended up being a social networking opportunity where you’d meet people,” Conlon said.
Although we followed a rigorous schedule that lasted from around 8 a.m. to 9 p.m., we were on our own afterwards. This time served as a great opportu- nity to hang out with people outside of the conference setting, and reconnect with the other SC students to hear about their experiences. We discovered the delectable treat of Amy’s Ice Cream (twice), walked through parts of Austin and saw a combination of a comedy and magic show called Esther’s Follies.
On Saturday night, we experienced the ultimate bonding experience within our assigned teams: karaoke. We ate dinner at a restaurant called Serranos, which had an outside stage located across a bridge and separated from the audience by a small waterway. One by one, the teams crossed the bridge and sang and danced. Since our team name was the Party Rockers, we had an easy time choosing the song that inspired our name. Before I knew what was happening, I was shuffling alongside of my teammates on stage, laughing and having the time of my life.
Sunday arrived far too quickly, as we hugged our newfound friends goodbye and promised to keep in touch. As we returned to SC, thoughts of using what we had learned filled our heads.
“My wheels are turning with how to bring this conference back to SC and how to really show other students,” Conlon said. “I think that’s the challenge that we have ahead of us.”
Joe Brown may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org