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Survey says… by Maggie L. '12

A LOT of freshmen report that they were leaders in high school!

A lot of comments from my last entry touched on the leadership topics I’ve explored in the GEL Program, which I thought was pretty exciting. Thanks to those of you who read and commented! I then realized I shouldn’t be too surprised because I remembered this MIT News Office article from last November.

According to this survey, 85 percent of freshmen said they held some sort of leadership position in high school. Out of a list of various skills and abilities, freshmen ranked themselves most confident in their the ability to “function effectively as a member of a team.”

What do you guys think about these results?

During the past week, I asked Leo McGonagle (GEL Executive Director), Dr. Diane Soderholm (GEL Education Director), and Professor Ed Crawley (GEL Co-Director) about their opinions on the article and some of the leadership examples they see in GEL applications.

None of them were surprised about these statistics, but they all agreed that the results depend heavily on how students define a “leadership role.” They noted that sometimes a high school leadership opportunity can be more of a title than anything else, and I can definitely relate to this.

I was a captain of my Cross Country and Track teams in high school, and basically that meant don’t get in trouble, don’t get the team in trouble, and cheer a lot at races. I don’t even know how I became captain. I think one day my coach just announced it to the team.

Now, as a captain for the MIT Cross Country and Track teams, it’s a whole different picture. The entire team chooses the captains, who are expected to keep in touch with the team during the off-season, organize team dinners and other team events, prepare supplies for meets, oh and, of course, cheer. A lot. Being a captain now takes a lot more forethought and communication skills than the identical role in high school.

It’s a delicate balance of quality vs. quantity when it comes to leadership roles. “Many students feel they need to have positions/titles like that to compete for admission to highly selective colleges,” Leo said, adding, “Others have actually had real leadership positions in high school.”

When I asked Leo about his leadership experiences growing up, he said that it wasn’t until college that he had a memorable experience.

“I decided to develop my leadership skills at the next level through participation in Army ROTC in college,” Leo said. Since then, he’s been Executive Officer of a 600-soldier engineer construction battalion in Iraq, Commander of a 100-soldier mechanized engineer company in Bosnia-Herzegovina, and Platoon Leader of a 30-soldier engineer platoon in the 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault) during the Persian Gulf War, according to his bio on the GEL website.

Diane, who supervises leadership activities in several classes across the MIT departments, emphasized that “GEL gives students opportunities to practice and reflect on their leadership style and effectiveness.”

A distinction that Ed made was that the goal of the GEL Program is to develop leaders, not recognize them and give them some sort of “gold medal.” In past applications to the program, he’s seen students who are already leaders on campus and others who are simply interested in leadership.

During the GEL admissions process, each applicant is interviewed, and Ed says the interview reveals a lot about the applicants’ leadership experiences and aspirations. The two questions he says that the staff asks during admissions are:
1) Has the student demonstrated that he/she is on track to be a future leader?
2) Would this student benefit from the type of opportunities GEL provides?

In other words, does this student want to improve?

When looking at GEL applicants, Ed carefully considers students’ interest and intentions. He wants students to not just have something they “believe they can do,” but also something they simply “believe in.”

He told me a story about a Rhodes Scholar from Zimbabwe whom he met at Oxford University. Ed invited the grad student to come to MIT for his postdoc work. When the grad student said he planned to resurrect the economy of his nation as President, Crawley said he “hired him on the spot,” reasoning, “why wouldn’t you hire someone with aspirations to help his own people?” Last he heard, Crawley says his former student is in fact leading the Opposition Party in Zimbabwe, facing frequent arrests and brutality for the sake of his country.

Thus far in GEL I’ve learned a lot about leadership styles and when to use them. The academic lessons aren’t nearly as valuable as the hands-on activities, when I don’t really have time to cull through a catalog of leadership styles; most of the time I rely on experience and instinct to pick the right one.

Now that some of the GEL staff have had their say, I plan to talk with a couple fellow GEL students in my next entry to hear their stories about their GEL experience thus far!

5 responses to “Survey says…”

  1. Worgus says:

    Love the topic and the Rhode scholar’s reference.

  2. anon says:

    In contrast, there are high school students who have genuine, meaningful leadership experience before they come to college. I feel like those experiences become rather marginalized when they are presented as “just another leadership role” alongside the rest. It’s very difficult to differentiate on a resume whether a student had genuine involvement and developed her leadership skills, or just had a “title” with nothing behind it– this means that even real, meaningful leadership experiences can be brushed off as just another line on a resume or application.

  3. Worgus says:

    I guess those with genuine leadership roles are those who do not blow their leadership experiences out of proportion. In elementary school, I learnt that the most important personal characteristic of a leader is HUMILITY. That’s the easiest way of knowing a real leader.

  4. Albert says:

    @Worgus I agree. Humility in a leader helps the team.

  5. I completely relate to what you are saying. During my sophomore year of high school I decided to join the schools so-called “Leadership Class” that met in the mornings. I joined cause I thought it would be nice to have on my transcript but in reality it was just mind-numbing stuff like organizing prom and such. I quit after the first semester and instead became captain of Debate and FIRST robotics team, where I actually learned a tad about what it is like to be in charge.