As its name suggests, the College of Engineering’s Emerging Leaders Program helps improve the leadership skills of the undergraduate students who participate.
But the program—which instructor Paige LaPoint developed in 2019 conjunction with a committee of undergrad engineers—also transports participants on a personal journey that includes introspection, individual strengths coaching, a one-on-one mentoring relationship with an engineering alum, a small-group community-based project, and developing a change initiative around an issue important to them.
“Every engineering student can have confidence knowing this program is filled with students that wish the absolute best for each other,” says industrial engineering student Madeline Koenig. “The course includes small group talks, large group discussions, and lots of individual reflection in between, where each conversation is another opportunity for growth.”
LaPoint, who is certified in administering the CliftonStrengths Assessment, says one goal of the program is to marry the “soft” and technical skills students need to be successful engineers.
“This was a great opportunity to self-reflect, learn about myself, and learn more about my peers,” says industrial engineering student Sydney Tong. “I found discussions to be insightful as we talked about topics such as psychological safety, which are not normally discussed in other engineering classes. I also found the strengths module to be very beneficial as it was a great way to learn about my strengths and how I can leverage them in both my professional and personal life.”
Many engineers might think that being a leader means they need to be outgoing, take-charge people. However, notes geological engineering and geology and geophysics student (and “hardcore introvert”) Erica Hill, developing those soft skills is empowering. “The skills you learn are also applicable to all your other classes and beyond college,” she says.
To earn an engineering leadership certificate, students in the ELE program must be involved in a student organization, participate in a young alumni mentorship program; work with staff to determine their strengths, values and goals; and complete the course, InterEGR 303: Applied Leadership Competencies in Engineering.
In the class (which also counts toward the degree requirements of many engineering majors), students work in small groups to solve a client-based challenge—and that experience enables them not only to draw on engineering skills, but also to explore and refine how they communicate and collaborate. “The ELE program was a huge talking point in my internship interviews with employers,” says computer engineering student Kristopher Navar. “Being able to utilize the soft skills developed in class along with being able to talk about the community service project our group worked on were both factors toward receiving an offer to intern at Microsoft this summer. The ELE program and the skills developed during the program have prepared me for success in my professional career.”
Before they embark on the group challenge, students reflect on what makes them unique as individuals, how to work equitably as a team, and what it means to be an inclusive leader.
“InterEGR 303, which is a required part of the ELE program, really dived into the components of leadership and allowed me to reflect on a personal level about who I currently am as a leader and what kind of leader I want to be,” says industrial engineering student Marie Tyree. “I learned a lot about my own strengths as well as how to recognize strengths in others in order to work more efficiently as a team. This class provides you with the soft skills that jobs require that most engineering coursework doesn’t always present.”
Electrical engineering student Ana Alba says the program prompted her to think about how her words and actions affect people. “The ELE program has prepared me to look at life through a different lens and from a different angle,” she says. “Whenever I encounter conflict with others, I am more equipped to resolve it with ease. I am able to communicate my thoughts and needs to others in a more clear and concise manner as well. The skills I have learned through the ELE program have prepared me to navigate difficult situations, work with diverse communities, and come up with solutions to problems that serve everyone.”
In addition to community challenges they solve in teams, students in the program also plan a change initiative of their own. Among them are a STEAM after-school program for middle school students that also helps them to grow their emotional intelligence, an effort to improve the way college course grades are determined, awareness of the differential treatment of women in STEM and a workshop on implicit bias; and peer mentoring programs to support engineering students, women in engineering, and engineers transitioning into their first industry experience.
For chemical engineering student Shirene Singh, the ELE alumni mentoring program stood out. “I was really excited to interact with a College of Engineering alum and get guidance for my graduate school plans,” says the senior.
Similarly, industrial engineering student Kacee Hostetler says her alumni mentor supported her career development. “He has taught me interview skills, given me general career advice, and supported me in periods of uncertainty,” she says. “I know I can always turn to him when I need guidance for my career.”
Fellow industrial engineering student Meagan Carney says her alumni mentor helped her feel confident in applying for (and landing) a co-op position with the Sierra Nevada Corporation. “ELE prepared me with professional communication skills,” she says. “I built these skills through working with representatives from our community partner as well as meetings with my mentor. Conversations with my mentor were key in developing this skillset because I always felt comfortable asking advice and sharing experiences with someone closer to my age working in industry.”
ELE made its debut in fall 2020 and immediately drew nearly twice as many applicants than the program had space to admit, says LaPoint.
“From the first information session I attended, I fell in love with every aspect of the ELE program, including the leadership course, mentorship pairing, and opportunity to support a Wisconsin community,” says Koenig. “The possibility of developing a strong mentor relationship spoke to me because my circle of family and friends at home does not include any engineers, and I was seeking information about post-undergraduate opportunities and a role model. I applied for ELE at the end of freshman year, a year filled with joining numerous student organizations, switching majors, and trying to navigate ‘my path’; this program seemed like the perfect way to reflect on past experiences and simultaneously drive toward future goals—and it allowed me to do exactly that.”
Author: Renee Meiller