Step into any School of Education course this semester, and you’re likely to hear a pair of common themes pop up: the value of collaborating across disciplines and the importance of lifelong learning.
Regardless of the subject area, course level or professor, these concepts are among the core tenets that make up the backbone of any School of Education program.
These principles are far more than just buzzwords on a syllabus, however: School of Education professors actually practice what they preach.
Last year, two faculty members (Dr. Donna Gibson, from the Department of Counselor Education, and Dr. Angie Wetzel, who serves as the school’s director of assessment) participated in the VCU Leadership Development Program, an initiative of the Grace E. Harris Leadership Institute.
This 10-month program, which runs annually from January to October, brings together emerging leaders from across the university with a focus on building leadership skills, examining key issues in higher education and improving VCU’s culture and climate.
Monthly meetings also allow participants to meet a wide range of faculty and staff across campus, increasing their institutional knowledge and opening the door to future partnerships.
“Being part of this program just broadened my perspective in ways I never expected it to,” Gibson said. “I connected with people across the university in a way that would not have happened otherwise. It was a great opportunity to network across disciplines and areas.”
In addition to these peer networking opportunities, program members are also paired with a mentor from the university’s senior administration, with whom they work closely with throughout the program.
This year, Kathleen Shaw, VCU’s vice provost for planning and decision support, mentored Wetzel, while Gibson partnered with Susan Gooden, a professor and special adviser for the L. Douglas Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs.
“My mentor and I met almost monthly, and still keep in touch even now that the program has ended,” Wetzel said. “Kathleen was a great motivator and really pushed me, helping me focus on identifying the skills I have and think beyond just the job I’m in.”
Each year, the Leadership Development Program culminates with a team project, capping off nearly two semesters’ worth of work. Participants are broken up into diverse groups (Gibson’s team, for instance, contained an even mix of faculty and staff members, as well as representatives from both the Monroe Park and MCV campuses) to identify a particular problem or area of need at VCU.
The group then partners with key stakeholders around campus to create a plan addressing their selected issue. Though the teams are initially just responsible for conceptualizing and planning these projects, many of their proposals go on to be implemented throughout the university.
“Working on the team project felt really impactful,” Wetzel said. “I saw a real value in what we were doing, and you could tell everyone was committed to making it work.”
Wetzel’s team project centered around improving campus safety, informed by a theoretical framework called Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design (CPTED).
Sponsored by VCU Chief of Police John Venuti, the group proposed designating a handful of strategic walkways — those connecting key locations such as libraries, gyms, classroom buildings and residence halls — as RAMSWay Safe Paths.
These paths would then receive improved security features, including an increased police presence, CPTED-compliant lighting and landscaping, signage and installed cameras, making them a safer way for students to navigate the university’s campuses.
Gibson’s project, meanwhile, looked at helping VCU retain talented employees by introducing a universitywide mentoring system. The team proposed creating a database that would essentially operate similar to an online dating service: potential mentees would fill out a form identifying their strengths and interests, and the system would use that data to predict who would be the best available mentor for them.
“Being a part of a program like this, it just whets your appetite for more.”
“It was interesting to start with just this basic question of “How do we improve retention of faculty and staff?”, and see it turn into this actual product, a physical thing,” Gibson said. “It’s pretty cool to see how that evolved, and just shows how ideas can grow as a result of collaboration and having a diverse team.”
For Wetzel and Gibson, learning to work as a team was just as meaningful as the projects themselves.
“We knew we had to understand each other’s strengths and figure out how to work together if we wanted our project to succeed,” Wetzel said. “We recognized the importance of having multiple perspectives, and together we accomplished something we never would have alone.”
Including Wetzel and Gibson, 14 School of Education representatives have now participated in the Leadership Development Program since its inception in 2001 — the most from any of VCU’s 13 schools. And if the Class of 2015’s experience is anything to go by, that number is only likely to keep rising: both came out of program with glowing opinions of it.
“It made me prouder of VCU,” Wetzel said. “I was struck by all the really cool things the university does, and how much detail goes into every project and every decision across campus.”
“Being a part of a program like this, it just whets your appetite for more,” Gibson said. “It sets you up with the expectation that there will always be more to learn. Leaders are able to see the big picture of things, and this program has made my big picture bigger than it was before.”
For more information about the Leadership Development Program, please visit the Grace E. Harris Leadership Institute website.