Volume 84 | Issue 5
September/October 2016

Plunging Into Leadership Through Short-Term Experiential Learning Programs

Rebecca Halligan and Heather Nunes

Week of Welcome Team BuildingRead the print version [pdf] of this article.

In the ever-changing environment of a student affairs office, student leadership development comes in many forms, both formal and informal. Often isolated within individual departments—living-learning communities, student activities, centralized leadership units, academic programs—these experiences all are relevant for their own niche and are grounded in various supporting theories. The Council for the Advancement of Standards (CAS) indicates the importance of leadership programs having a defined curriculum with specific outcomes. In practice, these are often cohort-based and feature a comprehensive combination of training opportunities, guest speakers, workshops, and excursions.

“Experiential learning” may be synonymous with internship, practicum, or study abroad experiences. These are formidable opportunities for many college students; however, professionals at Virginia Commonwealth University saw a need to serve those without the time or who were not eligible to participate in traditional experiential learning programs. They worked collaboratively across to create distinct one-time experiential leadership experiences, called “Leadership Plunges.” These offerings have been successful, achieve many of the same goals of other leadership programs, and are similar to those offered at other institutions.

Leadership Practices Explored and Explained

In the 1990s, leadership practices on a college campus saw a huge shift, both within academic programs and cocurricular learning experiences. Students who were curious about exploring their potential as a leader suddenly had opportunities to do so in formats and venues not previously available to them. As a result of this programmatic shift, the number of leadership programs available at U.S. universities has grown substantially. Various theories exist to support programs for student leaders, and many that college unions and student activities departments have implemented involve an experiential learning component.

Over the years, leadership development began to encompass “more than just developing leaders who are believed to have certain desirable skills. Leadership is [now] approached as a social process that engages everyone. In this way of thinking, everyone is considered a leader. Thus, the goal of leadership development is to turn a group of individuals … into a team,” Tracy Smith and Manda Rosser wrote in their 2007 literature review for Texas A&M University.

In 2015, CAS described leadership as “an inherently relational process of working with others to accomplish a goal or to promote change. Most leadership programs seek to empower students to enhance their self-efficacy as leaders and understand how they can make a difference, whether as positional leaders or active participants in a group or community process. Leadership development involves self-awareness and understanding of others, values and diverse perspectives, organizations, and change. Leadership also requires competence in establishing purpose, working collaboratively, and managing conflict. Institutions can initiate opportunities to study leadership and to experience a range of leadership-related activities designed to intentionally promote desired outcomes of student leadership learning.”

The Inter-Association Leadership Education Collaborative (ILEC) represents eight professional organizations, including ACUI, all committed to the advancement of leadership education, teaching, research, and professional practice within higher education institutions. ILEC recently released three priority areas to consider when exploring leadership education and experiences including: building inclusive leadership learning communities, expanding evidence-based practice through assessment and evaluation, and enhancing our community of practice through professional development and resources. Focusing on the second priority, ILEC argues: “Leadership education is often guided by anecdotal evidence of ‘what has worked in the past’ or ‘what students enjoyed in previous semesters.’ Anecdotal approaches do not support the sustainability of our field or application of learning to community and organizational development. Our practice requires an actionable commitment to exploring leadership from multiple perspectives, providing students with the knowledge, skills, capacities, and dispositions they will need to mitigate the complex issues facing our global contexts.”

In his 1984 experiential learning model, David A. Kolb suggested that people process new information two ways: by doing (concrete experience) or by thinking (abstract conceptualization) and then reflecting and applying the information learned. The Journal of Leadership & Organizational Studies published work by Darin Eich at the University of Wisconsin-Madison on high-quality leadership programs in higher education. The data revealed 16 attributes of high-quality leadership programs organized into three clusters: (A) participants engaged in building and sustaining a learning community, (B) student-centered experiential learning experiences, and (C) research-grounded continuous program development. Specifically within experiential learning (Category B), seven attributes were identified: students practice leadership individually and collectively, students engage in reflection activities, students apply leadership concepts to themselves in meetings, students encounter episodes of difference, students engage in service, and students engage in self-discovery through retreats.

Thus, some students learn better through involvement, obtaining that concrete experience to engage in activities and actually do tasks. Think about the famous Benjamin Franklin quote: “Tell me and I forget. Teach me and I remember. Involve me and I learn.” As leadership educators and community builders, it is professionals’ responsibility to provide these high-quality leadership programs to students.

Program Examples

As an alternative and complement to existing leadership programs, several campuses have implemented short-term experiential learning opportunities. Some students may choose to participate because such programs fit into their schedule of other commitments; others may select this experience in addition to more formal leadership programming (e.g., workshops, conferences, and lectures). Using the available literature, short-term experiential leadership programs have been designed to address specific aspects of leadership, allow students to apply those leadership concepts, and encourage reflection on the experience. By changing the context and environment of leadership programming, students can creatively process their role as a leader or follower in a situation that might be challenging and not commonly explored. Further reflection and application are still imperative, where experiences need to be dissected, practiced, and tested to truly learn from them. However, a strong experiential program with good leadership can guide these next steps and assist with the application of concepts as students venture out into the world.

Horse Whispering at VCU
Preparing graduates with the skills necessary to be local, national, and global leaders is no small task. Of the more than 31,000 who attend Virginia Commonwealth University, many work additional jobs to support themselves and their families and have varying abilities to dedicate time to discovering themselves as a leader. The newly formed Student Leadership and Involvement Center under the University Student Commons & Activities department at Virginia Commonwealth University saw a need for experiential learning that operates collectively with other key leadership units, including a leadership living-learning community, residential life and housing, outdoor adventure programs, and career services. While traditional leadership programming continues to be successful for students who learn best from lecture-based workshops, Kolb found that experiential-based learning develops a higher level of learning cognition. Therefore, the departments worked together to create distinct one-time experiential leadership experiences, called “Leadership Plunges.” The Student Leadership and Involvement Center specifically focused on one-time leadership experiences that would be open to any student, especially those who may not otherwise pursue a leadership program. Students are not required to complete a series of programs or to be a part of a particular department or unit; rather, these plunges allow students to explore leadership without an extended commitment.

Journeying outside the lecture hall and exploring leadership in different forms can be its own quest of learning and discovery. Convincing students and staff that leadership discovery can be formed through interactions with horses is something that one may not have heard of in the field of higher education. However, the EquiSpective program at the Salamander Resort and Spa in Middleburg, Va., does just that. This unique program works to connect human and horse in a self-discovery master class that focuses on communication styles, leadership techniques, and awareness of self and others. The first half of the experience consists of a typical lecture by the equestrian director, who discusses the connection between nature and personal energy, the importance of intention, and confidence. Basic leadership theories focusing on leader and follower are briefly reviewed, due to the nature of the relationship between a human (leader) and the horse (follower). The second part of the experience applies these theories through active involvement with the horses.

Students are given the opportunity to have a one-on-one session with a horse and channel their confidence and intention to encourage their horse to follow their direction. To make it more interesting, the communication is done silently, only utilizing the student’s poise and spirit to garner positive results. Horses respond to confidence expressed in positive body language, and if they don’t connect with their human, they are as stubborn as mules. Therefore, self-awareness and collaboration with the horse are necessary. Failure is an option, and the learning and reflection of this experience can lead participants to work on harnessing these techniques in any environment—with human or with animal. “This leadership program was an amazing experience that taught me a lot about self-awareness and my inner ability to lead through expanding my energy and improving my body language,” said EquiSpective participant Rooma Elnasseh. “I used the skills I learned to control my energy that night, and I got positive results.”



Edgework at Webster University 
At Webster University, a leadership certificate program, called WebsterLEADS, utilizes programs meant to deepen students’ feelings of self-efficacy and desire to accomplish a goal. Edgework is the key theory at work, which Relden Nadler introduced in 1995 as a way to combine experiential education and adventure-based experiences and challenge students to the edge of their comfort zone. It focuses on future learning and application through emotions and physiology surrounding their experience. Webster staff apply edgework techniques in their leadership programs through mobile or ground initiatives, also known as low ropes courses. Utilizing this neutral setting that is unfamiliar and often daunting allows students to engage, contribute, and observe others. Students can reflect, interpret, and make meaning of the experience in a new environment. By exposing them to these types of experiences and through thorough discussions, participants see the direct correlation to their involvement back on campus and gain a new perspective and strategies for personal and group success.

When utilizing a low ropes course to talk about leadership with students, it is important to have a skilled facilitator or two to help debrief the activity along the way. At Webster University, professionals are also sure to have a clear purpose for each activity. John Buck, co-director of WebsterLEADS, explained: “You don’t just throw out a rope and blindfold a few people because you can; there needs to be careful thought about what activity or series of activities provide the best opportunity of delivering on the outcomes you are wanting for the group.” For a successful experience, students must be able to reflect upon the experience individually and collectively.

Walt Disney World Adventures at University of South Florida–St. Petersburg
At the University of South Florida–St. Petersburg, students participating in the Disney Leadership program visit “the most magical place on earth.” However, instead of enjoying rides and attractions, they participate in an experiential learning program at what could be the most influential place on earth in terms of opening eyes to leadership. The Disney Institute is a program that staff at USF–St. Petersburg coordinate alongside the Walt Disney Company. Through this initiative, 50 students work in a unique setting to align their values with the company’s vision of a motivated, innovative, and productive workforce. According to its website, Disney offers “real-world examples from within The Walt Disney Company, and provides the opportunity to learn from seeing success in action.” The focus is on storytelling and the connection of leadership to personal values and the legacy that one leaves. Students travel to a Disney theme park and spend the day with “cast members” (Disney staff) experiencing the team-building activities and leadership practices used at Disney and then reflecting on how they might translate these experiences to their involvement on campus.

While the program is convenient to universities and colleges in Florida, it would be easy to replicate. Large local companies often have leadership programs built into their staff development or can, at the very least, expose students to how leadership looks in that specific setting. This is the magic of experiential learning—the flexibility, convenience, and creativity afforded to bring new innovative programs to students.

Land Navigation at the University of Connecticut
While in recent months many campuses looked to how they could incorporate PokemonGo, the University of Connecticut has been utilizing just this type of activity for leadership development. Grounded in the ideas of geocaching and orienteering activities, the University of Connecticut’s Four Arrows Leadership Program utilizes an activity called Land Navigation for student leadership development. Land Navigation is a process of using a compass, establishing a pace count, and utilizing the information about distance and degree between two points to navigate a path. The experience focuses on effective communication and teamwork, and allows for facilitated reflection at the completion of the activity.

Mark Flynn, UConn’s coordinator of outdoor leadership programs, explained: “There is a unique power of changing someone’s setting and especially bringing individuals and groups into nature. It requires people to be more mindful of their surroundings, pushes them to see things in a different light, and in my opinion allows for an intentional focus on being in the moment.”

In addition to experiential learning, the programs are centered on the Yerkes-Dodson law of optimal arousal theory, which suggests people perform better when they are intellectually stimulated. “Removing people out of the general structures they are comfortable in such as classrooms, meeting rooms, being on campus, or in their residential hall plays directly into the concept of optimal arousal theory,” Flynn said. “It gets people to begin exploring and experimenting with an appropriate amount of risk to hopefully get to a peak adventure experience.”

Outcomes from the program focus on group growth based on what each group is looking to achieve and how groups are transitioning in/out of the experience. Often these emphasize communication, role dynamics, conflict management, team building, problem solving, overcoming fear, and mindfulness.


Endless Possibilities

In higher education, students are ever-changing and so are their needs for a diverse offering of programs. Experiential learning and leadership programs are not new, but many campuses struggle to make them accessible to more than positional leaders or those who fit a prototypical leader identity. It’s likely that many students who would not seek out a formal leadership program would appreciate a less intensive alternative. Some students might want both. When assessing what an institution already offers and determining the potential of new programs or reimagined ones, it may be helpful to revisit several of John Dugan’s and Susan Komives’s general recommendations for leadership programs from the Multi-Institutional Study of Leadership:

    Diffuse leadership programs across the university
    Short-term experiential programs can be implemented in nontraditional forums unrelated to student organization participation or academic coursework. This helps students more easily access leadership development opportunities and helps to infuse an understanding of leadership as more than a title.

    Focus on members, not just positional leaders
    Positional leaders may have development opportunities related to their role with an organization. However, short-term experiential programs can introduce leadership as a process and help those not involved in other student organizations gain capacity in leadership behaviors.

    Design distinct programs for specific groups
    As with the ILEC advice, alternative leadership programs such as those discussed here offer an innate chance that serve more than the majority culture. Short-term experiential programs may be more inclusive to nontraditional students, the uninvolved, and those under economic pressure to spend more time working, for example.

Dugan and Komives also support “short-term or one-time leadership awareness programs to jumpstart the development process.” Ideally students would participate in the “plunges” that VCU and other campuses offer and want to broaden or deepen their experience. At the very least, these developmental offerings allow students to gain a practical understanding of leadership. From improv comedy to leadership in a professional chef’s restaurant, there are no limits to the learning that can be had through immersive experiences. All it takes is the right combination of leadership theory, applied experience, and reflection—the possibilities are endless.



Rebecca HalliganRebecca Halligan
Rebecca Halligan is the coordinator for leadership and volunteer programs for the Student Leadership and Involvement Center, a part of University Student Commons and Activities at Virginia Commonwealth University. She has been an I-LEAD® Connect small group facilitator and serves on the steering committee for the American Association of University Women National Conference for College Women Student Scholars. She received her master’s degree in higher education administration from the University of Massachusetts–Amherst.

Heather NunesHeather Nunes
Heather Nunes is the interim associate director of the University Student Commons and Activities at Virginia Commonwealth University. She is an active ACUI volunteer serving in numerous roles with I-LEAD®, and most recently as Student Programs Team leader on the Leadership Team and a member of the 2017 Conference Program Team. She received her master’s degree in educational administration from Texas A&M University.