Students in the College of Natural Resources and Environment's Leadership Institute make up a select group. Twelve are chosen each year to participate in this two-semester course to hone their leadership skills. It’s the nation’s only undergraduate program of its kind for natural resources professionals.
“This field requires people with strong leadership skills because of the way our Earth and its resources are changing,” said Sierra Steffen of Roanoke, Va., a junior geography major in the 2014 student cohort. “Learning how to interact effectively with people is integral for our generation if we want to make a difference.”
Students explore leadership theories, public service, profit motives, teamwork, how to deal with change, conflict resolution, and success in the political arena. They assess their personality types, interpersonal communication, and leadership styles, and then practice their skills through service-learning projects.
“Any personality type can be a leader. We make that clear,” said institute Director and Associate Professor Steve McMullin, who helped establish the program in 2009 and has spent more than 20 years developing the leadership skills of natural resource professionals. “But their strengths and styles may differ. Having confidence in your own leadership style is important.”
Over the winter break, students and faculty take a weeklong trip to Charlottesville, Richmond, and Washington, D.C., to visit with state and national leaders and policymakers. Accompanied by Dean Paul Winistorfer, McMullin, and Associate Professor Brian Bonds, who serves as the program’s assistant director, the students meet staff members for elected officials, state and federal agency heads, organization directors, and private-sector leaders to hear about the issues and challenges leaders face.
The 2014 trip included meetings with staffers for U.S. Sens. Tim Kaine and Mark Warner, the president and vice president of Mead Westvaco, and representatives from the Virginia Department of Forestry, National Park Service, U.S. Geological Survey, and other state and federal agencies.
“The students prepared well and asked good questions,” McMullin said. “They were impressed that these powerful, important people were eager to spend time with students, and they confirmed what we had been teaching. Moreover, the leaders we met were extremely impressed with the students and our Leadership Institute program.”
Katy Battle of Richmond, Va., a senior wildlife science major, said the program emphasizes effective communication, relationship building, and networking. “I also realized that the best leaders not only align their colleagues toward a common goal but selflessly find ways for these people to shine,” she said.
Paul Decker of Gainesville, Fla., a senior majoring in natural resources conservation and environmental resources management, said he noticed major differences in the way agencies balance public opinion with hard science. “Some organizations try very hard to do things on the side of science for the best of the environment, while others feel public support is more important than following a hard-science management plan to the letter,” he said.
Steffen said the trip helped her see organizational leaders as “real people” and that getting hired for these positions is a realistic goal. “Speaking with them showed me that they all started somewhere,” she said. “Also, they said connections are everything once you are in the real world. I think this experience has helped a lot with those connections.”
Leadership Institute alumnus Turner Crawford, now a timber management consultant for South Rivers Forestry Consultants, spoke to the group in Richmond. “I use what I learned in the Leadership Institute every day,” said Crawford, who graduated in 2013 with a degree in forestry. “It has changed how I communicate, how I handle situations, and it has given me a greater ability to understand what people want and need. I find myself taking leadership roles more often.”
“We could not offer this unique co-curricular experience for our students without financial support from our Leadership Institute donors,” said Winistorfer, who developed the initial concept for the program. “They are making an investment in the future through the lives and future career paths — and leadership potential — of our students. I feel very confident that we have future leaders in our midst.”
For information on how to support the Leadership Institute program, contact Emily Hutchins at 540-231-8859.
A key component of the Leadership Institute is a weeklong trip to meet with leaders in the public, private, and nonprofit sectors.
Students in the College of Natural Resources and Environment Leadership Institute engaged in a friendly competition to test their skills in areas such as tree identification, fish and wildlife track identification, and the obstacle course.
Read biographies of the students in each Leadership Institute cohort.