Eleven Lake County residents were among 16 graduates honored Aug. 3 by the Indiana University Northwest Institute for Innovative Leadership. The students were recognized for completing the Institute’s year-long Leadership Development Program, which is designed to train, motivate and challenge talented and ambitious IU Northwest students to become leaders in their Northwest Indiana communities.
Lake County graduates included: Berylene Kozyra, of Hobart; Kristin Roberts, of Merrillville; Michelle Robbins, of Schererville; Nicole Ruiz and Debra Towasnicki, both of Highland; Jamila Drayton and Danny Gonzalez, both of Hammond; Pamela Key, of Crown Point; Vickie Rainwater, of Cedar Lake; Gary Crum, of Lowell; and Cleotis White, of East Chicago. Also, three Porter County residents were recognized for completing the program: Christopher Runnion, of Valparaiso, and Roxann Brown and William Rieger, both of Portage. Two Michigan City residents, twin sisters Kila and Kisha Ward, joined the Lake and Porter County graduates.
The Institute’s Leadership Development Program brings together business and community leaders with IU Northwest faculty and staff to create a network of speakers, interviewers and mentors who participate in coaching sessions, small-group discussions, skill-building seminars, and special events with the program’s students. Admission to the program is open to IU Northwest Students by nomination only, and students are expected to commit between 100 and 125 hours to meeting the program’s goals and expectations.
During the ceremony, held at the Radisson Hotel at Star Plaza in Merrillville, the honorees thanked God, their coaches, their mentors, and their fellow students for giving them a unique set of learning experiences and a new vision of what true leadership entails.
“This program has taught me a lot,” said Gonzalez, who graduated from IU Northwest in May with a B.S. degree in nursing. “It has taught me how to listen. It has taught me how to think outside the box.
“It has taught me how to dress,” he added with a smile.
Drayton, who graduated from IU Northwest in May with a B.S. in criminal justice, told the audience of 100 or so friends, family and supporters that her experiences in the program taught her to expect more from herself than she had in the past.
“The more that I participated, the more I realized that I did have something to offer, as well as something to receive,” Drayton said. “A lot of people (in this program) have seen me bigger than I see myself.’
Towasnicki, a beauty-salon owner who is pursuing a bachelor’s of general studies degree at IU Northwest, thanked her family for supporting her pursuit of higher education and her participation in the leadership program.
“I would be remiss if I didn’t thank the local Pizza Hut for delivering dinner to my house on Tuesday nights so that I could go to leadership class,” she said.
Ruiz, who is pursuing her M.B.A. at IU Northwest, and who is the founder of RECONDISHUN’d, a local, youth-driven fundraising organization, admitted that for the first few weeks of classes, she didn’t really understand what the Institute’s leadership program was all about. But as she progressed in the program and worked with her coaches and fellow students, Ruiz said, the value of what she was being asked to do became clear.
“It has been a set of amazing experiences,” Ruiz said. “You kind of come in feeling sort of whole. But then there are so many buttons that are being pushed.”
Kozyra, who is pursuing a degree in business at IU Northwest, said the Leadership Development Program taught her the importance of setting goals, maintaining flexibility and thinking outside the box. She said the program’s benefits depend largely on the effort invested by the participants.
“You will get out of the program what you put in it,” Kozyra said. “We’ve had a lot of fun together and had good experiences.”
Keith Kirkpatrick, executive director of the Institute, praised each of the graduating students for their personal growth and for their contributions to their fellow students over the past year. Of Crum, who received his M.B.A. from IU Northwest this year, Kirkpatrick said that the Lowell insurance agent was a quiet leader who kept the group’s spirits up with his sense of humor.
“Gary is a guy of quiet strength,” he said, “Gary is very much a quiet leader and a behind-the-scenes kind of person. He is an asset to his community.”
In his own brief remarks, Crum reminded the graduates that everyone leads by example, whether they want to or not.
Rainwater, who completed her A.S. in continuing studies in 2005 and is now pursuing a bachelor’s degree, said the sense of camaraderie among the students, coaches and mentors was part of what made the leadership program such a comfortable and enriching experience for her.
“It’s like that old TV show, ‘Cheers’, a place where everyone knows your name,” said Rainwater, who is the coordinator/supervisor for Parents as Teachers for Hanover County Schools.
Robbins, who is a business major at IU Northwest, succinctly summarized the leadership program’s importance for the graduates, saying that exposure to new people and ideas has expanded the participants’ ability to lead and innovate.
“It’s a big deal,” she said.
White, Key and Roberts were unable to attend the ceremony. Roberts submitted some written comments, which Kirkpatrick read.
“Keep aiming high and don’t forget your dreams,” Roberts urged her fellow graduates.
Many of the students emphasized the role that faith had played in their quest to complete the program. Gonzalez, recalling his own less-than-stellar SAT scores, said that God had made a way for him to enter college despite such obstacles, and he said God would also make a way for each of the leadership graduates to fulfill their dreams.
“God will use these people to make an impact on our lives,” he said.
Kirkpatrick said the Institute’s 14th graduating class is a credit to IU Northwest, their home communities, and all of Northwest Indiana.
“Indiana University Northwest is very proud of these students who have sought to achieve a higher level of excellence, and who are striving to make our world a better place by assuming the honored responsibility of being a leader,” he said.
For more information on the IU Northwest Institute for Innovative Leadership, please contact the Institute offices at (219) 981-5631.