In a bittersweet ceremony that was hailed both as an end and as a beginning, the Institute for Innovative Leadership at Indiana University Northwest concluded its spectacular nine-year run with a graduation program to honor its 19th and final class of leaders on Jan. 15.
Tiffney Smith, Melony Blissmer, Christopher Drapeau, and La Toya Pryor were the last IU Northwest students to cross the wooden bridge that has come to symbolize the transition from follower and learner to leader and teacher. With those students’ final steps, the Institute officially ceased to exist, and was replaced instead by a new entity – the IU Northwest chapter of Sigma Alpha Pi, the National Society of Leadership and Success. All four of Thursday’s leadership graduates were inducted as charter members of the new group.
“We’re stepping high, and we’re excited,” said Charlotte Reed, Ed.D., interim director of the Institute. “There are no tears tonight, because we’re moving on to bigger and better things.”
Since its inception in 2000, the Institute for Innovative Leadership has prepared many of the university’s top students for prominent leadership roles in the Northwest Indiana community and beyond. Past graduates have included public officials, business leaders and successful professionals from all walks of life.
In 2007, the Institute’s founder, Keith Kirkpatrick, departed IU Northwest to pursue other opportunities, and Reed, who is also director of the university’s Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning, took over the program. Faced with budget concerns and uncertainty about the Institute’s future, Reed nonetheless worked tirelessly to continue the program’s tradition of rigorous preparation and mentorship for Northwest Indiana’s young leaders.
“Without her, this would not have finished in the way that it did,” said Viktoria Voller, an IU Northwest alumnus and longtime leadership coach. “She had a challenge to keep a leadership program going … and she took it very, very seriously. Though there were only four students, she was absolutely focused on the fact that these four could not be shortchanged. It made no difference whether there were 44 students, 14, 24, or four. They were her students, and they were going to experience the leadership academy in the same way that everybody else did.”
Reed credited the leadership students for sticking with the program despite the uncertainty.
“There was not another group that had to go through what this group went through, in terms of telling them that the program was on again, off again, and on again,” Reed said. “This group could have thrown up their hands and walked away. And they didn’t. They never gave up. They would call me and ask, ‘Is there anything I can do.’
“I can’t say enough about the qualities of leadership that you’ve exhibited this year, and there is no doubt in my mind that we’re going to see great things out of all of you,” she told the graduates. “I’m expecting it. If it doesn’t happen, I’m coming for you!”
The graduates on Thursday reflected on what the Institute had meant to them, even as they looked ahead.
“When I was accepted into the program, I didn’t know what to expect,” said Blissmer, an M.P.A. student from Valparaiso. “My skeptical side thought, ‘Well, I guess it will at least look good on a resume.’ I couldn’t have been more wrong. My journey through this program has been so much more.
“I looked at the personalities of the other people in the program when I started, and I thought about how different they were from me,” she said. “These differences are what awakened the reserved parts within me that I needed to develop in my life. The people here sacrificed their time to help others and to show how much they care.”
Blissmer said that, for her, the leadership program helped her to appreciate the inherent value of helping others.
“There is no greater feeling than the one you get from knowing that something you did made somebody else’s life better,” she said.
Drapeau, of Walkerton, said the program’s coaches instilled within him a grander vision of his own potential than he’d previously envisioned for himself.
“This program meant a lot to me, because I noticed that, when I first met with Dr. Reed and the coaches, they actually listened and actually cared. They actually saw potential in me,” said Drapeau, who is a general studies major with an emphasis on public affairs, politics and economics. “That meant a lot to me, because I’ve never actually had a lot of people in my life who saw my potential.
“I’ll always remember, during my interview, saying ‘Well, I think it would be really cool to work as an aide to a senator one day.’ And (coach) George Miga looked at me and said, ‘Why don’t you just be the senator?’” Drapeau recalled. “I really appreciated that.”
In accordance with Institute tradition, Reed handed out several awards for the graduates’ noteworthy performance in the program, which involved many hours of hands-on workshops, personal coaching with mentors and fellow students, and special projects that are designed to maximize each participants’ leadership skills and potential. Smith received the Networking Award for attending the most special events. Drapeau received the Leadership Achievement Award for earning the most completion points in the class, and he also received the Skill-Building Award for attending the most skill-building workshops.
In turn, the students presented their coaches and mentors -- Reed, Voller, Miga, and also Jeff Williams, who was not present at the ceremony, with plaques honoring their support, perseverance and commitment.
“We want to thank the people who were instrumental in bringing us here and sustaining us,” said Pryor, a Portage resident who is pursuing her Bachelor of Science degree in Public Affairs. “We want to give them something to say thank you, thank you, thank you!”
Pryor, a respiratory therapist, said Reed and the leadership coaches encouraged the students to take the leadership program seriously by taking it very seriously themselves and by creating a very business-like atmosphere.
“I felt like I was interviewing for a CEO position. It was a really intense interview,” Pryor said of her entrance interview. She added that the Institute’s preparation has already paid dividends in her current job.
As the final four leaders to emerge from the program, Pryor, Blissmer, Drapeau, and Smith all professed sincere camaraderie with each other and thanked each other for helping them to finish the arduous lineup of skill- and character-building exercises.
“When I started with the Institute, it was a really hard thing for me, because I was going to two different schools and taking 24 credit hours,” said 2008 IU Northwest grad Smith, a Gary resident who is now pursuing her Master of Business Administration degree. “It was difficult and a little bit trying. What kept me going was the people who were there … and the fact that I was actually able to learn something from the people around me.”
“I’m just excited that this part is done with and we can start the new society and do new things, and make it bigger and hopefully better than what was done in the past,” she said.
Reed explained that Sigma Alpha Pi is a national honor society that offers students many of the same leadership-building opportunities as the Institute. IUPUI also has a chapter on campus, so IU Northwest is the second IU site to embrace the National Society of Leadership and Success. The IU Northwest chapter will be administered through the Office of Student Life.
“It’s national,” Reed said. “So, if our members move away, they can still maintain their membership and be active. There are more than 300,000 people who are part of it, and 167 institutions that are spread throughout the United States.
“This does not take away from the legacy of the Institute,” she added. “It was a very, very successful program. What we’re trying to do is honor that tradition.”