A total of 39 freshman students filled four vans on Saturday, Jan. 21 and headed to Camp Tawakoni in Augusta, Kan., for the Takeoff Leadership Retreat. This 2017 Newman retreat is the second of an annual leadership experience designed to give freshman students the opportunity to learn about personal leadership skills and how to put them in action, both on and off campus.
The day-and-a-half retreat was filled with personality tests, team-building activities, and reflective testimonies given by students Madison McCollum, Angela de Souza, Luke Sponsel, and David Baalmann about their personal experiences in leadership. The team of four even formed small “family” groups with the freshman in order to touch base and discuss what they had learned throughout the day.
Lauren Fontarum, director of student activities and head facilitator of the retreat, shared that, “These individuals interacted with the students the whole day, spoke about their personal journeys, and even discussed what challenges they’ve faced, what they’ve learned and why they chose to take on the leadership roles that they have.”
Every attendee took the Gallup StrengthsFinder Assessment, a survey that helps students evaluate their own personal leadership skills, specifically focusing on their top five. Participants then received a name tag with their top five strengths printed on them, which made it possible to refer back and make connections with others, said Fontarum.
Dean of Students Levi Esses spoke to the freshman group about strengths, how to identify their own and how to use them in a healthy and productive way. Esses also discussed the importance of reflection, which he says is what helps us grow, learn and connect with others. “If we don’t know who we are, we can’t be great leaders ourselves,” Esses said. “With our day-to-day routine, we often don’t reflect enough, [but this retreat] gave students the opportunity to focus in on something specific.”
From the very start of the retreat, students had the option of handing their cell phones over to the facilitators. Then at the end of each discussion, a facilitator would randomly draw a few phones from the bucket and the owners of the phones would receive a prize. “This gave students a chance to take the busy-ness out of life for a little while and eliminate the [daily] distractions,” Esses said.
Students learned how to present themselves in an interview setting, and even participated in mock interviews by rotating around the room and practicing with their peers. Esses also helped the group work on creating 45-second “elevator pitches” and discussed why it is important to have one as a college student.
“Involvement,” “Servant Leadership” and “An Ideal Newman” were all big topics of discussion throughout the retreat, Fontarum said. “Freshman students not only explored ways to be involved both on and off campus, but also how to lead and serve at the same time,” she said. “We hoped that these activities and reflections would charge and challenge participants to make Newman a better place than they found it.”
Freshman participant Regan Casey shared that she had heard stories from a few sophomore students at Newman who attended last year’s retreat, and decided that she would go into the weekend with an open mind.
“The weekend was more than what I could have asked for,” Casey said. “I learned so much about myself and my classmates. It was crazy to think I live in the same building as those people and didn’t even know some of their names. Takeoff really gave me an opportunity to get to know and make memories with them, and I could never replace that.”
Fontarum said that she hopes these participants feel an increased sense of community and pride that will motivate them to take on leadership roles around campus. “Whether it be within an organization or club, we want to help these students to learn to deliberately choose their own path,” Fontarum said.
Graduate Assistant Jordan Frederking acted as a co-leader with Fontarum and helped with the layout of the retreat as well as all of the programs. “Jordan helped to keep everything moving, and because we prepped our own meals this year, there was lots of work going on behind the scenes,” Fontarum said.
Frederking is currently working on establishing a “first-year leadership experience” for leaders to work specifically with freshman students. “We are hopeful that this opportunity will help the same freshman who participated in Takeoff to define [themselves] and grow in their leadership education in the coming years,” Fontarum said.
Sophomore Madison McCollum said that attending the retreat as a participant last year was definitely different from her experience as a facilitator this year. “I was very surprised to see how interested they were in leadership,” McCollum said. “I was able to see perspectives in this freshman group that I know I didn’t have as a freshman.”
Looking back to last year’s Takeoff retreat, McCollum said that she is impressed with how much she has grown since, and is excited to watch this group grow as well.
“Watch out for this freshman class,” she said, “because I think they’re going to do great things.”