This is my 5th Presidents’ Leadership Conference at Wake Forest, a retreat weekend sponsored jointly by the President of Student Government and the President of the University. This year, we returned to Smith Mountain Lake, Va, which is a beautiful setting in the Blue Ridge area. Operating under a theme of “Courageous Leadership,” the speakers this year were the best I have experienced at PLC. Highlights:
- Melenie Lankau, Senior Associate Dean of Diversity and Inclusion at the Schools of Business, led us in small group exercises to uncover the importance of going beyond the numbers of diversity to be a truly inclusive community.
- Angela Mazaris, Director of the LGBTQ Center, led us in small group exercises to define just what each of those letters mean, a particularly useful exercise for me!
- Jim Dunn, Vice President and Chief Investment Officer, enthralled the group with a challenge to student leaders to embrace the controversial topics in society and lead the campus in open discussions of the three areas he considers most vital to America’s long term success: politics, education, and energy, and be ready to sacrifice, as they have never been called to do in their lives, for the sake of the future.
After dinner, Justin Catanoso, new program director in Journalism and author of My Cousin the Saint: A Search for Faith, Family and Miracles, gave a poignant accounting of the canonization of his grandfather’s second cousin, Gaetano Catanoso, and what it meant to his family.
But for me, the highlight of the conference came when our two Liberian visitors, Jacob Jallah and Joe Wilson, spoke about their experiences at Wake Forest. They both said how warmly they had been received and how much they appreciated the experience. Using the theme of “Courageous Leadership,” Jacob said that when they visited the library (thank you again, Mary Beth), they had been given a copy of the documentary film, “Pray the Devil Back to Hell.” He cited the example of the women in the film as being courageous leaders, risking death by standing up to the warlord Charles Taylor and demanding an end to the atrocities of civil war. Then Joe got up and delivered an oration worthy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. He said that for years, he had been told he was the “future” of his country. He said he was tired of waiting for the future and pledged to go out and be a current leader, using his experiences and training to raise his country back up by taking up all the themes that Jim Dunn challenged them all to do in the morning. Like Jim, he told the Wake Forest students to embrace, rather than avoid politics, because it affects every component of their lives. He sat down to a thunderous ovation. I was so proud of them, I cried.
This morning, we will hear the results of the small group discussions that the students had last night on ways to improve student life at Wake Forest, addressing tough topics such as substance abuse and illegal drug use. I am anxious to hear what they say.