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Senior, Calvin College , Abigail Belford.

Class leaders
Profiles of 11 students at West Michigan colleges offer a glimpse into the leadership styles of tomorrow.

By Alexandra Fluegel
Photography by Michael Buck

West Michigan has built a reputation as a Midwestern mecca of innovation and creativity, with leaders in a variety of fields calling it home. It also has become home to numerous colleges and universities, making it fertile territory for new and emerging leadership styles as well as new generations of leaders.

Grand Rapids Magazine contacted local colleges and universities, asking administrators to recommend students in positions of leadership — from editors of school papers to student body presidents — to showcase what’s on the horizon for West Michigan and its leaders of tomorrow.

The following 11 students were selected based on those recommendations and interviewed on topics including the changing job market, the role technology plays in education, and qualities effective leaders possess. The students’ backgrounds, positions and experiences vary, but a variety of themes emerged from their responses, including empowering others, inspiring rather than dictating change, and being able to creatively apply skills in any situation.

These profiles offer glimpses into the perspectives of today’s student leaders and highlight what’s changing, what’s staying the same, and how it all works together.

When Abigail Belford was a freshman at Calvin, she set a goal to become student body president. After four years of serving various roles in student senate, Belford reached her goal. “Consistency and commitment are important to me. I think there’s something valuable about building skills over time,” she said.

Belford facilitated fireside chats with the college vice president and regularly wrote columns in the student newspaper to engage her fellow students. As the main link between the administration and the students, Belford said she understood the importance of her actions and always sought to “empower my peers and student senate, to get them passionate.”

Belford admits that passion can only get you so far in today’s competitive job market. “I’ve had to distinguish myself from the beginning as a qualified candidate for grad school or a job. I knew I had to keep my GPA stellar and do a lot of things on top of that because a great GPA doesn’t cut it anymore.”
The Illinois native will be attending graduate school at the University of Illinois to study urban and regional planning with hopes of one day working on sustainable agriculture and energy projects in the developing world.

“I can see myself in the same career for a long time,” but, she admits, “Good preparation isn’t going to do it. You need great preparation.”

Second Year, Grand Rapids Community College,
Micah Foster

Micah Foster isn’t afraid of change. Prior to attending Grand Rapids Community College, Foster had a lucrative career in sales. The job caused the husband and father of two to be on the road six days a week.

“It wasn’t worth it to me,” he said, explaining what led him back to school after being in the work force for over a decade.

As budget director for Student Congress, Foster made important changes to the way the budget committee selects recipients of money from the Student Activities fund.

“I’m a big policies and procedures guy,” he explained. “There was really no plan that you could follow to repeat the same process,” meaning that, when the budget committee changed, so did the decision-making process. Foster led efforts to establish a system of evaluation so personal biases were less likely to affect which student organizations received money.

Good leaders do more than just create and enforce rules, Foster said. They also encourage. “Today we have more of a coaching style of leadership. My job as a leader is to help develop goals and strategies, and monitor and encourage progress and fulfillment. That’s a big change,” he said.

Foster plans to pursue a career in secondary education, but said he will continue to be open to the possibility that that may change. “I think the richness of experiences that you are allowed to have today is so much more beneficial than being stagnant. I love it.”


Senior, Hope College, Kevin Watson
Kevin Watson
believes that technology is both a gift and a curse.

“My main interest is how technology influences communications for organizations and the relationships that come out of technology and business being mixed,” he said, but also noted that while technology has an amazing capacity to enhance business and productivity, it isn’t a silver bullet.

“We have to be careful not to become too reliant,” he said. “In some job roles, there’s the opportunity to be distracted.”

He said that today’s students have been inundated with technology. “It has some major applications on how we study — really, how we do anything — and it makes it difficult for students to find the right balance.”

As general manager of Hope College’s student-run radio station, Watson makes decisions regarding everything from on-air content to the station’s website communications.

“It’s a tough role to lead your peers when everyone wants to do their own thing and there’s so many ways to get something done.” Watson said building relationships and getting to know people personally is key. “I try and build rapport so they can trust me to lead them.”

According to Grand Valley State University senior Emanuel Johnson, there’s one thing you have to have if you’re editor-in-chief of a publication: thick skin.

“Just take criticism and use it to make it better. Ask yourself: If I could do it all over again, would I?” Hopefully, the answer will be yes, he said.

“My main focus is to leave the Lanthorn in a better spot than where I found it, making it the best it can be,” he said.

Johnson chose professional writing over journalism because he didn’t want to be limited to a particular craft. “I want to market myself as someone that understands the different styles: creative, professional, journalistic.”

Johnson has written for the student newspaper since his freshman year and served as managing editor and sports editor before occupying his current position.

“When you become the face of an organization, you take all the blame and you have to make sure everything is what it’s supposed to be” — both inside and outside of the newsroom, he said.
When asked if he would do it all over again, he replied, “I’d do it in a heartbeat.”

It’s tough being a student in today’s economy, Marc Tori admitted.

“We all know that future employers will not just look at our grades and classes but also at what we did and learned outside the classroom,” he said.

Though Tori said he plans to attend medical school and won’t be in the job market for some time, he seeks out opportunities to become as well rounded as possible, including studying abroad in Argentina and volunteering at Holland Hospital.

“We are all called to be leaders at some point. We are all also followers at some point,” Tori explained, noting that effective leaders are not completely independent but know how to be when necessary.

“Good leaders aren’t afraid to do the right thing in unpopular circumstances; they bring up other leaders and don’t solely rely on themselves.”

Tori said he feels his experiences as a leader at Hope have prepared him well for his future pursuits. “It’s an honor to hold a position of respect and trust among my peers.”

Janelle Brown is not a micromanager. “I would much rather give a person tools to succeed and see what they do with them,” she said.

Brown led Cornerstone’s Students in Free Entreprise to a regional championship in March. SIFE is an organization whose mission is “to utilize the passions of Cornerstone’s student leaders to meet the needs of today in a manner that is sustainable for tomorrow.”

SIFE worked on six projects throughout the year, including a financial literacy class for Grand Rapids Public School juniors and seniors.

“A good leader can empower his or her followers to do things they themselves do not think they are capable of,” she said. “Everyone is bringing something more to the table, and the leader needs to be able to take it all into account to come up with the best solutions.” Brown said it’s important to find out “what makes people tick and use that to motivate them.”

“I see the world as a place to grow myself and empower my peers,” Benjamin Brewer said.

The Grand Rapids native said releasing potential in others is a key facet of today’s emerging leadership styles. “Our job as leaders is to break the mentality of being stuck in one perspective.”

He said that the world has become more connected, given the advents in technology and communications, and that those changes have significantly impacted what it takes to be an effective leader.

“Interpersonal communications are much more important now that we’re all connected,” he said, noting that clear written communication, whether it’s e-mail or a tweet, is more important than ever.

Brewer said he has grown immensely during his time at Davenport.
“What degree you get doesn’t matter as much. It’s how what you’ve learned can be creatively applied to anything.”

And it hasn’t always been easy, he added. “We all experience some doubt, and sometimes doubt cripples leaders, but it’s all a learning process.”

Second Year, Grand Rapids Community College,
Brittany Kozakiewicz

Brittany Kozakiewicz admits she never thought she’d be an officer for a student organization, but after attending a weekend retreat, her perspective changed.

“I realized right then and there that I needed to change. I really wanted to do something different. I wanted to step out of my boundaries.”

Kozakiewicz joined Campus Activities because she was interested in coordinating events, and said that she’s learned skills that she can apply to any field.

“I have a degree in hospitality, but I might be working at a nonprofit one day. It’s important to develop the learning and life skills to work in any type of situation you’re given.”

Of the skills she’s developed so far, Kozakiewicz points to strategic planning as the most vital. She said taking plans and turning them into action isn’t as simple as it sounds.

“You have to constantly evaluate yourself and your organization in order to move forward.”

Joshua Theil leads by example.

“Micromanaging is ineffective,” he said. “Instead of getting people to do what you want, a leader should guide them to the positive change everyone wants.”

While it’s a simple concept, Theil explained the real challenge is finding the change that everyone can agree on. “It is difficult to represent a big group of people.”

As chair of Student Senate, Theil is a vital link between his fellow students and the school administration. “Students rarely agree with each other on issues, so it is difficult to represent them as one body to the administration.”

He said listening and adaptability has worked much better than leading with an iron fist. “I have learned how much more important it is to develop relationships,” said Theil, who plans to pursue a master’s degree in higher education or public administration after he leaves Aquinas. “I love working with and for students.”


Senior, Davenport University,
Shalisha Cunningham

Shalisha Cunningham said being open-minded needs to be more than a cliché when it comes to effective leadership.

“It’s trying to look at things through another’s perspective and taking it seriously — really trying to expand perspectives because we see how a close-minded mentality is so crippling,” she said.

Through her involvement on campus, Cunningham said she’s learned how important it is to be flexible and open to suggestions. “I’ve learned to be independent, but I’ve also learned to use other people’s skills to accomplish goals.”

Last year, she founded the Campus Music Group, an organization that facilitates networking between students interested in learning and connecting through music. “That’s my pride and joy,” said Cunningham, who is also an active member of four other student organizations and will be working as a resident advisor during her last year.

It wasn’t by accident that Cunningham became so involved on campus.

“There are so many opportunities, but you have to prepare yourself, ready yourself for the opportunities when they present themselves instead of being afraid,” she said. “Position yourself to take advantage of all you can.”

As a leader, Cornerstone student body president Josiah Daniels tries to be a “voice for the voiceless” and find creative ways to enable the ignored to be heard.

“I like to be as egalitarian as I possibly can be. I love to see other people be able to succeed in leading other people,” he said. “Even if that means that maybe I had a minimal role.”

Daniels has volunteered for two years at Guiding Light Ministries, an experience that helped develop his commitment as an advocate for the ignored.

“I have discovered that it is extremely important to figure out creative ways to inspire people to change the world and figure out creative ways to face the issues that we are confronted with on a day-to-day basis.”

Last year, Daniels lived off-campus, something he said he plans to change this year.

“I felt really inaccessible to the student body. I love to be able to talk to people face to face, and by living on the main campus, people will be able to get a hold of me,” he explained.

The most important lesson Daniels said he’s learned is that “people want to follow individuals that inspire them to live differently. A good leader has to involve and inspire other people to be a part of the change they want to see in the world.” GR

Contributing writer Alexandra Fluegel is a freelance writer and marketing assistant at the Arts Council of Greater Grand Rapids.

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