Ten years is a long time. For the Higdon Student Leadership Center, it’s a whole lifetime. That’s how long this College of Charleston office has been providing leadership opportunities and training for students nearly year-round.
Established in January 2005, the leadership center has evolved from a one-person office with just two programs to a five-person operation (two of those are part-time) delivering programs that engage almost 1,000 students annually.
The center’s founding director, Michael Duncan, explains, “Our programs, including Leadership CofC and Dance Marathon, directly touch 500 to 700 students each year and close to 200 indirectly.” Roughly 130 students attend the office’s leadership conference each fall.
WATCH: Dance Marathon Rocks
Duncan is careful to convey that the center defines leadership in a unique way. “In our view, it’s a concept that goes well beyond the positional model. A title doesn’t make a leader,” he says. “For us, it’s much more about the process of developing leadership skills. In part, that is due to former President Lee Higdon’s passion for leadership. His background, particularly his experience in the Peace Corps, informed that outlook, and I have always shared that view.”
In the broad sense, says Duncan, “our charge is to encourage students to look at different leadership styles and then develop opportunities for them to practice leadership.” He and his staff do that in part by collaborating with local businesses and organizations to bring in presenters and to offer their students leadership experiences in the field.
Dylan Mazelis, a senior psychology major, knows the value of these efforts: “Leadership CofC gave me the opportunity to connect with inspiring local leaders,” he said.
“We try to make leadership training and opportunities accessible to every student,” continued Duncan. “Many of our programs are competitive and selective and thus limit participation, but we also have those that are available to any student who is interested.”
To mark its 10th anniversary, the center isn’t planning any special occasions. Instead, Duncan and his staff are firmly focused on the current agenda. “The challenge for us now,” he offers, “is to balance our interest in expanding our work with keeping our signature programs fresh and relevant.”
For the future, Duncan says that he has three specific goals: “No. 1, we want to increase our impact. My hope is that we can get some of the students that we don’t characteristically see. No. 2, we want to become more collaborative and deepen our partnerships. We’ve begun working with the Jefferson Awards Foundation to get more involved with high school kids. We had 50 of those students at our fall leadership conference last year, so it’s a good start. And No. 3, we’re also looking at our alumni and beginning to tap the potential there for mentorships.
“When I think about 10 years in this work,” muses Duncan, “it’s impressive to see how quickly our programs have become part of the student experience here, and that was always the goal.”