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Learning to lead Taking up leadership opportunities at university
Posted by Simon Masterton | August 01st 2012

Let’s take a moment to analyse exactly who you are now, to a range of passers-by on the street. To a middle-aged businessman or woman, you’re a teenager, mid-educational life and yet to get their first taste of this so-called ‘real world.’ To an elderly couple, you’re may seem to be a good-for-nothing hooligan, lacking the inherent respect that was common among everyone ‘back in the day.’ Parents may approach you with caution, knowing that, at this stage of your educational life, you’re likely to me a mental and emotional wreck, while younger siblings and junior students at your school may look up to you – they respect your tie, the way you carry that folder around in one hand, and the sophisticated way you keep your hair.

  But how do you view yourself? Hopefully as a bright young person with ambitious goals, bucket loads of enthusiasm and infinite potential. And what about us, the university students and staff of this world? We see you with respect, the people who will soon be one of us, using that HSC attitude to establish a solid approach to learning and reaching those distant objectives. To us, you’re the future.

  I think that, one or two years down the track when you’re finally in tertiary education, you will begin to notice the last perspective particularly being demonstrated within the wider general public. While you may currently feel mature, somewhat superior to the younger students of your school and a respected senior ambassador within society – and rightfully so – this is only enhanced in university. You’ll be viewed and treated as not just a future, but as a current leader, and the ability to initiate change within the world will be placed entirely in your hands.

  This leads me to a common type of extra-curricular activity offered at universities, which I encourage everyone to utilise at some point: leadership activities. Such opportunities often include leadership conferences and talks, scholarships for community or other university-run projects, and the chance to volunteer in hands-on and direct leadership environments. They will often result in a range of skills that will prove valuable in post-uni life.

  While leadership conferences and talks may conjure up boring expectations, with mental pictures of some businessman you’ve never heard of presenting a monotonic speech to a room full of third and fourth-year students, this could not be further from the truth. Conference organisers are all too aware of the difficulty in marketing the events to a slightly younger demographic, and are always eager to secure young and vibrant keynote speakers. Entrepreneurs of recognisable brands or charitable organisations make regular appearances at such meetings, as do a range of media personalities that have been able to successfully achieve their goals and lead the way into the future. It is through these talks that you will learn the fundamentals of good, responsible and successful leadership – inspiring you to reach your own short and long-term ambitions in the process.

  Scholarships for leadership projects that exist outside university are another way you can get involved and establish an understanding of your growing role as a young leader. Recent examples include the upcoming INITIATE, the future one-day UTS workshop – which Wollongong has paid for me to attend because I simply expressed my interest – or the ALIVE scholarship for The Big Issue’s “Big Idea” project– involving a series of lectures, workshops and online seminars with the overall aim of establishing the next “Big Idea” to assist Australia’s homeless community. Because these projects often occur off-campus and separate to university-run events, there are the added bonuses of unfamiliar environments and networking opportunities, ensuring you can develop a sound knowledge of leadership while growing that ever-important list of contacts.

  Volunteering opportunities, as I have discussed previously, should not be underestimated in their impact upon your learning and future employability. Through my participation in the planning process of the Students4Students (S4S) National Leadership Conference I have been able to demonstrate to employers a viable example of communication, teamwork and time-management skills, all of which may fall under the broad definition of leadership. The 2012 S4S conference is, of course, one of the more recognised leadership opportunities in Australia. In addition, the University of Wollongong’s own ELEVATE program, an ongoing leadership discussion with year eleven students, is another way I have practically developed my skills, while another Big Issue project, Street Soccer, is one such off-campus volunteering activity that can greatly inform and later demonstrate skills in the field of leadership.

  Wollongong’s many leadership programmes, as well as scholarship offerings and off-campus opportunities, are all publicised through ASLA (Australian Student Leadership Association) – a sub-branch of the UOW-run Centre for Student Engagement. ASLA is one of UOW’s proudest achievements, with the S4S conference their most major annual event, although most universities will provide access to such programmes through their own student engagement bodies. With that said, and the benefits clear, I think such involvement is critical in the development of our future – or current – young leaders. So get on it!