Preparing Leaders for a New CenturyInternational relations, ethics, and spirituality the focus of student leadership conferenceBy Cheryl D. Fields
Richmond, Va. — Sheldon Murray drove down here from West Chester University of Pennsylvania because he’s concerned about what will happen on his campus when many of the institution’s more effective student leaders graduate this spring. “There are only about a handful of people who continuously stand out [and] set the pace for our school — and many of them are leaving,” he says. “So I [asked] myself, ‘Why shouldn’t I be the one to step forward?'”Murray, a junior who dreams of becoming a “positive message” record industry executive some day, was one of approximately 900 college students who attended this year’s National Black Student Leadership Development Conference. Focusing on ethical responsibility, spiritual growth, and preparing to lead in a global economy, the four-day conference drew students from 14 states. Among the speakers were: Winnie Mandela; Dr. John Hope Franklin; broadcaster, Bev Smith; Ohio State University provost and professor emeritus Dr. Frank W. Hale; and motivational speakers Patricia Russell-McCloud and Willie Jolley.Mandela, whose message opened the conference, extended the hand of friendship from her native South Africa, reminding the students that while America is their adopted homeland, their skills and talents are also needed in the Motherland. Dr. John Hope Franklin spoke directly to the large contingent of students who attend traditionally White schools when he shared intimate and still painful details about his experiences as a graduate student. “Harvard University was no bed of roses, either, in 1935,” he says. “I’ve taught at predominantly White institutions for the last 40 years … , [so] I know what it is like for Black undergrads to feel lonely, and to feel neglected, and to feel undervalued…. I’ve seen the damage that can be done to minority students…“Most of you will be in a position of leadership,” he continues. “It is important that you build relationships with each other. And excellence must be the watchword, the standard, the benchmark. It must be practiced until your graduation day. There can never be a compromise.”“I can really relate to what he was saying,” says Bobby Ray Johnson, a sophomore at Miami University in Ohio. Diversity is a problem on his campus, he says, particularly diversity of campus leadership.“By seeing other students who are involved in leadership on their campuses, I thought this would help me,” Johnson says, adding that one of the greatest challenges he sees for his generation is “connecting with our identity as African Americans and being intellectual.”One of the most disturbing sessions at the conference was led by Dr. Walter M. Kimbrough, director of student activities and leadership at Old Dominion University, on the subject of Black sorority and fraternity hazing. Kimbrough interspersed chilling video news clips with his remarks, and although many in the packed audience gasped in horror as they watched these accounts of serious injury and death, during the discussion that followed, several stood up to defend “responsible hazing.” Few declaratively denounced hazing altogether. Many seemed more outraged at the media for portraying Black Greek organizations in such an unflattering light. Several of the conference speakers encouraged students to view their spiritual and ethical growth as an essential element of leadership development. Caroll Hardy, the conference’s organizer and the founder and president of the Stuart Educational Leadership Group, says that was deliberate.“Too many students have been spiritually disconnected,” she says. “Part of what I wanted to do was to reconnect them spiritually. “In the wake of what is happening in the country, it is important that they understand America is not going to tolerate unethical human beings. The leadership they are talking about requires a higher ethical standard,” she says.Robin Lewis, a freshman at Ohio State University, says it is unfortunate that so many people think ill of her generation of African Americans. Though she rejects the stereotypes, she says she is grown accustomed to hearing them.“Everybody thinks the young Black generation isn’t going anywhere,” she says. “I don’t think we’ve had a chance to talk about that much here.” Johnson agrees that their generation is often unfairly maligned. “But, not enough credit is given to those who are doing a lot,” he says. “More attention should be given to these people.”As someone who has attended similar conferences in the past, one of the things Miami University’s Murray says he enjoyed most about this conference is the useful and relevant nature of the content.For Hardy, nurturing young Black leaders and exposing them to people who have blazed the trail before them yields personal, as well as professional, satisfaction. “I don’t want to be queen, but I’d like to assist in making the kings and queens to come,” she says. “I believe in them and think they ought to be given an opportunity to show what they can do.”
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