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Leadership in Action: My Orientation Summer

Written by Julia McGuire

“Why do you want to be an orientation leader?” If I had a dollar every time a peer, supervisor, or family member asked me this question, I could pay my tuition. People  are usually curious because their mental image of a college students during the summer usually involves coursework or the beach. Not many students spend their days decked out in orange and welcoming UT’s largest ever class. When asked, I always told people I wanted to practice the leadership skills I learned through the Honors Leadership Program or creating a better orientation experience for the first-year students. After having served as an orientation leader this summer, I’ve realized, that while I may have accomplished those goals, my initial understanding of role was nowhere close to the reality.

Being an orientation leader (OL) challenged me to grow into a servant leader. In my leadership courses, I wrote naive reflections on the idea of servant leadership, but through my OL experience I have learned what it means to be a servant leader. Servant leadership on paper looks a lot like a leader working alongside her followers, building them up, and guiding them towards a goal with compassion and hard work; people in my Honors Leadership classes commonly referenced Mother Teresa as a prime example. In my head, I thought, “Great. I’ll do that. I never really liked being in charge of things, anyway. I want to work hard and lead people by example.” Being in a role where servant leadership was required allowed me to explore many of the things I learned in class and otherwise would not have taken as seriously. Serving as an orientation leader gave me the opportunity to practice class concepts and apply meaning to them through my experience. 

This summer as an OL, I learned about the real-world application of leadership practices, strength-based leadership, and about understanding when to step up and step back as a leader. Encourage the heart is a leadership practice imperative for servant leadership; it includes acknowledging small victories, creating a sense of community within the group, and, in the case of orientation, consoling a worried student about their schedule and life on campus. This skill is particularly difficult to employ when exhausted or impatient, both common states in the OL experience. In class, our textbooks talked about the importance of listening and understanding, but no one could ever describe how difficult empathy and compassion can be when you feel emotionally drained. Here, learning to find “my why” was imperative to my success as an orientation leader. I had to remember how important a kind word was when I an orientee and that each new student was an individual with a unique story and particular need, not just another repetitive question. As an OL, I needed to prioritize orientees in order to be a true servant leader.

Every interaction I had with a student, I found myself unconsciously using the leadership practices from our class textbook to become a servant leader. When problem solving in tough situations, understanding my own strengths and the strengths of my team members helped me to know when I should take the reins or take the backseat to another OL. Having the foundations from the classroom allowed me to lean into my strengths and leadership skills and to know to look to others when needed. The leadership class that the OLs took together (ELPS 350) allowed us to learn each other’s strengths and how they would be applicable throughout the summer. For example, many of the other leaders possessed “WOO” (winning others over) as their top strength. Where they were strong in this skill, I was weak, a result of my calmer presence and dry sense of humor. Whenever the time came to hype up the crowd or entertain them in between presentations, they were the OLs to look for. In other instances that required a quick solution for an unexpected challenge, my strengths of adaptability and critical thinking were useful in supporting my team members who found it more difficult to improvise. Being a servant leader as an OL meant serving the orientees and the other leaders on the team.

This summer not only taught me what it meant to be a servant leader, but it pushed me to become one. The HLP had given me the foundations of what it means to be a leader, and orientation gave me an opportunity to develop my understanding and skills. I could have never led this summer without the support and hard work of the other OLs who taught me what it meant to stand on the shoulders of giants to reach for success. No matter my initial reason for being an orientation leader, I was given an amazing opportunity to serve the university and to greet first year students onto a campus that can change their life just like it has changed mine.