A Fantastical Lesson in Leadership

A trip to Disney should be fun. But for a group of Muhlenberg students this January, the trip also helped explore the many ways that Walt Disney World staff create a culture of leadership.

By: Bill Keller  Tuesday, March 3, 2020 08:49 AM

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Over the recent winter break, 16 Muhlenberg students joined staff from the Division of Student Affairs on a trip to Orlando, Florida, to learn about Disney magic. Their goal was to immerse themselves, as a group, in a week-long educational experience that focused on leadership, teamwork and service.

Leadership development is a priority for Muhlenberg staff. Those who have been College employees for many years have noted the deliberate shift towards clearly-defined learning goals and outcomes—even for what might, on the surface, seem to be purely “fun” events, such as a bingo night or make-your-own-stuffed-animal activity.

"Each and every social activity we plan has one or more learning goals, a series of outcomes that are educationally and developmentally relevant for our students," says Associate Director of Residential Education Katy Mangold, who led the trip with Associate Director of Student Engagement for Student Activities & Events Ellen Lentine. "And our resident advisors have four one-on-ones with all of the students they advise each year. Teaching those leaders, giving them a model of what a positive mentor or peer leader could look like, has shaped how we train housing & residence life staff. This is a residential curriculum that is not present or even common in other colleges."

"There is focus and intentionality in what we're doing. Instead of simply repeating past activities, we ask 'what are the outcomes of this program?'" says Lentine. "We put those outcomes at the forefront of everything we do to make sure that it's going back to the mission of the College."

The Muhlenberg Disney Leadership Experience included enrollment in several of Disney’s educational workshops (sessions included Techniques of Teamwork and a Culture of Excellence) as well as a service commitment (this year’s project paired Muhlenberg students with Give Kids the World Village, a central Florida nonprofit that provides free vacations to children experiencing critical illness as well as their families).

Each night as a group, the students discussed their activities and discoveries; that consideration is a key component of Muhlenberg’s approach to integrative learning.

“One of the things we know about leadership is that students develop their skills when they have clear and ongoing opportunities to reflect on what they've done—and to receive feedback from supportive mentors and peers,” says Allison Gulati, vice president of student affairs and dean of students. “So we make that intentional reflection an important component of all that we do, from local community engagement to the Disney Leadership Experience.”

Muhlenberg staff recruited students who sought greater leadership roles and training. Applicants were encouraged to reflect on their own experiences at the College, to explore how they'd do things differently. Those selected were required to meet each month leading up to the event to prepare them for the experience and to introduce them to a framework for understanding leadership: the social change model.

The model imagines leadership as purposeful and collaborative, with positive social change as an intended result. Leadership is broadly defined and is not intended to be limited only to official titles or positions within organizations. Students can be a leader when they’re in a board position for a club or student group, but they can also be a leader among peers in social situations, in the classroom and in engagement with communities on and off campus.

Disney Leadership - Lindsay Scott

Lindsay Scott ’22 (above, left) had frequent leadership opportunities before the Disney trip: She had led cancer fundraisers in high school and served a leadership position in her school’s National Honors Society Chapter. At Muhlenberg, she’s the secretary for Muhlenberg EMS and serves as a coordinator for a local food pantry. She’s also a member of Muhlenberg’s women’s soccer team and has taken on non-positional leadership roles as a biology, chemistry and Spanish tutor at the College.

But she saw the Disney Leadership Experience as an opportunity to strengthen her skills with Muhlenberg peers and to see firsthand how an established team approaches leadership.

“I was excited to work collectively to build up a foundation of skills that we could all use to improve the Muhlenberg culture,” says Scott. “This seemed like a great way to learn what I could do to contribute more to the Muhlenberg community.”

Scott will join the other students who attended the January trip in a presentation to their peers later this March. Mangold hopes that some of these budding leaders will serve as mentors for next year’s cohort and serve as a conduit between the lessons learned at the Magic Kingdom and the many leadership opportunities available at Muhlenberg and in the greater Lehigh Valley.