SESP Leadership Institute Students

Embracing Identities, Cultivating Leaders

Intense summer program builds bonds and confidence

By Clare Milliken

In summer’s final weeks, when Lake Michigan is at its warmest and Deering Meadow is lush and green, 20 incoming Northwestern students are holed up in a campus residence hall, feverishly preparing for the next morning.

Energy drinks fuel the finishing of essays, research papers, and reading assignments; the clicking of keyboards is constant. The academic year has yet to begin, and already these students are all in.

The transition to college can be a daunting and lonely experience. But these participants in the SESP Leadership Institute (SLI) will begin the school year with a for-credit course under their belt, newly formed friendships, and a better grasp of how their diverse backgrounds and cultures are assets in a university setting.

New relationships, new realizations

SESP faculty members Shirin Vossoughi and Mesmin Destin developed and piloted SLI in 2017 to support incoming students, especially those who come from lower-income backgrounds or are the first in their families to attend college. Over 17 days, new first-year students, as well as rising sophomore and transfer students, explore identity and equality in education, hone their writing skills, and develop an academic and social support system.

SLI also stresses building community and relationships to combat alienation, a strategy that Destin’s research suggests is a key ingredient for academic success. Some students, such as SESP juniors Christopher Mayorga and Veronica Suarez, participated in SLI as rising sophomores and returned as counselors. Last fall, SESP senior Samantha Buresch worked as a resident assistant, helping her younger colleagues on everything from meeting 10 p.m. deadlines to finding campus resources.

“Sometimes it seems like everyone at Northwestern graduated at the top of their class, is involved in a million clubs, is double majoring with a minor, has a strong social life, maintains a 4.0 GPA, and gets eight hours of sleep a night,” Buresch says. “It takes some time to understand that each of us is as deserving to be here as the next person. SLI definitely helps students realize they are much smarter than they once thought they were.”

Putting research in action

By all accounts, SLI is intense. With full days of classwork and discussion, along with daily reading and writing assignments, late nights are common. Saturday trips to Chicago landmarks, an improv workshop, and a ropes course help students blow off steam and build camaraderie.

For Vossoughi, assistant professor of learning sciences, and Destin, associate professor of human development and social policy and psychology, the SLI curriculum offers an opportunity to apply their groundbreaking work in education equity.

One of Destin’s core research findings suggests that helping lower-income and first-generation students express their identities and sense of purpose boosts academic achievement, career motivation, and resilience, even in the face of tremendous challenge and adversity.

“SLI activities explore who the students are, what matters to them, why they are here, and what they want to contribute to the community,” Destin says. “These are the students who may have been undervalued in the past but have the potential to help the University grow.”

SLI reading assignments are carefully selected to expose students to different perspectives and spark insights about how the texts relate to their own lives. Writing assignments blend research with autobiography so students reflect on how culture influences thinking and learning. After Vossoughi assigned Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates, a young black woman in the program wrote an essay on how reading the book in SLI differed from reading it in her predominantly white high school, where she often felt pressure to represent her entire community.

Mayorga, who co-led a discussion of Coates’s work, says reading the book helped him find his own writing voice. “Shirin also talked about her own experiences, which opened us up to talking about ours,” he adds. “That led to really good discussions.”

Those talks continued in the daily Leaders Lab, led by Destin, where conversations ranged from what leadership looks like in practice to ways of building community and overcoming challenges.

“We spent time thinking about what leadership meant for us and what each of us contributes to the collective group,” Suarez says. “I realized that even though I’m pretty quiet and don’t often speak out, I can still be a leader and make a difference in my own way.”

Mayorga, too, tapped into newfound leadership skills. Feeling more confident on campus, he is part of a task force on diversity and equity and cofacilitated a SESP town hall. “I’m leading events, reaching out to people, and being more vocal in meetings,” he says. “I’m really out here doing things and making an impact. I attribute a large part of that to SLI.”