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At Widener, leadership is for everyone

All nursing majors at Widener University pass through the Oskin Leadership Institute, where they learn about the ethics and qualities of a good leader.

Arthur Schwartz, teaches a leadership program to nursing students at Widener University.
Arthur Schwartz, teaches a leadership program to nursing students at Widener University.Read moreDavid Swanson / Staff Photographer

All nursing majors at Widener University pass through the Oskin Leadership Institute, where they learn about the ethics and qualities of a good leader.

"You're not graduating as a nurse. You're graduating as a nurse leader," said Arthur Schwartz, founding director of the institute, as he prepared to address a class of nursing students last month.

Increasingly, students in a variety of majors at Widener are taking required courses in leadership at the institute, which opened in 2011. Engineering majors. Communication majors. Business, hospitality, and psychology majors.

Some students are electing to go on and get a leadership certificate, which requires 18 workshop hours and makes a nice notation on a resumé.

For those wanting to go deeper, Widener this year began a leadership minor.

Leadership studies are becoming more common at universities across the nation, touching nearly every field. The topic spans graduate and undergraduate programs, majors and minors, and certificate programs, and has spawned centers and institutes.

"I think there's a greater appreciation that the role of leadership has really intensified and has become more complex as we have become more global," said Cynthia Cherrey, president and CEO of the International Leadership Association. "You see universities recognizing the need to prepare students to live, work, and lead in a global society."

Swarthmore College in 2013 started the Center for Innovation and Leadership to help students across disciplines develop strong leadership skills.

Cabrini College launched its Nerney Leadership Institute in 2014.

"One of the things we were hearing from employers is that we're training people with a tremendous skill set, but when they get out in the workplace, they aren't necessarily prepared to lead teams, to be a manager, to have the thought skills to inspire people to be more productive," said Maria E. Vizcarrondo, executive director of Cabrini's institute.

The college has a leadership minor, master of science in leadership program, and leadership workshops for students. The institute brings in executives to talk to students. Faculty are trained how to infuse leadership into their curriculums, Vizcarrondo said.

Widener's institute was started with a $5 million gift from David W. Oskin, past chair of the board of trustees, and his family. Oskin graduated from Pennsylvania Military College, which became Widener, in 1972. He is president of Four Winds Ventures, an investment firm.

When Schwartz began at Widener, he wasn't sure how the institute would take shape. He came from the Air Force Academy, where he was the senior scholar. He is perhaps best known for his collaboration with the University of Pennsylvania's Martin E.P. Seligman in the field of positive psychology.

When he was invited early on to talk to 175 engineering majors at Widener, he got the idea for the leadership certificate.

During the workshops required for a certificate, students learn about different types of leaders. One class focuses on leading self, another on leading change. Students conduct a self-assessment of their leadership skills and discuss leadership philosophies.

They must sum up their philosophy in 28 characters or less. On an institute wall hang pictures of certificate recipients and their philosophies: "We did it ourselves." "Got your back." "Step into the storm."

"Learn from the gray" - that was the philosophy of senior nursing student Jennifer Gleeson, 21, from Bangor, Northampton County, Pa.

She had discovered four gray hairs, and she believes they were the result of the stress she experienced after taking on so many extracurricular and leadership roles in addition to her studies. Her leadership philosophy emphasizes "be in the moment" and "absorb everything possible instead of missing things that may have been important," which also reduces stress.

Freshmen nursing majors are required to take two leadership classes on ethical fitness and leadership stereotypes. Some majors require more. Business students take seven.

Last year, 47 students got their certificates, Schwartz said. An additional 58 are scheduled to complete theirs this fall, he said.

"I feel like it would be worth it for nursing and getting a job," said Sarah Wydila, 18, of Chadds Ford, who took her first course last month.

She held leadership positions in high school and wants to foster that skill, she said.

Taylor Young, 18, of Palmyra, hasn't been a leader, but wants to learn. She plans to get the certificate, too.

"I was more the behind-the-scenes person, so I think this would help me a lot, slowly break out of my shell," she said.

Schwartz said he has heard from graduates who credit the program with helping them find jobs.

Rubin Thomas, a 2016 graduate, said he shared his leadership philosophy with job interviewers when they asked him why they should hire him.

"They were on the edge of their seats listening to my story," Thomas wrote to Schwartz, thanking him.

In his ethical leadership class, Schwartz advised students to tell others where they stand ethically, listen for pressure words that could indicate an ethical dilemma, anticipate how to handle a "red flag" situation, practice, and seek an ethical mentor.

"Have someone to look up to," Schwartz advised.

He asked students to think of a time when they stood up against something they thought was wrong. One student described standing up to a cousin who worked at the same restaurant after he bullied a new employee.

"What motivated you?" Schwartz asked.

"I felt really bad for the kid," she said.

Schwartz also asked students to think about when they failed to stand up. He shared his experience: He was at a party and one of the guests was cursing within earshot of his nephews, 9 and 11.

"I completely froze. I just was weak," he said.

He asked students to suggest better ways of handling that situation.

"Remove your nephews from the situation," one offered.

"Exactly," Schwartz responded.

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