Leadership as dance: Colman Program empowers Ph.D.s

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John Carberry
Josue San Emeterio and Juan Wang dancing
Roger William Theise/Provided
Doctoral students Josue San Emeterio and Juan Wang salsa as part of a demonstration relating dance to leadership during the Colman Leadership Program's final presentations June 17.

Twenty-six doctoral students attending the Colman Leadership Program gave their final presentations June 17, sharing the insights they gained from the program.

And in the end, they danced.

The program’s last day culminated in a group celebration as salsa music played and everyone circled around Josue San Emeterio and Lakshmi Nathan for their presentation, inviting the others to dance.

“Leadership is like dancing,” Nathan said in her introduction. “You reach out and connect with others; each person has a certain style and a role.” A student in the field of chemical and biomolecular engineering, she said that part of the intent of the exercise was “you get over your fears.”

“We were interested in bringing people together,” added San Emeterio, a student from Mexico researching DNA and RNA interaction as part of an applied and engineering physics Ph.D.

Over four days in the ILR Conference Center, the participants reflected on their individual personalities and values, read writings from different disciplinary perspectives, and explored diversity in various contexts, conflict resolution, and interpersonal and group dynamics. They worked in small groups on assignments including collaborative presentations.

“There’s a lot of introspection in the program, which is unique in that it is predicated on self-discovery and not skills training,” said facilitator Rehana Huq, a Cornell Organizational and Workforce Development consultant. In learning the value of reflection, students can become more “thoughtful leaders and teachers,” she said.

San Emeterio said the facilitators were “helping us recognize our own system, our own way of leading.”

The students did generative interviews with one another, assessed their strengths and weaknesses, and completed a Myers-Briggs Type Indicator questionnaire, an aid in self-evaluating perception and decision-making qualities.

As the program began, Larissa Shepherd, M.S. ’13, said: “We’re focusing more on ourselves, and how we can look into our own strengths that we might not have noticed before.”

Shepherd is researching mediations to remove toxic chemicals from water for her dissertation in the field of fiber science and apparel design. She has been a teaching assistant for most of her college career, and wants to continue teaching. In her final presentation, Shepherd highlighted “a sense of community,” saying she realized that “my research is for the [greater] community, and I share in collaborations that connect me to the academic community.”

Eight triads of students preceded the dancing duo in presenting their equally imaginative final takeaways on what they learned about leadership, teamwork and themselves. In turn, they noted such key concepts as freedom, authenticity, communication, trust, “hard work guided by a moral compass,” creativity and equality:

• “It’s very important to establish connectedness with people, whether it’s people in your lab, or your friends and family,” said Hao Shi, a doctoral student in physics.

• “Every person is like a new song, an unheard piece of music,” said Pankaj Singh, a doctoral student in theoretical and applied mechanics, who has collaborated with neurobiologists and other researchers. “Be receptive – sometimes a wild idea can take you really far.”

• “Collaboration should be our main goal in society,” said Washington da Silva, who studies plant pathology.

• “Creativity is what can drive good ideas and help us change this world, or make things beautiful,” said Ghazal Shoorideh, a student in chemical and biomolecular engineering. As for equality, she said: “Given the same resources and opportunities, people can get to the highest level if they’re given the chance.”

• Kristel Yee Mon shared two tenets ­– empowering women (“I see teaching as a tool for upward progress for [all] women,” she said) and having an impact for change by taking a humanistic view in “looking at people and my research as a whole.” An immunology and infectious diseases doctoral student, she is studying neonatal memory immune mechanisms, research she hopes will lead to better vaccines to reduce infant mortality.

Held in June and January, the Colman program is hosted by Diversity Programs in Engineering (DPE) and the Graduate School’s Office of Inclusion and Student Engagement. The Colman Family Endowed Fund for Leadership, established in 2012 within DPE, initially supported a January program for doctoral students in engineering and related STEM fields. The June offering, now in its second year, is open to Ph.D. students in all fields.


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