The College of Natural Resources and Environment’s Leadership Institute already asks a lot of the students accepted into the program.

From weekly classes where students are challenged to learn about their own strengths and limitations, to a weeklong trip over winter break to meet with leaders and policymakers in conservation and environmental science fields, to a capstone project that asks them to put their skills to the test in real time, the Leadership Institute offered significant challenges — and rewards — to participants even before COVID-19 upended everything.

“The program requires you to be real with yourself,” said Hallie Craig, a junior majoring in packaging systems and design. “You not only learn about your strengths, but you have to come face-to-face with your weaknesses, which can be hard to admit to. There’s a lot of self-discovery involved, and it helps prepare you for any challenges that come up as you prepare to join the working field.”

Helping to develop the next generation of natural resources leaders was precisely what the founders of the Leadership Institute — Professor Emeritus Steve McMullin and Paul Winistorfer, dean of the College of Natural Resources and Environment — envisioned when the program was initiated in 2010.

“We already produce excellent graduates, but we wanted to see what we could do to give them another edge,” said Professor Brian Bond, who served as associate director under McMullin and now leads the program. “It’s not just about teaching: We want our students to learn about themselves and others, while providing tools to help them be successful leaders as they move into their careers.”

This year, the challenges of the coronavirus outbreak have forced the program to make adjustments to the curriculum. While Bond and the cohort of 11 students have been able to hold their classes in person while following safety protocols, the winter trip became a virtual event.

“When I first heard that the winter trip was going to be online, I was disappointed,” said Logan Anderson, a junior studying wildlife conservation. “I was looking forward to meeting people in person and wasn’t sure what I’d get out of online meetings, but they turned out to be great. We met with a bunch of state and federal agencies, and I ended up getting a lot of helpful insight into what goes into those agencies and what leadership looks like in the natural resources realm.”

Students had Zoom meetings with leaders from the U.S. Forest Service, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources, American Fisheries Society, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the packaging firm WestRock, and other agencies, companies, and leaders working in natural resources and the environment.

“One of the benefits of going virtual this year is that we’ve been able to reach further across the landscape,” noted Bond, a faculty member in the Department of Sustainable Biomaterials. “We usually invite guest speakers who are somewhat proximate to campus, but because we’re doing more online, we can inquire elsewhere. We are holding a diversity panel this spring where all our participants will be on the West Coast. The change has provided us opportunities to expand our reach.”

For leaders and policymakers, participating online allowed for, surprisingly, more opportunities for engagement.

“I’ve traveled to Virginia Tech to address the leadership class in years past, and that experience has always felt like a more engaging and personal experience for me as a speaker,” said Charisa Morris, deputy assistant director for science applications at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. “But this year’s Zoom experience mirrored that because we had more time to really get into the issues they wanted to talk about.”

“I love the questions they ask,” she continued. “I’ve spoken to quite a few college classes this year, and a lot of times the students are used to being passive participants. This class is different because they’re practiced in being leaders and they’ve thought about what they want to get out of the experience beforehand.

“I love participating every year because I get a refresher on what it means to be a leader at every level,” added Morris, who earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in fisheries and wildlife science at Virginia Tech and has participated with the Leadership Institute for six years.

A strong component of getting students in the room with leaders — physically or virtually — is providing students with the chance to hear firsthand what career options exist for graduates.

“Students often have limited expectations about what they’ll get out of our winter trips,” Bond said, “but by the end they find the experience is totally different from what they anticipated. They’ll say, ‘I never knew that the U.S. Geological Survey had fisheries biologists,’ or, ‘This is giving me a whole new career direction to think about.’ Seeing that direct student impact is the best part of the program for me.”

One part of the Leadership Institute that has not changed is the in-person classes. For students who have seen most of their classes move online, the chance to regularly interact with a small cohort of peers face-to-face has been just as valuable.

“It was nerve-wracking at the beginning of the year because this was my only in-person class,” Anderson said. “And it is a group that is really intelligent, so there was that added pressure to keep up with people who can process information and present and talk about it easily. But it’s also been nice to see familiar faces on a weekly basis and have a routine that’s been missing for most of us.”

“Meeting in person has been one of the best things about the class,” Craig echoed. “I’ve been fortunate enough to build relationships with other people in the cohort, and I’ve learned a great deal from the others in the program.”

The Leadership Institute is currently accepting applications for next year’s class. Students can find information about how to apply on the program webpage. There will also be an informational session held online on March 23.

“This program requires a real commitment,” Bond said. “Applicants should have a strong interest in developing their leadership skills and a willingness to participate in a class that asks a lot of them, both time-wise and energy-wise. But the payoffs, in terms of preparing our students to be leaders in their chosen fields, are well worth the effort we ask.”

Written by David Fleming

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