The Student Leadership Exchange (SLX) is the culminating event to the year-long Leadership Education and Development (LEAD) program. Sophomores work on a project from one of three angles: data journalism, social entrepreneurship, and social activism, which are taught in the electives IMPACT, SocENT, and EnACT, respectively. All SLX projects address the United Nations’ Sustainability Goals, including clean water, world hunger, gender equality, terrestrial and marine ecology, and poverty. Throughout the morning on Wednesday, April 11th, students attended an opening presentation, gave brief presentations in a poster session, and then delivered 7- to 10-minute formal presentations to smaller audiences in the A-wing classrooms. SLX offered an opportunity for each LEAD group to present their work to fellow students and LEAD facilitators, as well as external professionals whom IMSA invited to evaluate the projects.
Following a lunch break in the afternoon, students reported to the auditorium for the 8th annual Hollister Lecture, in honor of the late Dr. Hollister who once taught at IMSA (his portrait now hangs in the IRC). The keynote speaker at the event was Kelly Page, a research fellow at IMSA, who discussed social entrepreneurship and how social media today can enact change in the modern world.
As stated in the opening remarks by LEAD co-chairs, Ashritha Karuturi (’18) and Lauren Etzkorn (’18), the purpose of the LEAD program is to provide IMSA with “an actionable and effective method of making leaders in their community [by] instilling qualities of leadership and social awareness in students.” The goal of SLX specifically is multifaceted — the experts present at SLX could offer valuable feedback on student projects, it could be a practice networking event for students, or it could simply be a time to enjoy learning about other projects on the different UN Sustainability Goals.
The value of SLX depends almost completely on how much work a group has put into creating a practical, relevant project. And there lies the flaw of SLX as a whole.
LEAD (the basis of SLX) is a mandatory program, not an academic class. Every sophomore has heard the complaint: “LEAD isn’t graded, so why should we care about it?” This thought process leads to sophomores procrastinating on their LEAD projects, joking about finishing their presentation hours before the deadline.
Many presentations at SLX are not well-thought out at all. The projects are hastily done, thrown together with often-irrelevant data sets and little real analysis. At SLX, students present elective projects that they have supposedly worked on “all year,” and yet many groups spent only a few hours on their projects throughout the entire school year.
It’s worth noting that not all LEAD projects are completely disorganized. Some are very well-planned out. In fact, many current programs at IMSA are real-world executions of LEAD elective projects, including KODE.IO, which aims to inspire children in STEM through weekly coding lessons, and KismuKrafts, which helps women in Africa sell their handmade crafts.
Many LEAD projects, however, are hastily thrown together at the last minute. At SLX, student presenters have an opportunity to get valuable feedback on their projects. But how can evaluators provide meaningful comments on half-finished projects? During the classroom presentations, many commented that the groups’ data sets were irrelevant to the actual topic. And for the presentations that did have relevant data sets, the project’s overall purpose was unclear.
This lack of quality projects negates SLX’s primary purpose, rendering the event irrelevant for the many groups who prioritized their academic classwork over SLX (and not unreasonably so). So is SLX’s supposed uselessness a shortcoming on the part of the students, for not caring about LEAD, or on the part of LEAD, for not being more considerate of students’ homework time?
Sophomores’ general attitude towards LEAD is that it detracts from homework time and doesn’t teach anything useful to students. Xiomara Medina (’20), a SocENT student, noted, “I think SocENT…would have been helpful to many aspiring entrepreneurs if the program had taught what it aimed to teach. But the way the program was executed [made the class] boring and pointless for those who didn’t find it interesting to begin with.” This is one of the main factors that makes SLX relatively useless – student boredom and disinterest.
A clear solution to student disinterest would be to make LEAD a graded class. But enforcing some kind of quality standard on LEAD projects would only build resentment among students. This would also go against LEAD’s mission to promote a growth mindset, according to Lauren Etzkorn (’18), LEAD Co-Coordinator this past school year, “LEAD isn’t for a grade so we don’t necessarily give you an A for doing well. In that sense we don’t have a standard expectation, but we have a growth mindset where we want our students to progress and grow throughout the program.” LEAD’s current calendar of due dates (including project ideas, presentation drafts, and posters) is usually enough to keep students on track, hitting the bare minimum to have something to present at SLX.
But LEAD and SLX are what they are. Passing or failing LEAD students based on project quality would only put more stress on them, and would likely detract from their performance in academic classes. Etzkorn stated, “I always tell my students that you get out of LEAD what you put into it. They have to be there, so they may not like it. But they can try their best and get the most they can out of it.” Ultimately, it’s up to the students to decide how much effort to put into their LEAD project, whether to incorporate feedback from Mid to improve their presentation, and whether to take the opportunity to practice presentation and networking skills to make the most of SLX.