A high-stepping boot camp
They slept in yurts and went six days with virtually no cell phones or Internet service. But for 59 Berkeley Engineering undergraduates, spending their semester break at a woodsy Sonoma County retreat was the journey of a lifetime.
The students were participants in Berkeley Engineering’s first-ever LeaderShape Institute, a national program that trains young people to lead with integrity and make significant contributions to better the world. They returned to Berkeley focused, energized—and ready to take on new challenges.
Voicing the sentiments of many, Paul Zarate, a second-year mechanical engineering student, says, “It was for sure worth missing a week out of your winter break. It was awesome.”
The stakes are high when it comes to preparing the next generation of engineers to lead. Global problems demand groundbreaking innovations and the skills to implement them. “Their ability to have a healthy disregard for the impossible will lead to new engineering solutions for the problems we’re experiencing today and the problems we’ll experience in the future,” says Dale Masterson, director of Engineering Student Services (ESS) and coordinator of the LeaderShape program.
Held at a conference center outside the town of Occidental, the event emphasized team-building and self-discovery. Students were organized in small groups called “family clusters.” They navigated a ropes course, charted their visions for a brighter future and grappled with weighty ethical issues. At an evening panel discussion, business and community leaders shared their personal stories. Coleman Fung (B.S.’87 IEOR), the founder of New York-based software firm OpenLink Financial, encouraged the students to shoot high: “If you don’t push the envelope, then you’re not going to get any innovation.”
The undergraduates came from nearly every engineering major as well as diverse ethnic and personal backgrounds. Many were first-generation, low-income students.
The program was funded by a grant from Raymond Yan (B.S.’74 ME), his wife, Eunice (B.A.’77 CS), and their RECARE Foundation. Supporting educational projects, especially those that benefit underserved students, is a cause that resonates with the Yans. Raymond Yan also applauded the idea of equipping future engineers for the workplace: “If they learn how to be leaders, be ethical, and be cooperative, it gives them a head start.”
LeaderShape is one of several initiatives sponsored by the recently expanded ESS to strengthen academic and professional advising while enhancing the undergraduate engineering experience. Since its launch in 1988, LeaderShape has trained more than 40,000 college students. One of its best-known graduates is Google co-founder Larry Page, who has credited the program with guiding him on his successful path.
During their 14-hour daily sessions, Berkeley students wrestled with questions that pushed them beyond their comfort zones. In the process, strangers became fast friends. Stephen Appert, a second-year mechanical engineering student, observed that being “in the middle of a forest without our laptops, we were all working with a clean slate.” As a result, “People felt free to be themselves,” says Wintana Alem, a third-year civil engineering student.
Making these cross-disciplinary connections will have a lasting impact on the students and the culture of Berkeley Engineering. At the retreat, “some students expressed that this was the first time they had interacted with engineering students in departments other than their own,” Masterson says. “They left after six days having formed a very tight community.”
When they returned to campus, participants immediately went out to dinner together. They have since formed a Facebook group to keep in touch.
Throughout campus, LeaderShape participants are building upon these relationships and putting their new skills into practice. Alem, the president of the Black Engineering and Science Students Association, is collaborating on a gathering that will unite various student clubs. “If it wasn’t for LeaderShape,” she says, “we wouldn’t have ever met.”
Active in student government and other groups, Sabina Del Rosso, a second-year Industrial Engineering and Operations Research major, is taking on a bigger planning role for the campus’s Engineers Week on March 7–12. Del Rosso says the training program taught her that good leaders are also team players. “I’m a pretty independent person, but to get things done, you can’t do everything by yourself,” she says. As for Zarate, he is working with another LeaderShape participant to resurrect an organization of LGBT science and engineering students.
Ultimately, Masterson believes, the lessons learned at the LeaderShape Institute could be lifelong, with students applying their newly honed leadership skills to goals throughout their Berkeley years and beyond.