Why BLI? Growing Resiliency for Life after Hollins

Photo of students in BLI classHollins’ Batten Leadership Institute (BLI) is unique from any other college or university leadership program for one very important reason: Students do not have to wait until they are in the workforce to gain skills that impact how they navigate systems at school, work, and home.

BLI’s undergraduate program is a credit-bearing program that typically attracts approximately 20% of every entering first-year class. It uses the same models as BLI’s popular executive leadership executive program, which has attracted participants from local private, nonprofit, and governmental agencies in all fields for more than 12 years. This year in fact, the mother of a Hollins alumna enrolled in one of BLI’s executive programs because her daughter had benefited so much from the experience on campus.

In addition to influencing systems on behalf of causes or people, generating opportunities for oneself is a key piece of the program. Assignments from the first class to the last class in BLI include a “Big Ask” for students to generate a wish list of people they admire. These are people they could envision interviewing and asking for something on their own behalf. For many students, getting comfortable with multiple rejections is definitely part of the process. For that, students in the Capstone class provide encouragement and help students craft the right questions, practice their delivery, and support them through successes and challenges. The vast majority of students not only get what they seek from someone on that list (mentorship, internship, reading their creative writing, a job, shadowing, etc.), they also realize that they created something very much outside of their comfort zone. They advocate for themselves in a way that primes them to consider it as part of who they are and what they are capable of doing. It requires compassion for themselves and others during rounds of rejection, courage to persevere and reach out without a prior relationship or nurtured connection, and a willingness to be celebrated by the class cohort for completing the task.

The goal is having the student leave BLI classes with far more than a piece of paper that reads Certificate in Leadership Studies. In addition to learning models that help students manage conflict, improve decision-making, and navigate feedback, students are able to recognize and draw more sustainable boundaries – an important lesson in growing resiliency.

More is not always more and faster is rarely smarter. And it always comes at a cost. A 19-year old student who struggles to achieve in too many areas, rarely says “no,” and is driven to the point of exhaustion and poor self-care looks very similar to an executive who has been out of college for 15 to 20 years, is still grinding out a harried pace, and has experienced a health crisis or is running on fumes of stress and exhaustion. Understanding how better to apply leadership development and team models to produce change and clear-headed decisions and impact efficiency can only come through an understanding of how to slow pace to see the system, whether it is malleable or even worth continued investment. The eloquence of creating boundaries is a critical piece.

What do students say about how they imagined BLI 101 – Leadership Skills and what they actually got? They said they thought they would hear lectures and learn theories or models but not really use them. Some said it was stressful and some had to reach beyond a comfort zone. What about that stress? Overall, it was a measured amount of stress — they also said that stress was really important and it changed how they see themselves and others. If something can alter how we see and engage, that is a pretty strong outcome for a 16-week semester investment of time.

Students may choose to take only one or two classes, or they have the option to pursue a Certificate in Leadership Studies to complement their major. BLI classes are open to all interested undergraduates who register. BLI 101 or 201 are both entry points. There is no application process. Seniors who waited often report they wish they had started earlier.

The Certificate in Leadership Studies is relatively easy to complete on top of double majors and pre-professional programs. It takes just three touch points of BLI classes (101, 201 and Capstone (471/472) plus two classes from the leadership seminar list of over 60 classes across campus. The certificate can be completed in two years with careful advising. But, by capitalizing on the maturation process that naturally occurs over time, life, and experiences at home and abroad, there is great value in spreading core BLI classes out and waiting until senior year for Capstone when supervision and mentoring benefits from having done more and lived in systems that did or did not employ leadership concepts. There is an alternate Capstone 471/472 opportunity for a student to create a paper for publication in their field of interest if mentoring and conducting labs with 101 students is not the right fit for them. Internal advising keeps students on track for the certificate and study abroad is always encouraged. Typically, a BLI student will have multiple internships because it is part of Hollins culture that students seek out their own opportunities and make their own luck.

The point is that students in any field have a chance to leave with refined and complementary skills for each major field of study, as well as relational skills based on self-awareness and how to connect across divides that serve them personally as well as professionally. If it helps them be more competitive to gain entry to graduate school or a job, that is a reasonable goal. And really, just the frosting. How it helps guide day-to-day practice in life after Hollins is an even loftier measure beyond the resume payoff.

Abrina Schnurman-Crook
Executive Director
Batten Leadership Institute