Twelve students in the Virginia Tech College of Natural Resources and Environment’s inaugural 2010-2011 Leadership Institute class took part of their holiday vacation to spend a week learning directly from top natural resources’ officials. With college dean Paul Winistorfer and institute director Steve McMullin, the students met with elected officials, state and federal agency heads, and non-governmental organization directors to hear firsthand about the issues and challenges leaders face.

Their Charlottesville, Richmond, and Washington, D.C., circuit took them to visit the Virginia Department of Forestry, Virginia Secretary of Natural Resources and 1979 college alumnus Doug Domenech, Virginia Forest Products Association, Virginia Game and Inland Fisheries, Virginia Forestry Association, U.S. Forest Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, staffers for Virginia Sens. Jim Webb and Mark Warner on Capitol Hill, The Wildlife Society, American Fisheries Society, and The Chesapeake Bay Foundation, as well as the National Conservation Training Center in Shepherdstown, W.Va.

Dean Winistorfer, who loved his week with the students, said, “I could not have been more pleased with how our students interacted with state and national leaders during this week of experiential learning. It exceeded all of our expectations, as well as strengthened and built relationships with the organizations we visited.”

The college launched this new program to develop leadership abilities in some of its top students to help prepare them as future leaders in managing natural resources for sustainability and biodiversity.

“Cultivating leaders is possibly our most important task,” the dean emphasized. “We want to equip our students with the skills and tools needed to solve critical problems facing society in the management and utilization of our natural resources. And leadership means working with people to resolve differences, create a path forward, and solve problems in a collaborative way. Leadership in natural resources means leadership with people.”

The college was able to quickly start this critical program shortly after planning it owing to generous donations from Frank and Susan Boucek of Naples, Fla.; Guy and Katherine Crane of Chicago, Ill.; Jon DeHaan of Naples, Fla.; the Donahue Family Foundation of Pittsburgh, Pa.; Bob Hagler of Leesburg, Va., and institute director Steve McMullin of Radford, Va.

“We are well on track to reach the vision we have for this program,” Winistorfer noted. “Our hope is that the Leadership Institute will become a signature program of the college that is widely recognized.”

“We are mentoring our best and brightest students,” institute director and associate professor Steve McMullin pointed out, “so they can be well prepared to lead private and government organizations someday — managing, protecting, and utilizing our natural resources. The travel week showed them the political process and gave them insight into how decisions and policies are made in both government and private sectors.”

“The students also heard over and over again,” McMullin continued, “from people in different positions within natural resources, how important it is to develop leadership skills and to be able to work effectively with people as well as natural resources.”

To be considered for the yearlong training institute, students must earn at least a 3.0 grade point average and write a letter of application explaining why they want to be leaders in the natural resources professions.

During the spring semester, the students will implement group projects they planned during the fall semester. One team is working with local and state government officials to meet federal stormwater management mandates in the Chesapeake Bay watershed. Another team is developing recruitment strategies to attract quality students to the College of Natural Resources and Environment. A third team is planning a college-wide service event.

In the fall the students participated in the Blue Ridge Parkway’s 75th Anniversary Symposium hosted by the college. They met personally with many influential members of the natural resources community, including keynote speaker Richard Louv, author of Last Child in the Woods, a best-selling book that has stirred up the nation to be more diligent in getting computer-stuck children out into nature. Louv coined the phrase “nature-deficit disorder” to describe the myriad of problems that accompany children’s lack of exposure to the outdoors. During the fall semester the students also studied leadership styles and leadership profiles, and assessed their own personality types.

Senior forestry major Adam Christie of Buchanan, Va., says he believes the Leadership Institute trip presented a unique perspective on different leadership styles in the natural resources industry. “All the leaders we met with had a wealth of experience from different perspectives,” he said. “This enabled them to become the effective leaders they are today. A refreshing insight was that the leaders we met with were not necessarily the best academics, but instead possessed leadership attributes that carried them to where they are today.  

Senior wildlife science major Kenneth Erwin of Powhatan, Va., summed up the learning experience: “Our trip gave us the opportunity to meet with professionals in multiple areas, interact and develop connections, discover what it means to be a leader in the natural resources field, the troubles we may face, and how leaders rise to the challenge, overcoming adversity.”

The following students comprise the inaugural 2010-11 Leadership Institute. View their individual profiles online.

  • Walker Baldwin, a senior geography major from Huddleston, Va.
  • Adam Christie, a senior forestry major from Buchanan, Va.
  • Lydia Eggleston, a junior geography major from Danville, Va.
  • Kenneth Erwin, a senior wildlife science major from Powhatan, Va.
  • Kathy Hixson, a senior wildlife science major from Union Hall, Va.
  • Mitchell Kern, a senior wildlife science major from Charlottesville, Va.
  • Hannah Lee, a junior environmental resource management major from Williamsburg, Va.
  • Kelly Merkl, a junior natural resources conservation major from Chevy Chase, Md.
  • Brittany Schultz, a senior natural resources conservation major from Poquoson, Va.
  • Carine Lynn Squibb, a junior wildlife science major from Eggleston, Va.
  • Patrick Trail, a junior geography major from Richmond, Va.
  • Charles Turner, a senior wildlife science major from Bentonville, Va.
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