Students who are socially and economically disadvantaged, but are committed to their academics, are being given a special opportunity to become future leaders. The Canisius College Urban Leadership Learning Community Scholarship Program guides selected students through a specific learning formula to advance their leadership skills.
In this Focus on Education report, WBFO's senior reporter Eileen Buckley visited a Canisius classroom where students were immersed in the program.
Students were divided into several small groups to easily interact with one another during an exercise in teamwork, discussing the sounds of poems. This course work is designed to develop leadership skills.
"We can bounce off each other’s ideas to get a whole general idea of the story and it really helps out," said Willie Smith. Smith has completed his first year at Canisius College.
Smith embraces the classroom process that is helping to develop a discipline in listening and learning to respect the opinions of others. Students would share their ideas about the sounds of poems some would lead the conversation and share their insight, as other students listened carefully.
"We all have to contribute and we all have to learn off of each other, but we still have a proctor who guides us, so we are all slowly learning to be leaders and learning how to teach ourselves," said Sarah Andrews of Arizona. She is enrolled in the Urban leadership program.
English professor Roger Stephenson would roam from group to group listening to their conversations and then offering guidance. Stephenson serves as director of the Urban Leadership program.
More than 40-students are currently enrolled in the program. To quality students must come from lower-income families and must have financial need. Depending on that need -- some receive 50-percent to 100-percent tuition assistance. But they also must maintain strong academic credentials.
"These are special kids and we select them for their potential of what they can essentially give back," said Stephenson.
Once accepted, students will remain in the program over the four years at Canisius. Along with their regular course work they take Gateway courses set up in a 'team learning' format. These courses are central to the leadership program to foster critical thinking, communications skills and learning to rely on human resources around them for collaboration.
"It is a diverse population and it's purpose is to address diversity, in part," noted Stephenson.
The program requires students to work beyond the classroom walls. Even before they arrive at Canisius they must attend a summer boot camp, then other activities coincide with their classroom curriculum.
"These students are asked to participate on campus and off in activities which are, probably best designated as service activities and they attempt to achieve leadership roles in those," said Stephenson. "When they get involved in activity in their community we want them to be leaders in their churches and their community centers."
The program is designed to train students to be future leaders in the Buffalo community. Still, not all the students who complete the program will remain here for their career path. Some graduates are finding successful careers in other parts of the Country.
But student Willie Smith is duel majoring in accounting and finance and is hoping to be a future leader right here in Buffalo.
"I hope to get back into the community, because I grew up in a community where people who made it never came back to help other people who made it," said Smith.
Smith noted that as a young boy he wasn't encouraged to a leader, but when he graduates from college he wants to influence other local youth.
Following the legacy of her older brother, who graduated from Canisius and the leadership program in 2012, is freshman Justine Harris of Buffalo. "It allows you to step up as a leader and to do things in your community, so it's a really great program," said Harris.
Harris said her brother earned his financial degree and now works at Citibank in foreign accounts. Harris is majoring in Athletic Training and finds the program helpful to map her future leadership skills.
"It's definitely a leadership to listen rather than just speak your own opinions," said Smith referring to the teamwork course work. "You have to listen to people to have leadership quality and skills."
Importantly, this leadership program has a 95-percent four-year graduation rate. Since its creation in 2000, more than 120-students have graduated from the program. It's removed barriers to higher education and lifting students from poverty to life on a college campus and an opportunity to be Buffalo's future leaders.
"A real leader is not just one who takes over, but it is one who enhances other peoples leadership potential," said Harris.