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House on the Hill: Building Leaders

Feb. 5, 2014

From left: Katy Rooney, Kelly Boyce, Sam Ector (Navy escort), former U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney, Kaity McKittrick, Justin Adams and Julian Plummer.

During nearly every moment of last week's three-and-a-half day Naval Academy Leadership Conference, Julian Plummer found himself in awe.

The Lafayette college junior was blown away by the schedule the Midshipmen keep, the respect with which they treat each other and outsiders visiting their campus and the messages he heard from featured speakers, ranging from former U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney to former soccer star Kristine Lilly.

Plummer (top middle) with McKittrick, Boyce, Rooney and Adams (bottom L to R) at the 2014 Naval Academy Leadership Conference. 

"I've been telling people it was life-changing," said Plummer, who will be a captain for the men's soccer team next fall. "The biggest thing for me was coming from a really liberal environment and having zero military exposure. It was shocking to see the lifestyle of people in the Academy and the military in general. That was so far out of my comfort zone."

"Honestly, I almost came back and felt like I really didn't even know if I wanted to play against Navy anymore. They do everything we do and then so much more."

Plummer was one of four Lafayette student-athletes to travel to Annapolis, Md., for the annual conference, hosted every year since 1984 by the United States Naval Academy from Jan. 26-29. He was joined by volleyball's Katy Rooney, women's soccer' Kelly Boyce and football's Justin Adams.

Nearly 200 schools, including every institution in the Patriot League, were represented at the conference. Some schools sent all athletes, while others sent no students involved in athletics. The three previous years Lafayette participated, three student-athletes attended. This year, however, all Patriot League schools were allowed to bring four.

At Lafayette, not just any student-athlete can qualify for the leadership conference. First, coaches in every sport nominate students to be part of the College's Oaks Leadership Academy. As sophomores, those students are known as emerging leaders; juniors are called veteran leaders; and seniors are 360-leaders.

Student-athletes in the Oaks Leadership Academy have to go through an application process if they're interested in attending the leadership conference. However, there are two prerequisites: they must be juniors and it's preferable that they play fall sports so they aren't missing practices, games or any extra classes. Winter and spring athletes already have to miss classes for their respective sports during the spring semester.

"Then we have them write an essay about why they want to go and what they think they'll gain from it and how they think they can implement what they've learned with their team," said Kaity McKittrick, Lafayette's Senior Associate Director of Athletics, who makes the trip with the student-athletes. "We choose juniors every year because we hope it impacts them while they're still here."

Those attending listen to guest speakers, take part in panel presentations and gather together for break-out sessions. Organizers split everyone up into different groups so the students are interacting with other students from all over the country who they do not know. And every conference has a theme. This year's was "Followership."

"The thought behind that is when you're a leader, you're also a follower and you have to be a good follower," said McKittrick, Senior Associate Director of Athletics/SWA at Lafayette. "Most often you're not just a leader. Our team captains are captains, but they have a coach they have to be able to follow."

Plummer, who turned 22 over the weekend, couldn't believe the routines the Midshipmen uphold, the way in which they eat their meals and the behavior they are expected to display at all times. Students, he said, are not allowed to use their phones in any way while walking around campus. No texting. No game playing. No talking on their phones.

"Because they are not on their phones all the time, they learn how to converse, how to enjoy the serenity of life or even just how to share time with people," he said.

Common courtesies, such as holding the door open for people, an often lost art in the real world, is still prevalent at Navy.

Kristine Lilly with Kelly Boyce.

"I never opened a single door," Plummer said. "They don't let you. Everyone holds doors open for you, even for another person in the academy. And by holding it, I don't mean they hold it and push it open for you. They stand there and hold it open, even if it means holding the door for 20 people and then walking through the door themselves."

And lunch in the mess hall, he said, caught him by surprise.

"I would say there were 1,000 people all dressed the same," Plummer said. "You don't sit down when you get there. Everyone stands outside of the table and someone makes an announcement on the loud speaker and asks for a prayer and everyone bows their heads. They have this 'Whoot' thing, which is a Navy pride ritual after the prayer, and everyone sits down and the food is brought to you family style. They eat in 10 minutes and then everyone leaves."

Plummer, eager to put into action what he took away from the conference, already called a team meeting with fellow captains. He has visions of really making a difference as a leader this season, starting with putting an emphasis on really knowing who he is leading.

"You need a really strong relationship with who is on your team and how you can and can't lead certain teammates," Plummer said. "And you need to focus on being a servant to the team. This isn't about you being a captain. It's about you doing your best to serve the program. And just because you're a captain, you don't know everything. You have to be open to be critiqued. You can always become a better captain, a better leader, a better team player. A freshman kind of idolizes a senior. But I'm the same as them. I'm not as special as they make me out to be." 

Maybe, just maybe, the Naval Academy Leadership Conference has made him more special than he realizes.

By Mandy Housenick | House on the Hill