House on the Hill: Leaders of Distinction


May 12, 2014

Rachel Martin, Nathan McDonald and Molly Belcher's schedules already were jam-packed.

As Division I athletes at Lafayette College, their obligations included practices, training sessions, weight-lifting regimens and games for their respective sports.

Their academic responsibilities were even more intense at the prestigious liberal arts school. Classes, labs, papers, quizzes, exams and projects filled their days and nights when they weren't on the field, in the weight room or traveling to away games.

Then, as sophomores, their to-do lists swelled even more. And they couldn't have been more ready, willing and able for it all.

Martin, McDonald and Belcher, all seniors set to graduate this month, were invited as sophomores to participate in the Oaks Leadership Academy, which is meant to support student-athletes and coaches in their quests to become strong leaders in academics, athletics and life. During their time in the program, participants took part in workshops, 360-degree feedback, one-on-one coaching, peer mentoring, supplemental online training and educational resources.

"It's something that is added to your workload, but it's not a burden at all," said McDonald, a men's soccer player from Bay Village, Ohio, majoring in Mechanical Engineering. "It's a privilege."

Three years later, the trio of Martin, McDonald and Belcher, along with Rachel Pena and Ana White, were honored with Leader of Distinction awards for their involvement in the Oaks Leadership Academy. The group was selected because they received the highest reviews on their 360 evaluations.

In honor of the 60th anniversary of Dr. Wilbur Wilson Oaks '51 graduating from Lafayette College, Oaks' daughter, Cynthia Oaks Linville '80, and son-in-law Dr. Judson C. Linville '79, made a generous gift to endow the Lafayette Athletics Leadership Academy in June of 2011, which led to the creation of the Oaks Leadership Academy.

Coaches at Lafayette recommend two or three sophomore student-athletes from their respective teams who they view as potential leaders or those who are examples of what those coaches want the standards to be in their programs.

L to R: Rachel Pena, Ana White, Nathan McDonald, Molly Belcher and Rachel Martin after accepting their awards. 

"It's a great honor, especially as a sophomore to be recognized for your leadership," said Martin, a lacrosse player. "It's a huge opportunity. A lot of the times natural leaders are placed in settings where they have to lead and don't get a lot of help. But we did."

That's thanks to Greg Shelley, Ph.D., who serves as the Oaks Leadership Academy instructor, teaching sophomores to lead by example. As juniors, they are taught to be vocal leaders in addition to continuing to lead by example. Then, as seniors, participants are taught to be enforcers. That means if a team member shows up late for practice, that a senior Oaks Leadership Academy member is expected to enforce whatever team rule has already been established, so if that means not practicing and/or missing the next game, then that punishment is upheld.

"Greg teaches you a lot about actions you can take in different situations," said Martin, a Mathematics-Economics and Psychology double major. "Being an enforcer is not a job people love, but it's necessary. It's harder, but these sessions were useful because you're taught how to deal with people not liking your decisions."

During the gatherings, which took place twice a semester, Belcher, Martin and McDonald all understood the significance of getting the chance to sit in a room and listen and talk with Shelley, known as one of the nation's top speakers and consultants in the areas of leadership development, team building, motivation, communication, conflict resolution and peak performance.

But they also appreciated having the opportunity to bounce ideas and issues off of other student-athlete leaders who they may never otherwise crossed paths with.

"You get to mix ideas and fears other captains are having," McDonald said. "I don't think we brought forward an issue that we couldn't solve. But just getting everyone talking about leadership twice a semester was important. To have that applied in an athletic setting was really beneficial."

So beneficial that Belcher is certain she'll be using many of the strategies she was told, the ideas she enforced and the lessons she learned as she enters the real world.

"The biggest thing I am taking away from it is that leadership doesn't stop with our sports," said Belcher, a Mathematics-Economics major who grew up near Columbus, Ohio. "You can apply it to all aspects of life. Especially now that I'm looking for a job, it has really helped. Just being knowledgeable about being a leader and what steps you need to take has been beneficial. You can be a different kind of leader for different kinds of people."

"We learned the four Cs -- commitment level, character, composure and confidence - which I will refer back to and think about with respect to how I should handle myself as a leader. And doing the 360 evaluations makes you hold yourself accountable and forces you to recognize your strengths and weaknesses," added Belcher, a woman's volleyball player.

If McDonald were given the chance to go through the program all over again, he wouldn't hesitate. It was that meaningful to him.

"It's a really unique thing and something that I'm thankful to the Oaks family for funding and for Lafayette for supporting and organizing it," McDonald said. "To play at the Division I level, I'm thankful for, but to be able to attend this is so cool because it was really a great experience to have the interaction and structure and access it."

By Mandy Housenick | House on the Hill 

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