Learning to lead

If you’ve ever wondered if the world’s future is in good hands, you need only spend five minutes with the students who participated in the Iowa Leadership Training Camp to be assured. 

The 32 Iowa high school student council members who attended the four-day camp at UNI are motivated, inquisitive, driven and dedicated to making a difference. In fact, they’re wise beyond their years.

When asked to write their goals on the "Wall of Difference" in the camp’s main meeting room in the West Towers Lounge, here’s what a few of the campers plan to accomplish:Leadership Camp

  • Be a better leader for my peers.
  • Make it into the National Honor Society.
  • Open my own obstetrics practice.
  • Make sure everyone in my school has somewhere to fit in and feel like they belong.

Now, keep in mind that these students are between 14 and 18 years old. Instead of "I want to have a really awesome Sweet 16 party" or "I want to get the highest score on Guitar Hero," these forward-thinking young adults are committed to making the world a better, more inclusive place.

Kelly Neiber, education '85, is the director of the Iowa Leadership Training Camp and has spent her summers helping students become more effective leaders for the past 18 years. Neiber is also the executive director of the Iowa Association of Student Councils, which hosts the training camp, and a special education teacher at East High School in Des Moines.            

"The camp is for high school kids in grades nine through 12 who are primarily student council members, but any student in any leadership position in their school can attend," explained Neiber.

The camp focuses on helping students become better leaders and helping them increase the effectiveness of the groups they’re involved with. To do this, the camp’s curriculum focuses on team building, goal setting, leadership styles, organization, problem solving, decision making and evaluation.

"The campers grow and mature so much and they find out so much about themselves," said Neiber, who sees the greatest change in students who come to camp by themselves instead of with a group of students from their school. "They go from being shy to having no problem mixing in with others and sharing ideas."

At the end of the four days, campers head home and plan how they’ll share what they’ve learned with the rest of their council members to get the entire group fired up for a great year.

Neiber and the campers are assisted by 10 junior and senior staff members who are experienced teachers/advisers at their own schools across Iowa. All of the junior counselors were campers in previous years, and most are college students. The junior counselors lead activities, serve as role models, and help campers complete tasks and process what they’ve learned. Logan Olson, a 2011 graduate from Southeast Polk High School in Pleasant Hill, is one of the camp’s junior counselors.

"I had so much fun as a camper in 2009 and 2010 that it was a no-brainer to want to get involved as a junior counselor," said Olson. "Watching the campers come together, be so accepting of each other and work well together is great. They participate in activities that help them solidify skills and see where they have room for improvement. They also share ideas that they can take back to their own councils."

Harlan native Josh Gear attended camp in 2005 and 2006 and was a junior counselor at this year’s camp. "In my opinion, we get the best and the brightest students in the state at this camp," he said. "Being able to say, 'I helped this person learn to make an impact in their school' is pretty cool."

Gear said the campers change in big ways during the four-day camp. On the first night, for example, campers participate in an Olympics-style event where they participate in a variety of games, like an egg toss. "They don’t get right away how something like that relates to managing people," said Gear. "Then you see the light bulb turn on and they say, 'Team building. That’s what we were learning!' It’s interesting to see." 

On the final day of camp, students had a scavenger hunt on campus where they worked in small groups to solve problems, which once again helped them gain skills that would help them handle real-world situations. During "Playing Footsy," campers had to work together to pass a ball to their neighbor in the circle without dropping it – and without using their hands.

"The groups have problems to solve, and some activities were cancelled or moved to a different location, which happens in real life," said Neiber. "The campers had to learn to adapt and be creative, which is all part of being a leader."  

The campers learned a great deal in a short period of time, yet attending was definitely worth it, said Laura Perry from Shendoah.

"Everyone’s attitude is so positive. It is 120,000 percent uplifting! You feel accepted, you can be yourself and there’s no need to hold back. You can’t leave this camp in a bad mood."

Learn more about the Iowa Association of Student Councils at www.iowastudentcouncils.org.