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V4I4: OSU’s Leadership Academy

Article By:
Faith Vawter, Assistant Director Leadership Academy, Oregon State University

Dr. Haley Traini, Assistant Professor, Leadership Education, Oregon State University
Dr. Jonathan Velez, Department Head Associate Professor of Leadership and Agricultural Education, Oregon State University


Your students are great buT…

How many of us have heard this statement “Your students are trained with technical skills, but…?” You may have heard this at your institutions and we continue to hear this loud and clear at ours. In 2010, under the visionary leadership of then Dean Sonny Ramaswamy, and with stakeholder input and leadership support, the College of Agricultural Sciences at Oregon State University established an endowment with the intent of building a leadership academy. This program, shared with the College of Forestry, was designed to elevate the traditional curriculum by augmenting it with employability and professional skills.

As research supports (Crawford & Fink, 2020) and anecdotal evidence suggests, in order to compete for jobs after college our students need to strengthen their skills in emotional intelligence, motivating self and others, navigating difficult conversations, exploring values, creating and sustaining boundaries, communicating effectively, and navigating conflict. While this is by no means an exhaustive list, it is vital that our classrooms and curricula provide the employability skills needed for our students to succeed in the multicultural and multinational communities in which they will be working. We believe that to do anything less than provide them with this critical component to their education compromises the mission of our university and our commitment to student success.

Getting Started
Industry partners and employers were brought on early in the conversations led by Dr. Jonathan Velez, Co-Director for the program, and formed a vocal and encouraging Advisory Board. This board urged us to consider ways we can better meet the needs of students and employers; the Leadership Academy was our response to the charge. The goal of this yearlong, cohort-based Academy is to produce graduates who are lifelong learners and leaders in their industries with the vision, passion, and drive to make an impact in their world.

Undergraduates in the Colleges of Agricultural Sciences and Forestry apply to the Leadership Academy in the Spring and enter as one cohort in the Fall. They must be accepted, attend an orientation, and commit to the program for an entire year. One of only a few such programs in the country, the Leadership Academy prepares students to effectively lead themselves and others by providing critical leadership perspectives from academic and industry professionals through yearlong coursework, experiential learning, and mentoring relationships. With access to thousands of dollars in scholarship funds, students can attend industry conferences, purchase professional memberships, travel to internships, attend workshops and symposia, and pursue their individual development goals.

The Leadership Academy is uniquely situated to provide an experience unlike any other on campus and academy alums graduate with a competitive advantage, highlighted by a recent alumni survey which showed that over 86% of alums received a job offer in their field prior to graduation. Unique, in that it is grounded on industry knowledge and experience, the Academy pairs academic leadership development content and introspective assessments with formal one-on-one faculty mentorship to form a program that is applicable and relevant to the industry today. Through the Advisory Board, we have a constant feedback loop and real-time metrics that let us know how we are doing developing these skills.

As part of the Academy, students are expected to meet program requirements designed to encourage their growth.  Students enroll in a 1 credit, two hours per week, leadership course for the duration of one academic year.  They complete a Personal Leadership Development plan, meet with a faculty mentor at least once per month, participate in small group activities, read a leadership text, engage with guest speakers, participate in leadership assessments (e.g., DISC, Strengths, EQ, etc.), and meet with Academy instructors, for leadership advising, on a quarterly basis.

Growth & Impact
Since its start in 2011, the Academy has graduated over 300 students, distributed over $50,000 in scholarships, and maintained a 100% OSU graduation rate. The Leadership Academy continues to grow rapidly, doubling in enrollment size from 25 students in 2018 to 54 students in 2019. In 2019, 24% of Academy students identified as being from an underrepresented group (compared to 21% and 15% in the College of Agricultural Sciences and College of Forestry, respectively), and 32% reported being from a rural Oregon community (IR Enrollment Summary, 2019.) Overall, in the 2020-2021 cohort, we had students from 11 majors across two colleges represented. Figure 1 highlights growth in student enrollment over the past 10 years.

Leadership Academy students excel in and outside of the classroom, with many holding leadership positions in clubs and Greek life, chapter positions in national clubs such as Minorities in Agriculture, Natural Resources and Related Sciences (MANRRS), research positions, and student government across campus. For instance, this year, the President and Vice-President of the Oregon chapter of MANRRS, and three of the four OSU students who won national MANRRS contests were Academy alums.

Figure 1
Leadership Academy program enrollment growth from 2011-2021

One of the unique and powerful aspects of the Leadership Academy is the pairing of students with faculty mentors. Our students love this aspect of the program and we have over 108 devoted faculty members from across five different colleges, as well as central University leadership, volunteer to mentor Leadership Academy students. For many students this is their first exposure to formalized mentoring and in addition to personal growth, many students leave this relationship with a newfound commitment to seek mentors as they grow as professionals.

Assessment and Evaluation
As part of the program evaluation process, we consistently seek feedback from three primary sources: faculty mentors, industry advisory board, and current participants. Students enrolled in the academy complete assessments each quarter which measure their leadership learning, level of involvement, and explore the connections between types of experiences and student perceptions of leadership growth. In addition, we also analyze data from both a pre and post assessment. Our evaluation measures connect back to our four key program learning outcomes. In brief, we assess student learning across the four domains of Personal Leadership Development, Interpersonal Leadership Development, Group and Organizational Leadership Development, and Community Leadership Development.

Each of these learning outcomes are supported by underlying, and measurable, skills and attributes. For instance, under our Interpersonal Leadership Development learning outcome, we analyze three skills and attributes: Valuing Diversity, Enhancing Communication Skills, and Managing Conflict. Beginning in 2015, we also undertook a research project to see if we could connect student growth to specific curricular experiences. To do this we collected data from our 2015- 2020 cohorts and asked students to link specific experiences to leadership growth. While this is an ongoing research project, we have found a strong core of three leadership competencies, awareness of self, enhancing communication, and understanding leadership, as areas most developed through participation in the Leadership Academy (Traini et al., 2021).

Industry Connections
Relationships with industry and other external stakeholders are vital for the long-term success and viability of the Academy. Likewise, Academy alumni continue to engage with the Leadership Academy long after graduation. They see firsthand how their training benefits them in their careers and are not only paying it forward by serving on advisory boards, engaging as guest speakers, and supporting the program financially, their voice of advocacy among their networks can provide a multiplier effect for additional program branding and support.

Funded in significant part by endowments, industry sponsorship, and private donors, the Academy leadership team works in close partnership with the OSU Foundation and Alumni Association implementing development efforts which include an end of year campaign, Giving Tuesday campaign, annual University Giving Day, and multiple industry matches. Over the years, through industry support and donor investment, we have established three scholarship endowments in addition to increasing our annual revenue year after year.

Given the Academy’s significant growth, projected need, and finite resources, we are committed to evaluating the structure and function of the Academy so that it remains a thriving and impactful program where students can grow in a safe and welcoming environment.

We are doing this by:

  • Evaluating student demand and our contribution to student success
  • Identifying the attributes industry leaders need in their future workforce
  • Increasing the size, diversity, and engagement of our advisory board
  • Continuing to build relationships to leverage the expertise and resources of others
  • Engaging in university-wide formal development efforts to reach greater numbers of students

Our commitment to delivering an inclusive program has resulted in efforts to establish a diverse advisory board, direct relationships with Tribal coordinators at the University and State level, diversity in guest speakers, relevant textbooks and content, and a scholarship endowment specifically designed to support tuition costs for students with financial need.

Future Directions
We know all students need leadership education. Faculty are promoting it, industry is supporting it, and employers are demanding it. Looking to the future, our goal is to guarantee all students, within our colleges, graduate with exposure to leadership education. This Spring and Fall we are piloting a two-credit, introductory course targeted to first year and incoming transfer students, focused on introductory leadership and industry mentorship. Programs that bring students and faculty together in a community of learning foster a sense of belonging, and that sense of belonging can lead to higher retention rates and an increased likelihood of persistence to graduation. The traditional Leadership Academy has enjoyed a stellar OSU graduation rate, and it is our hope that by providing an immediate connection to the College, its faculty, and students’ peers, every incoming freshman and transfer student will be successful and workforce-ready at graduation.

The Leadership Academy is proving to be the catalyst for student’s self-discovery, meaningful reflection, and commitment to lifelong learning. The Leadership Academy at Oregon State University is a scalable model with purposeful learning and immediate application. Our hope is that the Leadership Academy will have a long-term impact on students, communities, and the nation, fulfilling the land grant mission and positioning our students to be leaders in their fields, across the world.

We are thankful for the visionary leadership, collaborative partnerships, and passionate support across multiple colleges as we work to ensure the continued success of our students. Throughout the years, deans in both the College of Agricultural Sciences and Forestry recognize that student leadership development is critical to our mission as a University, and have been unwavering in their support to make student success a reality.



Crawford, P., and W. Fink (2020) From Academia to the Workforce: Critical Growth Areas for Students Today. Washington, DC: APLU.

Traini, H. J., Brunner, M., & Velez, J. J. (2021). Linking curricular experiences to leadership outcomes in a year-long leadership development program. Proceedings of the International Leadership Associations’ 23rd Annual Global Conference, Geneva, Switzerland.

Office of Institutional Research. Oregon State University (2019) Enrollment Summary-Fall Term 2019.


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