WALK program inspires student leadership

Wayne State housing program provides unique leadership opportunities for students

Ashley Ternus, Staff Writer

Every Tuesday around 8:00 p.m., the basement of Neihardt Hall is almost overcrowded with teenagers. There is not enough chairs or couches for everyone, so the pool table and the window ledges make do. One teenager is running in with seconds to spare, longboard in hand. Another still has their headset on from a video game session. One teenager has just returned from being a mascot for that night’s volleyball game. Sports, finals week, shopping, and an upcoming speaker are all conversation topics being projected around the room.

These teenagers all live different lives. Some coming from family farms and a high school graduating class of 11, others from Midwest cities where they graduated alongside over 700 other seniors. However, there is one thing that each of these teenagers have in common. They were all chosen for the Wildcat Academy of Leadership and Knowledge.

WALK is a themed housing program at Wayne State College that engages selected freshmen in hands-on leadership activities and community service projects. Members attend an hour-long seminar every Tuesday night, where they engage with other leaders and are immersed in a program that promotes self-discovery, civic leadership, and a thirst for integrity and improvement. This program has been the foundation for strong friendships, leadership opportunities, and prominent involvement skills in those who have participated in it over the years.

“The best thing about WALK is the ability to bond with the other people in your group,” WALK member Linnea Vogel said.

Not only are these members learning together, but they also live together in the basement floor of Neihardt.

“I am a pretty shy person and it was hard for me to make friends, so it was cool to just have that built in friendship. We all started hanging out the day we got here,” Vogel said.

The 2019-2020 WALK program includes 29 freshman and two mentors who live in the basement of Neihardt together, and one mentor from the first floor. It is no wonder why the basement gets so loud on Tuesday nights. Members of the WALK program form strong bonds outside of the seminar nights. So when it comes to working together during the program, it comes at no cost.

“I think [living together] helped a lot with building connections among other members down here,” member Travis Rudloff said. “Those were the first friends that I made. We all had the same ideals and goals yet there was diversity among us. We were able to form a great friendship right away. That helped when we worked on projects.”

The ability to work together is extremely important for those involved in the WALK program. Members are required to split up into groups during the spring semester to design and execute a philanthropy project. Each team is given a sum of funds to start their project and are expected to complete a service that yields more than the original funds.

“It’s specifically up to what each group wants to do,” WALK Advisor Tyler Bacon said. “Each group has their own passion about what they want to give back to, and how they want to impact the community.”

For Rudloff’s philanthropy project, the group created tie-blankets and donated them to the Omaha Children’s Hospital. Other groups have raised money for homeless shelters, churches, and victims of domestic abuse. One group made cards and gift baskets to send to troops overseas, Bacon said.

Vogel’s group collected nonperishable food items to donate to the Norfolk Rescue Mission.

“We literally went out one Saturday and went around Wayne asking for canned food items,” Vogel said. “They had a list of items they needed, and we collected over five hundred food items.”

Vogel said one group in her year worked with Haven House in Wayne, and another group did a collaboration with a group on campus to send health items and toiletries to other countries.

In order to prepare for these huge projects, the fall semester is spent doing team building exercises to determine personality types, conflict management styles, and individual weaknesses and strengths. Some of the seminars this year focused on educating the members on the concept of privilege, and how it has affected many persons in the United States and in other countries.

“Some things are going to make you uncomfortable but once you push yourself outside of your comfort zone, that is when your really grow as a person,” member Taylor Van Pelt said. “I learned how to be embarrassed in front of people and to accept it.”

Due to its selection process and training, the WALK program is known to birth future residents’ assistants and desk attendants.

“It helps when applying to be an RA because someone already identified the leadership skills in you and you are a part of the program that crafted and built those leadership skills,” Rudloff said.

Bacon said he sees many of the WALK members fill in these positions and continue to work for Residence Life throughout college.

“I love seeing the growth,” Bacon said. “I think being able to see the students coming in their first day into WALK not knowing what to expect, and then at the end of the year being able to look back and say I can’t even recognize who you are because you’ve grown so much as a leader and as a student and continuing to see their growth.”

The 29 members of the WALK 2019-2020 community are a unique group of freshmen, and advisor Cassie West said she enjoys attending the seminars and watching the interactions between the members. These students are being trained for a future of success at WSC, and in their future careers.

However, they are still the same teenagers that sit on pool tables and climb onto window ledges to enjoy the time they have together in this living learning community. If someone walked in on a Tuesday night, they might not even realize the crowd was gathered for a seminar.

“It is beautiful how cohesive the community is,” West said

The WALK program is a great opportunity for incoming freshman. Applications are open until May 1 for any prospective students interested.