Rutgers students practice leadership skills with St. Croix trip
Students may not always know what to do or how to react when dealing with social issues, but a course is teaching students the skills and knowledge to do so.
"International Relations: Leadership for Sustainability," a course offered by the School of Environmental and Biological Sciences, centers around the idea of teaching its students how to lead, said Mary Nikola, director of Leadership and Organizational Development within the Office of the Dean of Agricultural and Urban Programs.
While it is essential for students to learn the fundamentals of leadership, she said students should also have the opportunity to travel to learn how to apply these skills.
“Needless to say, it’s a global world. And when our students graduate, chances are they’ll have the opportunity to work in a multicultural environment — maybe even work overseas,” Nikola said. “They need to be really thinking (about a) much broader context than that.”
She said her students work on problem solving, how to influence others and networking.
“In all honesty, we teach them how to shake hands (and) how to make eye contact,” she said. “You never know. Tomorrow you might get on the bus or walk into a classroom and there’s one person you’ve been dying to talk to because he or she represents an internship opportunity for you or job opportunity.”
But that is not all her students do. As part of the class, students take an eight-day trip to St. Croix in U.S. Virgin Islands over spring break.
While there, students learn how to apply their leadership skills, she said.
“We get to experience all these international influences that have shaped the island overtime,” she said. “We get to meet people that have this long history, or they’re coming from Trinidad and Tobago or Jamaica— wherever they may be coming from.”
Her students tackle a specific social issue and come up with ideas about how they would work on bettering the situation, she said. She mentioned that there are many types of issues going on, including educational and economic ones.
“It’s fascinating what they have to struggle with,” she said. “It’s interesting to study a beautiful place.”
Lisa English, director of Alumni Relations within the Rutgers Biomedical and Health Sciences, said she believes the course does a great job giving students the ability to lead and think on their own.
English joined Nikola's class about four years ago after the two met during courses for alumni leaders, English said.
What made the trip more valuable was that students got the opportunity to interact professionally and personally with speakers on the island, she said.
“The variety of perspectives was the most valuable — from the University of the Virgin Islands professors, to the students from UVI that we interacted with at lunch and during some impromptu tours of the campus,” she said. “Being able to see the culture of St. Croix both formally at the Whim Museum and informally as we traveled about the island was a valuable blend of experiential education.”
Professors were not the only ones that valued this experience. For some students, this was an eye-opener and something they will cherish for a long time.
“We learned about how to be a better leader, how to be more professional in our relationships, how to network (and) how to make relationships build throughout the rest of your career,” said Derek Noah, a School of Environmental and Biological Sciences senior.
He explained that while he enjoyed various portions of this trip, including snorkeling, hiking and kayaking, the educational aspects of the trip really stuck with him the most.
He said that leaders on the island have yet to figure how to solve the issues they face. The island is full of gang violence, he said.
“They (have) a huge (school) dropout rate,” Noah said. “They had a real hard time getting people involved."
He said if leaders were to put their heads together, it would help engage the youth and get them back in school and off the streets.
Randy Leon, a School of Environmental and Biological Sciences sophomore, said that he too enjoyed the trip and appreciated what he learned from his experience.
“We spoke with people such as Errol Chichester, the assistant commissioner of Agriculture on St. Croix,” Leon said. “(He) mentioned the great tax incentives of farming on St. Croix, yet the lack of individuals who seek to choose farming as their vocation.”
They also got a chance to speak with Massarae Sprauve Webster, the CEO of Frederiksted Health Care, who spoke on health-related issues.
“She mentioned the idea of ‘brain-drain’ and how those who do pursue higher education on the island move to the mainland in search of higher paying wages for their talents,” he said. “(It leaves) the island without the necessary doctors and specialists needed to treat the vast number of locals in need of basic health services.”
The professors can only do so much in the classroom, but an experience like this can do so much more, Leon said.
“I plan to find a career in sales after graduation (and) should I have to travel as part of my career, I would need to know different cultures and understand the not everywhere is just like New Jersey,” Leon said. “It is important to immerse yourself in the way other people live and go through life.”
Julian Jimenez is a School of Arts and Sciences senior majoring in journalism and media studies. He is a staff writer for The Daily Targum. See more on Twitter @JulianTheMenez.