Among young men

By John Piotti | Jul 03, 2014

I’m just back from a week at Snowbird, a ski mountain in the Utah. Every other year, I coordinate a weeklong leadership development program for college students there. It’s for undergraduate members of my college fraternity, Sigma Chi. But I usually just say it’s for college students, because I know that when I say the word “fraternity,” I often get raised eyebrows, chuckles, or sarcastic quips. (From a friend I had previously always considered both worldly and tolerant, I once heard this: “What are you going to teach them? How to open kegs?”)

After years of this stuff, I’ve learned to not let it bother me — or even respond. Years ago, I would have gone to great lengths to explain that fraternities not only foster deep friendships, but instill values and teach lifelong skills. I may have said that I would never have survived college without the support and love of my fraternity brothers. I may have explained how Sigma Chi challenged me to live the values that, had I not been a member, I would never have worked at, as I did, to make part of my life. To this day, the fraternity inspires me and helps me be a better person.

I guess I still make those points at times. (Indeed, I just did.) But I no longer feel compelled to do so. Though I’d like the uninitiated to learn more about fraternities, and move beyond the Animal House stereotypes, I acknowledge that many never will. Maybe it’s a sign of wisdom that I don’t feel a need to seek the approval of others on this score. What matters is that I know and appreciate all that Sigma Chi has done for me.

Anyway, for those of you who have a different view of fraternities (and yet are still reading this) simply think “college students” or “young men” when I describe, below, my role teaching undergraduates.

My first experience came thirty years ago, the summer after I graduated from college. The event, held that year in Manhattan, Kansas, was the annual gathering of all of the officers from Sigma Chi chapters across the U.S. and Canada. I had attended one of these events two years before, but now I was there as a novice instructor—one of a handful of graduating seniors given the chance to join the faculty. I recall there were about 1,500 undergraduates there, and I led a small group of about 12. Though I had been the president of my chapter, and had held other positions of leadership on campus, I was new to teaching leadership. I had a lot to learn.

I kept at it for the next 14 years. The event was always held midsummer, usually at some large university located in the center of the country (for ease of transportation), where we were put up in dorms that I remember always being uncomfortably hot. But other than the heat, I greatly enjoyed these events. As in college, I was always learning something, partly from the more senior faculty — men who impressed me with their knowledge and interest. But I also learned a lot from leading a group of undergrads. I matured as a leader as I helped them do the same.

From these summer gatherings I also gained an appreciation for Westerners and Southerners and all sorts of folk who didn’t think quite like me and didn’t share some of my New England perspectives (including my intolerance of hot, humid weather). Fellow faculty became good friends. And I became a mentor to some of the undergrads, staying in touch years afterward. I’d hear from them as they started new jobs, got engaged or married, had babies. A few later joined the faculty themselves, and I would share their company for a few days every summer.

Then in 1998, I took on a new role. I was asked to chair a committee to create curricula for a different type of leadership program, one not focused on officer training, but personal development. A generous alumnus had committed considerable funds to developing such a program, which allowed us to hire a top consultant who really knew her business. Eighteen months later, we piloted “Horizons” with 48 college sophomores, led by six alumni facilitators. We now run four flights of 48 each summer, reaching 192 undergrads a year. How I wish it was more, because the participants take away so much from this program.

Horizons uses the theme of travel to transport these young men to a place where their minds are open wide for learning. We introduce this concept by talking about what one can learn from travel, especially when the experience is approached in the right mindset — not as a tourist taking in the sights, but as an explorer learning about himself and his world.

When I run a Horizons session, I tell about a summer adventure I had in the Greek Isles with five of my fraternity brothers, while still in college. I’m a sailor and one of brothers is a Greek-American fluent in the language. I can’t remember exactly when, but I suspect it was one of those gray days that mark the long Boston winter, and probably a day when schoolwork seemed especially burdensome, that we decided we’d sail the Aegean the following summer. We soon recruited four others. Then I somehow found a charter company that would rent me (the only sailor) a modest 30-footer into which the six were sardined for a month long adventure. What an experience!

I tell about this at Horizons not because it was an exciting adventure, but because of what I learned from spending a month in new surroundings with five friends. After having shared a fraternity house with these guys for several years, I thought I knew all there was to know — but I didn’t. On that trip, we took on different roles than we had in Boston (for me, one of my new roles was that of skipper, being responsible for their safety while sailing). And we encountered different situations than those of college (strong winds, language barriers, desolate islands where we had to convince locals to feed us). I learned so much about these guys. But mostly, I learned a ton about myself. This is the power of exploration.

At Horizons, we don’t travel to the Aegean (except in my brief tale). But we do touch down in Egypt, the Grand Canyon, the Amazon, and Mt. Everest.

For instance, we use the Great Pyramid of Giza as a symbol of enduring leadership. It becomes the springboard for getting into all sorts of detail about leadership theory and practice — complex stuff, particularly for college sophomores. But we do it in a way that is visual and exciting. Then we reinforce the lessons with “missions,” our word for group-based experimental exercises. In this case, the undergrads practice leadership skills as they cooperate to build a pyramid from foam blocks they carve. After the mission, they give each other feedback — a powerful tool, but a tough one for teenagers to use well, with the right combination of directness and tact. So we train them. It’s heartwarming to see the progress they make over a few days.

As the week goes on, we go in depth to help the undergrads learn more about themselves and others. We want to prepare them to well work with other people for the betterment of their community — sometimes defined as their chapter or college; other times defined as the broader world. We push them to think about how they can make a positive impact on the world. (Indeed, we expect nothing less, and these young men never cease to impress us with their earnest goals.)

We get personal, using a Myers Briggs-based assessment tool to show how different people are wired differently. We confront sensitive diversity issues. We ask the undergrads to articulate their values; then we give them missions where they and their peers — the ones now trained in feedback can see firsthand whether or not they are living those values.

It’s never easy to be confronted with your shortcomings, and yet, what a gift! The key is to create an environment where you see yourself more clearly, and where you are open to feedback. That’s when real learning occurs.

Clearly, this is not everything we cover in a week. The guys put to use new communication skills when two groups each build half a span of as bridge (across our imaginary canyon), with limited opportunity for interaction. They challenge their minds and bodies on a ropes course, our Amazon jungle. And they learn the need for good planning as they summit Everest. It’s an amazingly well put together program, one that engages them on many levels. Everything at Horizons happens for a reason and at just the right time, just when a participant is ready to have that eureka moment. I’m in awe of Elaine, the women who crafted the curricula with us. She’s a pro, having previously developed some of the best corporate leadership programs in the world at Honda, American Airlines, and elsewhere.

But although Horizon’s training may be as professional as Honda’s, the audience is different and so is the goal. We are not interested in lifting the bottom line. In fact, our motivation isn’t even to create better-managed Sigma Chi chapters — though that certainly is an outcome. No, our goal is, simply put, to help these young men become better people. And on that score, we are succeeding. Most of those who attend leave changed. We see it during the week, and track it long thereafter.

This summer marked Horizons 15th year. One of the facilitators I oversaw this year was a man I first met 15 years ago, when he was a college sophomore in the pilot year. I was not his facilitator back then and I didn’t recognize his name on the list of facilitators for this year; so on my arrival, I was not expecting someone I have met before. But on seeing him last week, I remembered the face and then he eagerly told me his story.

Horizons changed Dave’s life. He left with a deeper understanding of himself and a commitment to make a difference. He got more involved in campus, switched majors, and ultimately earned his PhD. He’s now married and teaching. He trained to be a Horizons facilitator six years ago and, like me, now comes to Snowbird every other year.

But what struck me about Dave was not his accomplishments, but his earnestness. I see it in him and his fellow facilitators throughout the week, but especially each evening, when we get together to debrief. They care so deeply about the undergraduates they are guiding.

On our last night at Snowbird, the whole lot — both undergraduates and alumni — took the tram to the top of the mountain, another 3,000 feet above the lodge. The guys sang on the ride, an expression of their happiness. With 48 of them in voice, there was some volume. I overheard one of the young men ask an older couple, also on the Tram, if the singing was too loud. “Not at all,” the man replied, smiling broadly. “It gives us faith in the future,” said the woman.

It gives me faith as well.

John Piotti of Unity runs Maine Farmland Trust. His column “Cedar and Pearl” appears every other week.

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