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UNG student conference aims to create change one leader at a time

Student Conference on Leadership
Students at roundtable sessions during the Student Conference on Leadership held Oct. 28 at the Gainesville Campus.

When Ronald Smith tells the story of his downfall from professional sports and redemption from a life of crime, people pay attention.

Smith was the keynote speaker at the 10th annual Student Conference on Leadership on Oct. 28 at the University of North Georgia's (UNG) Gainesville Campus. His story, said Nathan Cheesman, coordinator of orientation and student leadership, dovetailed precisely with the conference theme of "Creating Change One Leader at a Time."

"Leadership begins with the individual, and it can take time to develop the traits needed to be successful," Cheesman said. "Ronald's story shows us that the process can be difficult at times, and takes self-awareness and introspection to find one's voice to be an effective leader."

Smith used his abilities in basketball to play his way out of poverty in Selma, Alabama, all the way to Taiwan, where he played professionally in the Chinese Basketball Alliance. He spent his money frivolously and gambled recklessly. When Smith's pro career suddenly ended, he turned to crime and ultimately landed in prison for armed robbery.

He used the six years behind bars to turn his life around. Smith studied the principles of nonviolence advanced by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and applied them to rebuilding his life and used them as a foundation to be a leader. Today, he is the senior trainer with New Way, a conflict-resolution program of Something New, a community-service nonprofit in Peachtree City, Georgia.

The UNG Division of Student Affairs hosted the daylong event at the Martha T. Nesbitt Academic Building, with more than 150 students in attendance. The conference was billed as an opportunity for students to learn new concepts, develop relationship networks and discover new resources to reach personal and organizational goals.

Cheesman said the name of the conference was chosen deliberately to set it apart from the many other events on leadership available to students.

"It was named the Student Conference on Leadership, rather than the Student Leadership Conference, because we want students who attend to reflect on their own development and to increase their understanding of leadership skills," Cheesman said. "This conference gives students a wide range of choices in terms of speakers, what roundtable discussions to join, and what breakout sessions to attend. It's purely self-driven by the attendees."

The conference began with a networking breakfast, conference welcome and the keynote address by Smith. Students then headed to the classrooms for a 45-minute breakout sessions on topics that included attitudes for effective leadership, learning leadership through literature and highlighting extracurricular activities in a job interview.

Michelle Vatral, 21, a senior majoring in art marketing, presented as part of her job as a Diplomat for Diversity in the office of Multicultural Student Affairs.

"I presented on the importance of diversity, inclusive leadership, and how to be a good inclusive leader," Vatral said. "As an involved student on campus, I the past three years at UNG have given me a lot of experience so that I may pass it along to others."

Daniela Dominguez Rodriguez, 19, an engineering major from Baldwin, Georgia, presented a breakout session. She is president of the Migrant Student Union (MSU), a College Assistance Migrant Program (CAMP) alumni, a STEM scholar, and Goizueta scholar.

"I presented about migrant leaders because I am passionate about the impact of these migrant leaders in our community, because leadership is not given by race, color skin, or language, it is given to any individual willing to pursue their dreams," said Rodriguez.

After lunch, students participated in two, 20-minute roundtable discussions, choosing from 26 topics, from leading by example to communication and collaboration. Two more breakout sessions followed, with the day ending in a gathering in the Cleveland Ballroom.

Wakeitha Cunningham, a nontraditional student in her early 40’s, is a freshman majoring in Business Administration. She was a roundtable presenter whose topic was inspired by the book “Start With Why” by Simone Sinek. The round table topic was “Do you know your WHY? Do you know your How? If so…then What?"

"I chose this topic because I spent over 20 years trying to figure out my 'why,'" Cunningham said. "Over the years I learned my 'why' but I knew I had to work on my 'how' and 'what' to compliment my 'why.' During the roundtable sessions I learned that it’s important, as a young adult, to try new things and explore different options."

"We had a great turnout for the conference, and with 25 students presenting in the breakout sessions and roundtable discussions, the students that attended had a number of choices in learning about different aspects of becoming and being a leader," Cheesman said.

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