The Benefits of a Summer Leadership Program

There are so many important things to be gained from attending a summer leadership program such as Summerfuel’s Leadership & Innovation program at Columbia University. High school students get the chance to live on a university campus, obtaining a taste of true college life. Students attend the program from quite literally all over the world, which is an amazing opportunity to broaden horizons and make new friends they might have never met otherwise. New York City is at their fingertips, and students are able to discover all that it has to offer. There are many great aspects of Leadership & Innovation at Columbia, yet one thing stands out as a particularly valuable component which students will carry with them through the rest of their lives – leadership skills.

What Is Leadership?

“Leadership” can be defined as ‘the action of leading a group of people or organization; the state or position of being a leader,” with synonyms of “guidance, direction, authority, control, management” and more. Yet there is more to “leadership” than meets the eye, and there is a plethora of ways that people, especially young high school students, use leadership skills every day of their lives, and will continue to use into their futures. From being more confident in social situations and leading the charge on group projects in high school, to mastering the college application process and entering the workforce with ease, leadership is a priceless skill that can truly transform a student’s life.

We spoke with Lawrence Alexander, Boarding School Guidance Counselor and Summerfuel’s Leadership & Innovation Program Director, as well as Irene Hsieh, Finance Strategist for Entrepreneurs and Summerfuel’s Leadership & Innovation Faculty member, to get a firsthand account of the type of skills students are able to take away from a leadership program.

Leadership is not something that students need to wait until they start their careers to employ, but is a skill that can be used here and now, as high school students and even earlier. As someone who counsels students as young as 6th grade, Lawrence says “I think that we don’t give our students enough credit for the ages in which they confront things that we didn’t confront in our generations before. Students are confronting global crisis and civil war in other countries outside the United States. By the time we get them [at Summerfuel] at 14 or 15 years old, they can be experts and veterans in these conversations. So, I think programs like ours help to hone and acknowledge the fact that they’re already leaders in training.”

Learning Your Key Strengths

An important aspect of the leadership program is for students to take the Clifton Strengths for Students Test, which is a leadership profile assessment that enables students to understand what their strengths are. Irene notes that based on these assessments she “helped them understand how their key strengths would enable them to empower themselves, but also enable them to work more effectively on teams. If they understood not only what their strengths were, but also the strengths of the other teammates they would be able to harness that and work more effectively overall on getting projects done, but also individually in terms of what they were best able to achieve and how they could achieve it.”

As a successful entrepreneur and business owner herself, Irene goes on to say, “I wish I’d taken the Clifton personality test when I was in high school. I didn’t know what my strengths were, and it took me many years to realize it. I had to make a lot of mistakes before I really understood the importance of knowing your strengths and being able to capitalize on it.”

The value of students learning their strengths goes far beyond classroom projects or simply doing well in school, as Irene explains: “Understanding the individual personality strengths enables the person to have confidence, which is probably most important as a high school student, because a lot of kids are still developing and finding themselves at that age. To have confidence during a very vulnerable period of a person’s life really gives you an advantage, and a leg up on your personal and eventually, professional development.”

Leadership & College Admissions

As students move through high school and embark on the journey of applying to and entering college, leadership skills take on a whole new meaning. With such skills in their toolbelt, students not only have the confidence, but also the ability to identify which classes and what major they are more inclined to focus on. As Irene mentions, “A lot of people that enter into college don’t know what their career is going to be, and they have no idea what they want to focus on. Understanding their strengths can help them narrow the choices so that it’s easier for them to pick what would work out best for them.”

In the current age of extreme competition during the college admissions process, there is so much pressure for students to be able to demonstrate their leadership abilities outside of the classroom. So many students applying to colleges are the President of Student Government or the Captain of the track team, and this requires them to be able to articulate what they do and what that leadership means, rather than just simply submitting a resume.  Lawrence says that a summer leadership program is “really helping give students the words to go along with the prodigious activities they’re involved in.”

Lawrence goes on to explain, “When you look at college programs, whether it’s internships, externships or opportunities to be launched out into the world, more and more of those programs are now happening the summer of freshman year, so students don’t have the two to three year runway to get ready. When they go to college for that external piece, they need to be ready. Programs like [Summerfuel] really help them beyond the GPA and test scores, and those things are important from a leadership perspective. It helps them be right where colleges and employers need them to be.”

Tackling Public Speaking

One of the main aspects of a summer leadership program such as Leadership & Innovation at Columbia University is public speaking. Public speaking can be quite an anxiety-inducing experience for many people, and not everyone expresses themselves in a public format the same way. However, the best leaders find a way to convey ideas and express themselves, and many of those arenas are public. Lawrence shares, “I can say from my personal and professional experience, a leader who can confidently and coherently convey big ideas and cast a vision is important. Those qualities are important in a leader.”

Irene notes, “It’s one thing to be knowledgeable, but it’s also important to convey the sense of that knowledge. A lot of the students realize that if they understood what their strengths were, they could use that to come across as more persuasive. If you understand your strengths, you can find a way to convey your opinion and thoughts in a form that’s most effective for you, and that makes you feel most confident.”

The Importance of Listening

Something equally as important that goes hand-in-hand with speaking is listening. Lawrence reflects, “I think for both students and myself, one of the most important things is to become a better listener. On the day the students leave, they’re almost falling into each other’s arms and crying, because these people that were once strangers, they now know that much better. I have to believe that those relationships aren’t built because they’ve talked a lot, but they’ve been built because they’ve listened to and learned about other people. That’s not just a social value, but a leadership value. I think that in an age of talking and tweeting, listening is a skill we could all use.”

Leadership in Social Situations

Leadership skills are invaluable in their use in social situations and interpersonal relationships. Irene posits that when dealing with friendships or partnerships, it is important that you understand yourself first before you can begin to understand someone else, and leadership skills allow you to do just that. She says, “If you are aware of your strengths and aware that every person has their own strengths, you can be more watchful of that. So, when you interact with other people socially, you can hone in on their strengths more quickly and develop stronger social contexts.”

Lawrence states, “The basic skills of advocating for yourself and others, reading situations and cues, having courage, and being self-aware are intangibles that you can practice and are essential. These essentials may keep my child from getting in the car with someone who’s been intoxicated or help them speak up for someone who may be subject to bullying who won’t speak up for themselves; it helps you be an upstander. There is a lot of character leadership that we can help students develop in this time.”

Growing Confidence

So much of this is related to confidence. Lawrence points out that confidence and competence go hand in hand. Some students may be really competent, but need a boost of confidence. Conversely, other students might be more confident if they could build more competency. Wherever a student may fall, a summer leadership program is able to help with those deltas. Lawrence reflects that from the time students arrive at the program to the time they depart, he sees them grow in so many ways, from humility and skill development, to simply believing in themselves.

As Lawrence states, a leadership program such as Summerfuel’s Leadership & Innovation at Columbia University “is the most practical preparation for leadership that’s on the market. Students come from all over the world, from every kind of background, and they’re practically applying the skills that they’re learning. This is actually what leadership will be like in the real world.” From interpersonal relationships and college admissions, to public speaking and entering the work force, leadership is undoubtedly a priceless asset for students to carry with them throughout the rest of their lives.



Until Next Time

Well, it’s a wrap! It seems like these past three weeks have flown by! We came as strangers and left as family. Our program staff has gotten the chance to see some of our quiet, shy students blossom into courageous, outgoing leaders and we had the chance to be a part of our emerging young entrepreneurs’ beginnings. From preparing for their business start up presentations at General Assembly, to unwinding at Hex & Co. to play board games, the students have had the busiest last few days. The icing on the cake for our program was a visit to Goldman Sachs in Jersey City, New Jersey, where students had the opportunity to tour and learn more about the company and ways to get their career started. Finally, students gave their start up presentations not only in front of program staff and faculty, but in front of other business individuals who come from backgrounds in higher education, journalism, and even one of our own from the Summerfuel Headquarters. We all had bittersweet good byes but this will not the end; as we know, we live in a small world and our paths will cross again.


Your Leadership and Innovation Staff

Destress + Financial Literacy

As we are at our academic peak of the program, students were able to decompress with some tie dye fun at Riverside Park. Others chose to participate in a financial modeling mini- seminar to prepare them for their current and future business ventures. Long after the mini- seminar finished, we still had students sitting in the hallway with our patient faculty talking them through the financial model!


FIFA World Cup + DUMBO


Bright and early Summerfuel Leadership and Innovation was out to Rockefeller Plaza to watch the World Cup on the megatrons. After France took the win, some ventured to DUMBO to site see as well as peruse through the markets. Our first time being outside of Manhattan visiting a neighboring borough, what better way to get back to campus than to take the water ferry! We arrived just on time to settle in for the night and for students to work on their homework assignments and prepare for their final presentations. Busy, yet fulfilling day!

Lucky Strike

Today students gave their TED talk- Summerfuel Edition, in preparation for their final presentations for next week. With all the nerves and butterflies in their stomachs, our students were able to connect with their audience of peers and relay content rich stories. This evening we went to Lucky Strike Manhattan, tucked away in the quieter part of Times Square. We were able to spend some quality time and relax after a busy, yet successful day.

Now Touring: the Museum at FIT

After preparing for Ted Talks- Summerfuel Edition- at Leadership and Innovation today, students got the chance to tour the fashion museum at SUNY FIT. A fun way to look at style interpretation through decades, culture, and material. Then, some of the ladies had New York style pizza for the first time, and it never tasted so good! To finish our night, we celebrated one of our own’s Sweet Sixteen. No better way to spend it by eating his favorite red velvet cake and singing “Happy Birthday” in his native tongue of Portuguese.

Next Stop: Union Square

After a day full of classes, a few students and program staff went to Union Square for an evening of shopping and good eats! The students were even able to recognize some of the buildings in the area that we passed on our Fourth of July cruise. We were happy to know that our students are turning into true New Yorkers!

Leading By Example

After a routine day of going to class and working on strengthening individual and group leadership dynamics, some relaxed by playing a game of basketball. Let’s see what tomorrow has in store!