I couldn’t think of a better position to kick off the Student Leader Spotlight Series than with one near and dear to my heart – the Chair of the Huck Graduate Student Advisory Committee (HGSAC). This year, that title belongs to Jennifer Legault, a fourth year student in the Neuroscience program working in Dr. Ping Li’s lab. Jen’s work both inside and outside of the lab focuses on communication: when she isn’t taking care of HGSAC business or discussing important graduate student issues with the Huck administration, she’s completing her thesis work by using multimodal imaging to study how the brain changes when you learn a second language.
The HGSAC, a relatively new organization that was started in January 2015, is made up of graduate student representatives from the six Huck programs as well as from the BMMB program with the mission of representing the graduate student population as a whole by promoting their interests and advocating on important issues. The goals of the HGSAC include, but are not limited to, acting as a voice of the graduate student body by facilitating communication among students, faculty, and administration; providing career and professional development resources; and facilitating the interaction between the individual Huck programs, as well as with Huck programs and other departmental programs, on both a professional and social level. The HGSAC has numerous leadership positions, including the Chair and Associate Chair, a title held by Colleen McSweeney, also a fourth year student in the Neuroscience program.
The Chair of the HGSAC is a position taken on by the student who is awarded the Graduate Adviser to the Huck Institutes fellowship for that calendar year, so chairing the HGSAC is only part of the responsibility that comes with the fellowship. Other responsibilities include attending weekly graduate education meetings with Huck administration, gathering feedback about Huck-related events for the Huck administration, and organizing the Career Exposure Seminar Series & Events page as well as the Career & Professional Development page.
As the Graduate Adviser to the Huck Institutes fellowship/Chair of the HGSAC are fairly new positions, taking on this leadership role is no easy task. In order to successfully lead this group of graduate students, Jennifer commented that she thinks delegation and teamwork are two necessary skills to possess. “Deciding which tasks are best left for me to perform and which tasks are more appropriate for one or several of my fellow committee members to perform takes up a considerable amount of my time in the beginning but saves me a lot of time later on,” said Jennifer. “I am so grateful to be surrounded by so many competent and dedicated committee members.” As the founder and first Chair of the HGSAC, I wholeheartedly agree with Jen that the key to the success of the HGSAC is the teamwork of all members involved.
Graduate students are already busy with the everyday tasks of classes, teaching, and lab work, so how does one balance an additional leadership role? “Every week, I make a list of things I need to prioritize — some weeks, I will dedicate more time to HGSAC, and other times I might need to delegate more so I can accomplish what I need to do for my research,” said Jen.
Jen is no stranger to taking on leadership positions. She was on two HGSAC subcommittees (social and budget) last year, has taught a general research methods lab course for the past two years, and was a resident adviser for three years as an undergraduate student at Tulane University. When asked what is one characteristic she believes every leader should possess, Jen chose open-mindedness: “I think that great things happen when you have a group of people who think very differently and can all work on a problem together”.
In my opinion, strong leaders aren’t just born that way – they learn from others and hone their skills as they gain more experience. For Jen, she said that it was her Area Director, Fatou Mbye, in her last year as a resident adviser that had the biggest impact on her as a leader. As an Area Director, Fatou was in a similar position as Jen in that both positions require leading a group of leaders. It was from Fatou that Jen learned the importance of communication, how to address conflict in a group, and how to balance professionalism while still getting personable with those in the group.
For those students who might be thinking about taking on a leadership position themselves, Jen had this advice to offer: learn to delegate properly and don’t be afraid to ask questions or seek advice from other leaders. “If you have a problem that you aren’t sure how to tackle, chances are that someone else has also stumbled upon this problem and might be able to help you. No one is perfect, and most problems don’t have one clear solution. It’s okay to ask for help,” added Jen. For more advice and resources on leadership, check out the HGSAC website, read our blog posts on leadership, and, perhaps most importantly, go out and talk to other leaders as well as your peers to learn about what qualities they look for in a leader.