Cheerleaders for Education

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Thursday, November 1, 2018
By Sharon Shinn
Photo by iStock/TK1993
How one student leadership program encouraged high school students on a Navajo reservation in southern Utah to pursue higher education.
  • During a leadership development program at Utah State, business students considered ways to encourage Navajo high school students to pursue higher education.
  • Teams of Utah State students created booths for an Opportunity Fair to be held on the Navajo reservation.
  • Business students also worked with regional universities on strategies to help Native American students navigate the application process.


How can business schools turn out graduates who are compassionate leaders with a social conscience? One way is through programs that connect business students with the members of Indigenous populations—as friends, mentors, tutors, or simply sources of information.

One such program is delivered by the Huntsman School of Business at Utah State University (USU) in Logan. Submitted to AACSB’s 2018 Innovations That Inspire, the initiative is designed to imbue tomorrow's leaders with a sense of social responsibility. To that end, in fall 2017, the school launched its first Scholars Leadership Lab, a required course in the Huntsman Scholars honor program. The 53 students in the class, most of them first-semester freshmen, not only developed leadership traits of creative thinking, self-awareness, and collaboration, they also learned to be leaders in addressing needs in their own community.

“Rather than having students develop leadership skills for personal gain, we want them to think about leadership as a way to make a difference in the lives of others,” says Bret Crane, assistant professor of management.

In fall 2017, for example, Huntsman Scholars considered ways to encourage students at Whitehorse High School on the Navajo reservation in southern Utah to pursue higher education. The reservation is located in the poorest county in Utah, which is also the third-poorest in the United States, says Crane.

The ultimate goal was for students at the Huntsman School to hold an Opportunity Fair at Whitehorse High School. Teams of students worked together to create educational booths built around resources that would motivate the high school students to raise their aspirations, overcome obstacles to higher education, and understand how business knowledge could enrich their lives.

Understanding the Cultural Context

Before the fair, Huntsman students spent time in class learning about life for Native Americans. First, they listened to a presentation on culture and context given by Native American students at USU. Then, via Skype, they interviewed 20 Whitehorse students selected from a business course to learn about their unique challenges and interests.

Next, students began the process of creating their booths for the fair. Working in 13 teams of four students each, they used a design thinking approach of ideating, creating prototypes, and refining concepts. Student teams pitched their ideas to judges—three students from the campus Native American club, as well as professors responsible for the Huntsman Scholars program—who provided feedback. This entire process took place in just one class period. Then, using judge feedback as a guide, teams spent the next week creating their final booths.

Each booth was designed to give high school students a boost as they navigated the college application process. For instance, one team of USU students made plans to construct a small curtained room where they could conduct mock interviews with high school students. 

Another team looked for ways to eliminate barriers for Native American students who wanted to apply to college. Each of the four students on the team reached out to three universities near the reservation, including some in Utah, Arizona, and New Mexico, asking them to waive application fees for Native Americans. While some schools, including Utah State, couldn’t waive fees up front, their administrators expressed a willingness to help Native American applicants in other ways.

“Some schools were incredibly unhelpful and told us the students would need to apply the ‘normal way,’” relates one of the students from the team. “But many took to the cause and fell in love with such a simple and meaningful idea helping to break cycles and barriers. One, Dixie State, gave us a personalized code for the Whitehorse High School students.”

The students on this team organized the pertinent information and created customized posters and fliers to display at their booth. The fliers provided step-by-step instructions for applying to each university, including information about deadlines, fee waivers, and tuition costs. The team used Canva, a free online graphic design tool website, to create the materials.

Late in the semester, the Huntsman students spent three days on a trip to the Navajo reservation, including eight hours on the bus ride each way. At the high school, they set up the Opportunity Fair, where they met with about 300 students from all grades. Throughout the fair, says Crane, “Our students engaged in impactful conversations with the high school students and encouraged them in meaningful ways.”

Building Empathy, Solving Problems

While Huntsman students were at the high school, they also met with Robert McPherson, a Navajo expert from USU, who described the differences between American and Native American cultures. After the Opportunity Fair, one USU student developed a website for the Whitehorse students that provided consolidated information about local colleges and identified simple steps for applying to college.

Upon returning home, Huntsman students spent the last class period reflecting on their experience at Whitehorse. In their written reflections, many students stressed that while the experience was humbling, it was also empowering, because it showed them that they could be leaders and make a difference in the lives of others.

“At the heart of that project is an empathy and concern for others and a determination to use leadership skills to solve problems,” one student wrote. “Sometimes classes in a university setting seem far removed from the ‘real world,’ but including the important step of empathy makes all the effort seem relevant. As I go forward in leadership, I will make sure that serving others is at the center of any ideas I come up with.”

Crane was pleased by the results of the first leadership lab. “Faculty and administrators at the high school complimented our students on their energy and professionalism and asked us to please come back,” he says. USU administrators plan to make a return trip this fall, having received a grant that will cover expenses.

In the spring semester, Huntsman Scholars had an opportunity to reach out to a different type of community in need when they worked with a nonprofit that serves refugees. “Students used the design thinking process to identify and develop donor strategies and improve outreach programs and online marketing programs,” says Crane. “As a result, the leaders of the nonprofit said that our students have become their best volunteers.”

Such experiences help business students develop greater skills in leadership and teamwork, says Crane. He adds, “What surprised us most is how much they bonded with one another. The deep connections this lab helped form will enhance their experience at USU and beyond.”

Sharon Shinn
Editor, AACSB Insights
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