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Frontiers: Developing graduate world changers

This article was originally published by John Sisser and used with permission.

We’ve all heard about the many challenges the world faces. How do we develop the people to make solutions happen? The Institute on the Environment’s Boreas Leadership Program works with students across the University of Minnesota to help them develop the skills, networks and ways of working to change the world. You’ll get a full report of what Boreas has been up to and hear more about the opportunities and challenges of developing world changers in graduate education.

In a world with a growing population, limited resources and a changing climate to boot, it’s natural to ask, “Where are the leaders who are going to solve these problems?”

Well, a lot of them are in graduate school where they’re preparing to take on some of the world’s greatest challenges. So, are they getting the skills they need?

Portrait: Kate Knuth

Kate Knuth, director of the Boreas Leadership Program

Kate Knuth, director of the Institute on the Environment’s Boreas Leadership Program, discussed how the program is helping students build on their graduate school experience in her Frontiers in the Environment lecture “Developing World Changers in Graduate Education” on April 2 on the University of Minnesota’s St. Paul campus.

“We think graduate school does some really amazing things,” Knuth said. “It teaches people how to think more rigorously, how to write, how to analyze, how to be critical, how to gather data, really goes deep into an area of expertise. That’s awesome. But there are some things that graduate education doesn’t do quite as well. How do you communicate well? How do you work with a diverse group of people? How do you navigate through some of these really vexing challenges of our time and how do you help get people to come along with you and do that? So what we like to say at Boreas is we fill in some of the gaps of graduate education.”

The free, co-curricular program brings together students from about a dozen colleges within the University of Minnesota with a focus on building skills–including communications and media, integrative leadership, and systems thinking–as well as learning about leadership culture.

“When we think about all of our skills, they are helping our students be better communicators, be better at working with many different groups of people, and be thinking about working across different boundaries–be they disciplinary, be they sectors, cultural–basically working with different kinds of people to figure out our way through these challenges,” Knuth said.

Boreas builds skills and culture by hosting workshops and weekly Boreas Booyahs! where students can hear guest speakers, share insights and network.

Founded in 2011, Boreas has met with success in its early stages, but getting participants to find time in their busy schedules is a key challenge for any program wanting to attract graduate and professional students.

“Graduate students are infamously busy: classes, teaching, research, family obligations, having to earn some money potentially, so this is another thing to add on,” Knuth said. “We think it adds value, we try to make it work with graduate student schedules, but it is hard to make this a priority enough to show up regularly and consistently and maintain the programming that way.”

Even if hectic student schedules get in the way, Knuth thinks further integrating programs like Boreas into graduate education is essential in order to make sure students have the necessary skills when they take on challenges after graduation.

“The land grant mission is research and engagement and interacting with the community in a way that benefits both the state and the world,” she said, “and I think focusing on leadership development and developing students who are going to change the world now and into the future is part of that land grant mission for the 21st century. So that’s what we’re trying to do here at Boreas.”

John Sisser is a communications assistant with the Institute on the Environment.

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