Katherine Waxstein (’14) had an unexpected decision to make and a class full of fifth-graders at Pond Gap Elementary School who were looking to her to learn leadership skills.
It happened the day she was teaching them about character growth. Each student had to draw another’s name, decorate a bag to look like that person, write down three of their special traits, and go to the front of the room to share.
“Everybody was doing great,” Waxstein remembers, “and they were building these relationships.” Then a student who missed the start of the lesson came in the room, and Waxstein decided to take a risk. “I just opened it up to the class,” she says. “I asked if anybody would be willing to share three great things about her.”
Instead of one person volunteering to share, the entire class went up to that student. Waxstein was amazed. “They were telling her things like I think you’re really friendly, or you have a really good personality, or you always have good behavior in school. Even some of my boys that would never, ever say anything nice about anybody got up and said nice things about her,” she recalls.
In no time, the girl was beaming ear to ear. “It made me feel great to see them actually step up and understand, okay this is important. You saw leadership from everybody in the class. It was awesome.”
What’s remarkable about the impact she made on her students is that Waxstein wasn’t an education major and had no experience teaching children when she started volunteering at Pond Gap in her junior year. She says the leadership foundation she built her success on came from UT’s Center for Leadership and Service, the Leadership Knoxville not-for-profit organization, and the partnership program called Leadership Knoxville Scholars (LKS), which UT began during her senior year.
LKS teaches high-achieving upperclassmen to lead and serve in the Knoxville community through academic courses, workshops, retreats, an Alternative Break experience, and a culminating Community Action Project.
A crucial component of LKS is that scholars are paired with local community leaders who serve as their mentors for the duration of the program. All the mentors are graduates of the flagship Leadership Knoxville program, a ten-month experience that transforms participants and the organizations they lead. LKS also teaches students to create a leadership legacy so their projects can continue after they graduate.
LKS gave Waxstein a platform to transform her teaching at Pond Gap from a character development focus into a leadership curriculum. “Even the smallest, youngest members of our community, if they’re learning about character, why not teach them how to be leaders from the very start?” she says. “That was kind of the idea that I had, and I went with it.”
Sally Parish, the director of UT’s Center for Leadership and Service, was so impressed by Waxstein’s accomplishments that the decision was made to turn her character development curriculum into an academic course. This past spring, eight UT students implemented the Character Development Program in four afterschool programs in Knox County.
“To know that I did something like that,” Waxstein admits, “it’s funny because it never came together the way I ever thought it would. But I wouldn’t have it any other way.”
Along with spawning leadership legacies in just its second year of existence, LKS is helping create leadership staff for the university.
Before she became the LKS coordinator, Alicia Price was a UT microbiology major that discovered she preferred working in higher education. While serving as a graduate assistant in the Center for Leadership and Service, she earned a master’s degree in college student personnel and took the helm of LKS in its first year. Her students and her adopted home city of Knoxville fuel her passion for the program.
“I would like this program to be able to touch more students, as many as possible, because I think so very often our student leaders are very passionate about UT. But they don’t necessarily broaden their scope and think about how they can make the city of Knoxville an even more positive place,” Price says. “I hope to be able to translate that to the students and hope that it might make them stay here after graduation and see how Knoxville can be a good fit for them.”
Waxstein already plans to return to UT after she completes a two-year commitment in Memphis with Teach for America, a program that places teachers in under-resourced areas.
Although her experiences at Pond Gap Elementary are the reason she committed to teaching, her dream is to earn a master’s degree in college student personnel and work for UT.
“I want to spend the rest of my life working to help impact the lives of college students and help them grow as servant leaders,” Waxstein says.
LKS Quick Facts
- LKS graduated twenty seniors in 2014 and twenty-one in May 2015.
- Forty-four pairs of students and mentors are currently partnered. The mentors represent a wide array of Knoxville businesses including: WBIR, Summit Medical Group, Prestige Cleaners, the Knoxville Area Urban League, and the Cornerstone Foundation.
- Current Community Action Projects will benefit Big Brothers, Big Sisters; the Boys and Girls Clubs; Goodwill; and UT’s own Food Recovery Network, among other organizations.
- LKS includes a two-day retreat, days of service, leadership development workshops, and other activities.
- Chancellor Jimmy G. Cheek is the chairman of Leadership Knoxville for 2015.