Interview

Why Leadership?

Chief among all the skills we want students to gain on programs is Leadership. Why? And how do we break ‘Leadership’ down? Hear from Director of Program Operations Carly Sullivan.

NAME: Carly Sullivan
LOCATION: Bend, Oregon
ROLE AT GLA: Director of Program Operations
JOINED GLA: Spring Break 2010 as an International Director. Since then, has directed programs for GLA across Africa, Asia and Latin America


Eight years ago, GLA's now-Director of Program Operations Carly Sullivan got a call. Hired! In a few months, she would be running a Spring Break program with a group of high school students. “Look out for a Program Manual in the mail, and we’ll see you at the airport!” are the main instructions Carly remembers.

One of Carly's student groups in 2010, her first year as a GLA Program Director

That Spring Break, Carly directed with the Program Manual always close at hand. “I followed it to a T,” she said. “The leadership curriculum was very prescriptive, showing step-by-step everything I needed to do to implement it, almost down to the minute. It focused on leadership theory, highlighting leaders in the community and watching documentaries, capped with journaling. In retrospect, however, what seemed to work on paper didn’t work in practice. Everytime we brought up the ‘L’ word, students’ eyes would glaze over. They weren’t engaged because the content didn’t apply directly to their lives, and for program directors like myself, there was no room for creativity or modification.”

Fast forward to 2017. Since that first Spring Break, Carly has directed programs for GLA all over Africa, Asia and Latin America. She’s seen her early students graduate high school and college and come into their own leadership styles, roles and passions. She’s helped evolve the leadership curriculum through a few iterations, seeing it fluctuate between prescriptive and open-ended, and is confident that GLA’s curriculum today is a balanced, engaging tool that invites students to think critically about themselves and the world, with malleability for group interests and the strengths of each program director.

We sat down with Carly for a brief conversation about the current version of the leadership curriculum, and why GLA puts so much emphasis on this broad topic as a learning objective and core value that we want students to gain through our international service-learning programs.

Carly with other staff members and local community leaders in Tanzania

Hi Carly! To start out, there are so many great qualities that a GLA student or any individual strives to achieve. Why do we put such an emphasis on leadership as a GLA program goal?

GLA's mission has always been, "To inspire the next generation to realize their potential to transform the world and their role in it." It's never been our intent to have students travel just for the sake of traveling. Experiencing new places and being exposed to different lifestyles and values systems through travel is the vehicle by which we hope our students will become more critical thinkers, empathetic global citizens and thus capable leaders—of the present and future. And we need great leaders right now! We believe that, among many things, leadership is the ability to inspire and mobilize groups of people toward a common goal. It must not only be effective, it must also be ethical in nature. With the speed of communication and development and globalization today, it's easy to get distracted, overwhelmed or fragmented when we face problems that need solving. The learned skills of leadership help build the self awareness that's needed to navigate this, not to mention unite people in pursuit of a more equitable and socially just world.

Framing the GLA program experience around a leadership curriculum, then, helps create development and growth opportunities for students. With an actual curriculum in place, students have a way to absorb the many things they gain in the field while serving abroad with their peers, and then come back to Home Base to reflect (a critical piece of leadership development!) and turn those big-picture learnings into goals and action. We're trying to set up a framework for students to dig deep into their vision, purpose and knowledge of themselves and the world.

Carly learning from one of GLA's many local partners around the world

"Experiencing new places and being exposed to different lifestyles and values systems through travel is the vehicle by which we hope our students will become more critical thinkers, empathetic global citizens and thus capable leaders."

Can you share how you and the team were able to pinpoint learning objectives for such a broad topic?

Leadership is broad! And what leadership looks like reflects changes in culture and society. So naturally, the curriculum is constantly evolving. This year, we decided to be pretty bold. We started with hosting focus groups that included almost all of our staff members, and even hired a curriculum consultant who came from a background of youth empowerment, education and diversity-building. Through many early conversations, we all agreed on a few key objectives for the leadership curriculum:

  • We want to thoughtfully engage students in current world issues, and empower them to think critically about society and their role in it.
  • We want to build well-rounded leaders who are capable of empathy and compassion across borders.
  • We want to make sure that the way we focus on leadership on programs is relevant to students’ daily lives back home.
  • And lastly, we want to make sure that we maintain a thoughtful reflection process, and that leadership is woven throughout the entire program experience.

Carly with students on an overnight excursion in Tanzania

You mentioned that leadership reflects culture and society. How does GLA define a great leader today?

GLA has always said that leaders are made, not born, so in our definition we focus on critical skills that need practice and awareness to be developed. We define a “GLA leader” as someone who is aware of global issues, knowledgeable and competent in cross-cultural engagement, someone who can take into account multiple perspectives and communicate solutions across languages and cultural lines, someone who values diversity of people and beliefs, who has empathy toward and respect for others, an awareness of self and the courage to act.

Carly on a GLA program in Thailand. This year the leadership curriculum has a heavy focus on an awareness of global issues, including those like threats to both wildlife and captive animal populations

"A GLA Leader: Someone who values diversity of people and beliefs, who has empathy toward and respect for others, an awareness of self and the courage to act."

Walk us through the five pillars of leadership that you and the team came up with.

After brainstorming with our team and accumulating years of gathered insights, we had an enormous collection of buzzwords and realized, “Wow, leadership can be really overwhelming.” Coming up with five pillars took a lot of thoughtful categorization but was a necessary step to bring clarity to this chaos! I want to note that the structure of these topics is definitely circular—we all visit and revisit these topics equally throughout our lives; not one is more valuable than any other. They all must work in unison.

The five pillars we came up with are:

Under each of those are five individual skills that, once mastered, help the student or individual exhibit leadership. We thought it was important to identify these tangible skills that students could strive for and/or walk away from programs with.

So, having established this definition and breakdown of leadership, what kind of activities or situations occur on program where staff implement the curriculum?

We’re excited to have a library of activities—again, some more prescriptive, some open-ended—that can work for different groups or situations to help illustrate a leadership skill. Some require decision-making, some encourage resourcefulness or out-of-the-box thinking, some stress teamwork and cooperation. Of course, simulations are just that—simulated. We want students to see real-world examples in the community and translate ideas from the activities into daily life too. We really stress intentional reflection, for both the exercises and for experiences in the field: What surprised you today? What things did you notice in X activity? What different roles did you take on and what were the challenges of each? What did you feel comfortable or uncomfortable with?

And last is the application, which is my favorite: Prompting students to determine one step they can take to get themselves closer to their vsion. And, importantly, who is the person in your life you're sharing your vision with? Sharing and stating your vision is critical to holding yourself accountable to achieving it.

Carly on program in Fiji, with a local partner rocking the GLA t-shirt

"Sharing and stating your vision is critical to holding yourself accountable to achieving it."

Through GLA, you’ve worked with high-school-age youth for nearly a decade now. Where does your own passion come from? What do you hope and dream for our students to gain?

Since the beginning, I've been deeply moved by the transformation that occurs when one extends themselves beyond their borders—both real and imagined. My personal hope is that through having a leadership curriculum, we provide a platform by which students can envision truly starting a conscious revolution. Hopefully, by focusing on leadership, we give our students an opportunity to begin a real shift toward a different society. One that values diversity, empathy, communication, compassion—all that good stuff.

Looking forward, I’m sure the leadership curriculum will continue to evolve. At GLA we’re lucky to have a lot of people who continue to add their brilliance to our programs every year. We also want to make sure we are always challenging students’ worldview. To say it in current terms, we want to make sure students stay “woke” to their world, and not be spectators in their own lives. I hope GLA students can learn through our programs to ask the right questions, the hard questions, and understand that they think about things on a holistic level, but also critically.

"My personal hope is that through having a leadership curriculum, we provide a platform by which students can envision truly starting a conscious revolution."

Thank you, Carly!


To learn more about our Leadership Curriculum and other big topics—our responsible travel philosophies, partnership model, safety policies, etc.—give us a call at +1 858-771-4218.

Summer 2018 programs are filling! We're currently still accepting enrollments for programs that depart in June, July and August, but we recommend that you get your application in as soon as possible. Join us for an adventure in cross-cultural immersion, community service, hands-on learning and leadership development this summer!