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My experience as a Summer Welcome leader

It’s more than just leading student groups and yelling as loud as you can.

By Kaelyn Sturgell | July 14, 2017

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Before I knew every word to the alma mater and fight song, before I knew the accessible entrances to every building on campus, before I knew what “SWumi” meant, before I could answer questions confidently and before I embarrassed myself every night by dancing, I was a nervous freshman.

When I first applied to be a Summer Welcome Leader at MU, I just thought it’d be a fun, low-key summer job. My hometown didn’t have many options for me to go back to, and leading Summer Welcome would pay me the same amount of money I made each summer while working a shorter period of time. I submitted my online application before Thanksgiving break and waited until after winter break for the first round of interviews.

I wasn’t sure what to expect, but after three rounds of interviews and days of anxiously staring at my phone, I got a call saying I got the job. I was ecstatic but also nervous. I was only a second-semester freshman and I only knew one other person in the group. Previous leaders told me Summer Welcome would be the most challenging yet transformative time of my life, but I just didn’t see it. After all, it was just a job and it seemed like a pretty easy one based on what I experienced when I went through the program.

The rest of the spring semester, the other Summer Welcome leaders and I met once a week for two hours of training. We always started with introductions and an ice-breaker question, but the rest of the time was spent listening to speakers and absorbing information about the university. A lot of people seemed to already know each other from Greek Life and other organizations, so I began to feel a little isolated. I expressed these concerns to both of our student coordinators and they reassured me that once summer started it would all feel natural. They were both leaders the previous summer, so they knew what they were talking about. I was still a little wary, but I stuck with it.

Finals ended, I moved out of Johnston 309 and I spent a week at home before I had to be moved back to Columbia. On May 20, I settled into Gillett 215 (single rooms are much nicer than doubles, just sayin’) and packed a duffle bag. It’s a tradition to spend the first few days of training on a camping trip where you get to bond with your co-workers with no distractions. We loaded up our cars with food and caravanned to Florida (a city in Missouri, not the state). We slept in cabins, cooked our own meals and did team-building exercises; some were fun but some got heated. After each activity, we debriefed. Some of that debriefing time was spent learning more about our top five talents according to CliftonStrengths (previously known as StrengthsQuest). The test was taken at the Career Center and allowed us to better understand ourselves and each other. We were able to capitalize on our talents in order to be the most productive group we could be and were able to learn how to healthily resolve conflict. These things would follow us the rest of the summer.

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We didn’t get many breaks, but when we did we played games like Cards Against Humanity. / Photo by Kaelyn Sturgell

Formal training started as soon as we got back to Columbia. For the next 17 days, we sat through presentations from almost every department and academic college on campus. We would eat breakfast at 7:30, listen to speakers from 8-12, eat lunch and listen to more presenters from 1-5. Each presentation was accompanied by a “one-liner” sheet which condensed all the information we needed to know on one or two pages. We were told we’d be tested on the material towards the end of training.

Even though our training technically ended at 5 each day, we would work anywhere from 10 to 11 each night on revue. Revue is the variety show that is performed every night of Summer Welcome. The show is meant to be entertaining but also informative, which meant we had to apply a lot of the things we learned in our trainings earlier in the day.

We did this every day for 17 days. We got little sleep, were given a lot of information and had to be mentally and physically alert throughout all of it. And while it was astonishing how much we were learning and the amount of fun we were having, it didn’t come without its low points. One night, half of us would cry and half of us would console. The next night, we’d switch. There was talk about quitting and uncertainty of our qualifications and worthiness of holding the position, but, in the end, we all stuck it out.

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We worked long days and got little sleep, which meant you could catch us napping any time and place we could. / Photo by Kaelyn Sturgell

Training flew by and, before we knew it, we had our first session of freshmen. We were all nervous and unsure of how the day would go. When we had each gone through Summer Welcome as a freshman, we only really paid attention to our small group leaders. Going into it, we had no idea the jobs and duties that went into each session.

Each day, a leader is assigned anywhere from one to three different duties. That could be leading a student group, but it could also be checking students and guests in for the day, giving campus tours, facilitating a discussion among parents and guests, taking students to their divisional orientation, setting up for the ice cream social, driving people around in a golf cart, working the desk or serving Shakespeare's pizza and Insomnia Cookies at the dance party. There were always things to do and be done outside of student groups.

After that first session, we learned what ice breaker games worked best for students, what questions parents were dying to have answered and the most efficient way to hand out Andy’s to an anxious line of students and guests. We got into a rhythm. Every now and then the routine would be disrupted by a rude guest or a student that didn’t care, but a fellow leader would always be there to pick you up and reassure you about the good work you were doing.

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I always took group pictures with my students. Here is one of my seven student groups at Tiger Plaza. / Photo by Kaelyn Sturgell

Despite the fun we had on the clock, our experiences weren’t just limited to Rollins. If a group of us had an hour break in our schedule, we’d make the trek to Truman’s Pond and just relax. Some of us would tan, some would write postcards and others would be in the pool lounging on a tube or playing basketball. At night, if we weren’t too tired, we’d dress up in something other than our uniform, walk to Shakespeare's and eat some pizza while laughing about the day. The biggest bonding experiences, however, took place on the weekends.

As a Summer Welcome leader, you only get half of Friday and all of Saturday off each week. This wasn’t too bad since the week would go by so fast, but we were always excited for the weekend and an opportunity to sleep in.

One week, we ended up having all of Friday off so 32 of the 34 of us planned an out-of-town trip to my hometown in southwest Missouri and also to Kansas City. We made Google Docs for scheduling and sign-ups, and on Friday morning we caravanned out of Columbia.

That trip brought us closer together than we already were. Between a 3.5-hour car ride, the small-town vibe, lack of distraction and being physically close to each other in a way hadn’t before (try to imagine 32 people sleeping in one house), we were able to open up and be honest about ourselves. There were tears, hugs, laughs and so much love.

That love followed us the rest of the summer. Our “co-workers” became our confidants and our SWesties (Summer Welcome best friends). We gave each other career advice, connected each other with resources, congratulated each other on achievements and mourned our losses.

These moments came to an unofficial close at our end-of-summer banquet. We got dressed up, ate catered food and laughed so hard we cried at the superlatives each of us were awarded. Afterward, we went to Traditions Plaza and took a lot of pictures. It hadn’t really hit us that it was over after that night. Except, it wasn’t really over.

The lessons I learned, the people I met and the personal growth I experienced will stick with me forever. Because of Summer Welcome, I’m a stronger leader, more confident in myself and more attentive to others’ needs. I’m now slower to speak and quicker to act. I loved Mizzou before I started working for it, but after this summer, I’m so proud of what is accomplished here every day and, after welcoming the incoming freshmen, I know we’ll continue to do great things. After all, the whole job is about the students and preparing them for the best years of their life.

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