Giving a Hand, Gaining Experience

Sorority members lend a hand on University Day.

The Holden Leadership Center builds participants’ skills while fostering community service.

It’s one thing to sit in a classroom and talk about AIDS and homelessness; it’s quite another to spend a week in San Francisco’s rough-edged Tenderloin District having face time with drug addicts and homeless people.

“It changed me,” says Abdul Araga ’10, who graduated in June with a double major in biology and economics. “I see things differently now.”

Araga went to the Tenderloin last spring through the Alternative Spring Break program, offered by the Ambassador Glen and Mrs. Gloria Holden Leadership Center’s Service Learning Program at the University of Oregon. The students volunteered at several nonprofit agencies, including Tenderloin Health and the Coalition on Homelessness. “I realized that no one chooses to be homeless, or says, ‘I want to start using drugs,’” Araga says. “They have problems, but that’s because they’ve been through trauma or they’re really poor. I learned to appreciate the fact that everyone is a human being, and I’m much more compassionate.”

The Holden Leadership Center, which supports the growth of leadership skills and community service, began in 2005 as the Leadership Resource Center. The organization got a name change in 2007 after receiving a generous endowment from Glen ’51, who was United States ambassador to Jamaica from 1989 to 1993, and Gloria Holden ’50. “Without the Holdens, we wouldn’t be here,” says HLC director John Duncan. “They have energized this and elevated the presence of leadership education at the UO.”

With fifteen major programs, more than twelve academic courses, and support for more than 250 organizations on campus, the HLC makes a huge difference in the lives of students. “It helps them make meaning of their experiences here,” Duncan says, “and connect with the community.”

The center has three main components: academic, experiential education, and leadership programming. The HLC also oversees many aspects of student government, including the Associated Students of the University of Oregon (ASUO) and the fraternity and sorority community. Offerings include the Alternative Breaks programs, the LeaderShape Institute, the Community Service Grant Program, the Duck Corps, and individual counseling to help students learn about and choose among volunteer opportunities.

Besides the San Francisco Alternative Spring Break trip in 2010, another ASB group (also led entirely by students) went to San Diego, where students learned about immigration issues while working with the Border Angels, a nonprofit organization that sets up life-saving stations of food, water, and clothing in the Imperial Valley desert. This year the center plans to offer an ASB trip to New Orleans as well as at least one international trip, either to Haiti or Jamaica. A winter break trip will also eventually go to India. “All students should have experience abroad,” Duncan says, “but not everyone can do a whole semester. This way, they don’t have to miss school, but they still get an immersion-based experience with a service focus. It’s very powerful.”

Holden and his wife, Gloria, who graduated from the College of Education, endowed the center because they felt that leadership and civic engagement were underemphasized at the UO. “Our universities and schools must teach leadership,” he says. “It is important to every institution there is, but even more important to people. You get the psychic reward of having accomplished something good, of helping others to accomplish certain goals.”

To this end, the Holdens’ gift supports the LeaderShape Institute, a six-day immersion program that builds leadership skills among students. “It’s such a powerful experience, and it gives you energy you didn’t know you had,” says Audrey Abbott ’10, who graduated with a triple major in international studies, Latin American studies, and Spanish. “It’s powerful to see sixty-plus undergrads with huge, huge goals. Everyone is so excited, and no one is telling you that you can’t do it.”

Abbott worked at the HLC as a peer leadership consultant, meaning that she counseled students who want to get involved in volunteer activities but are overwhelmed by the multitude of choices. Now that she’s graduated, she hopes to go abroad and study how various cultures view leadership. “It fascinates me,” she says. “What does it mean to be part of a group? How can I participate positively? You gain more self-awareness, get to know yourself better.”

The HLC is also home base for the Interfraternity and Panhellenic councils, providing office space and an advisor. “The HLC has helped me understand the maturity and responsibility needed to be a leader,” says senior Cody Catherall, last year’s president of the Interfraternity Council, “and the huge reward one gets for leading peers in a positive way.” He also notes that the leadership training offered by the HLC has helped change the negative aspects associated with Greek life in the 1980s and ’90s. “The HLC has encouraged us to take on change and we have grown vastly in a positive direction,” he says. “They have given us the tools to be a truly helpful organization.”

It’s fitting that the councils are headquartered at the center. Holden joined Beta Theta Pi fraternity just after World War II, and says that Greek life was instrumental in developing his leadership skills. He served first as rush chairman, then as fraternity president, and eventually as president of the Interfraternity Council. In return, he has been instrumental—for more than fifty years—in maintaining his fraternity’s physical home.

He shares a funny story about moving into the building after the war. “It had been rented to nurses,” he says, “and all the urinals had been planted with flowers.” To redo the dirt-clogged plumbing, they had to start by getting bids. “I got the boys to agree—and it took a fight—to give $1 each so I could hire an architect,” he recalls. 

Twenty-five years later, the house was restored again—this time with a large but not particularly useful or aesthetically pleasing addition. “I hated it,” Holden says. So ten years ago, he put up $100,000 to kick off a campaign to raise money for improvements. The changes were made, but the work cost more than expected. “The boys didn’t do well financially,” he says. “They got into debt, with a huge mortgage on the house.” Eventually, Holden took matters into his own hands and bought the beloved building outright, paying off its debts and donating it to the UO Alumni Association.

Former Duck athletic director Pat Kilkenny ’74 and his wife, Stephanie, have also been major donors to the HLC. Their Kilkenny Service and Leadership Fund aims to encourage students to engage in community service and offers a series of $1,000 grants, called student service grants, that allow students to creatively respond to needs in the community. “Any kids that have an idea and want to do something can apply,” Stephanie Kilkenny says. “I wanted it to be really comfortable. It starts out with an easy application form and then the people at the Holden Center will help you all the way through.”

A recent project carried out by students was Bikes and Burritos, where students got together to make bean burritos and then went out on bicycles to offer them to people who are homeless. “The younger people start doing community service, the better,” Kilkenny says. “It broadens their horizons.”

A new offering through the Service Learning Program is the Duck Corps, which links students as well as faculty and staff members to volunteer opportunities. Potential volunteers sign up online, indicating their interests and how much time they have, and then they receive a personal e-mail within two weeks that offers service opportunities that fit their interests and schedules. 

Within the next five years, Duncan hopes to establish the Emerging Leadership Initiative, a yearlong residential and academic program focused on the study and practice of leadership, service learning, and civic engagement. Students will live in a “leadership hall,” take a short leadership course, participate in workshops, and do community service projects. He’s also contemplating the idea of creating a minor in leadership studies.

Glen Holden is adamant about the importance of building leadership skills. “Hardly ever can you go through life without being part of a team,” he says, “and every team needs good direction. It doesn’t come out of the sky, and it doesn’t come out of the earth like grass. It comes from a human leader.”

“It’s a perspective you take,” Catherall says about leadership, “not a set of characteristics you have. Anyone can be a leader; you just have to take on the mindset.”

The Holden Leadership Center is bent on helping UO students do just that.

—By Rosemary Camozzi ’96