Students gain leadership skills over spring break through Carleton Leadership Seminar

The Career Center’s Carleton Leadership Seminar took students to Houston, Texas to learn about leadership, with the Apollo missions serving as case studies.

Mileana Borowski ’25 3 June 2024 Posted In:
Students and staff posing for a group photo in front of the Space Center Houston sign.
Photo courtesy of Shannon LehwaldPhoto:

To conclude their 2024 spring break, fifteen students — Hanane Akeel ’25, Gideon Antwi ’26, Francisco Arenas ’26, Mileana Borowski ’25, Carolyn Chinatti ’26, Kaori Hirano ’25, Floris Irakoze ’26, Echols Iyengunmwena ’25, JP Janik ’26, Yunan Liu ’26, Bianca Lott ’26, Leo Moran ’25, Daniel Nykamp ’26, Jake Schaefer ’26, and Xiomara Winston ’26 — attended the Career Center’s Carleton Leadership Seminar (CLS) from March 20–22. Students flew to Houston, Texas and immersed themselves in the real-world example of leadership found at NASA’s Space Center in the Apollo Space Program. The trip was organized by Shannon Lehwald, program director for career exploration, and Sarah Rechtzigel, career programs coordinator.  

Satelli hanging from wall infront of large picture of a globe
International Space Station exhibit

Award-winning author and leadership coach Jeff Appelquist ’80 served as the speaker for the seminar as well as providing curriculum. Appelquist is the founder and president of Blue Knight Leadership (BKL), which offers four different leadership development programs: the Will Steger Polar Explorer program in Ely, Minnesota; a program inspired by Lewis & Clark set in Great Falls, Montana; a Gettysburg-centric program in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania; and the newest program, located in Houston, Texas, based on the Apollo Space Program. 

Through each of these programs, Appelquist uses real-world examples to highlight the six leadership dimensions he has identified as essential for any effective leader: establishing a common purpose, building relationships and trust, clear communication, self-knowledge and learning, energy and passion, and decision-making. 

This seminar was not the first time Carleton has partnered with BKL. Last year, CLS partnered with Appelquist to send students on the BKL Gettysburg leadership program. Janik attended the 2023 CLS and returned for this year’s seminar after his “eye-opening” experience in Gettysburg.

Space capsule glowing orange from the inside in a dark room
Space capsule at the NASA museum

“As someone who strives to be a leader and is constantly around stellar leadership — my coach and my teammates on the football team — I thought that this opportunity [in Houston] would help me again improve my leadership skills and help those around me,” he said.

This year, students prepared for the seminar by reading Appelquist’s new novel, Earthrise, which connects his leadership dimensions to the Apollo Space Program, the NASA program responsible for flying men to the moon. Additional case studies are peppered throughout the book, broadening its focus to include more diverse and modern perspectives. Written in an approachable and conversational tone, the book served as a wonderful introduction for students before they delved into the CLS leadership intensive. 

Many participants were inspired to apply to CLS to prepare for new leadership positions at Carleton. 

Students standing and giving a presentation
Students practicing their presentation skills

Antwi, current co-president of the African-Caribbean Association (ACA), knew he would be taking on a more active leadership role in ACA after spring break and applied to “get some skills that would allow me to become more leader-like.” 

Similarly, Winston “wanted to expand on leadership skills as much as possible” as they stepped into a leadership position as president of the Queer and Trans, Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (QTBIPOC) student organization.

After flying to Houston, day one of the seminar included a review of the Apollo Space Program and the three Apollo missions of focus (Apollo 8, 11, and 13), before ending with a discussion on the six leadership dimensions. The conversation mainly centered around the importance of a common purpose. It is important for leaders to set a succinct, measurable, and memorable common purpose for their group, ensuring that everyone involved understands how their individual role is contributing to the mission of the group. In addition to the Apollo Space Program, Appelquist used the case study of Pfizer and their common purpose of finding a COVID-19 vaccine to illustrate this leadership dimension.

Hirano, then-newly elected CSA president and co-captain of Carleton’s Mock Trial team, found the common purpose dimension to be most applicable to her organizations.

“Common purpose [was] something that I talked to both of my leadership teams about since I’ve been back [on campus],” said Hirano. “I was inspired to have conversations as an entire organization and club to figure out what our purpose is and how we want to convey that purpose to the broader Carleton community.”

Space rover hanging from ceiling
Space rover exhibit at the NASA museum

Day two included both seminar and onsite exploration at the Space Center. The seminar portion used the three Apollo missions as well as other case studies to exemplify all six leadership dimensions. Through Apollo 8, students learned about self-knowledge and learning as well as energy and passion. 

The additional case study of head coaches Andy Reid and Bruce Arians was used to further demonstrate these values. For many students, this case study introduced a pivotal lesson: leadership does not have “a look.” 

This maxim was two-fold. First and foremost, it established that there is no set identity that determines whether or not one can be a successful leader. Diversity in any aspect should be embraced rather than shunned. Even introverts, Appelquist insisted, could be effective, energetic leaders, as passion can be demonstrated in multiple ways. Secondly, one does not necessarily need to be in an official leadership position to be a leader. This latter implication resonated with multiple participants. 

Hirano encouraged anyone who wants to make positive change for their organization to apply to future seminars.

“It doesn’t have to be you in charge,” she said. “If you’re just interested in improving your organization, [the seminar] could be a good option.”

Janik echoed these sentiments, saying, “I would recommend to a friend because leadership, as Jeff said, isn’t about just being in a position of power. This seminar could be for anyone who wants to make better decisions in their personal life, social group, or the classroom.” 

Engine used to propell rockets into space
Engine exhibit at the NASA museum

The leadership dimensions of common purpose and decision-making were explored through Apollo 11 and the case study of Darren Walker, president of the Ford Foundation. Students learned about the three things to consider when making decisions: what’s the worst that can happen, what’s the best that can happen, and what’s most likely to happen. 

Apollo 13 — considered a “successful failure,” as the planned moon landing was never completed but all astronauts made it home safely despite major complications — taught students about relationships and communication. Both the trust between astronauts and between the astronauts and mission control had to be strong during a life-or-death situation where improvisation was key. The astronauts’ ability to remain calm under crisis and work together by communicating clearly during a high-stakes emergency was an inspiration for many of the participants. 

Students also studied Ursula Burns, the former CEO of Xerox, to learn about effective communication. Burns transformed the work culture at Xerox from overly friendly, which supported mediocrity, to respectful yet direct. This case study taught students to communicate the reality of the situation to their team, and then present hope and a path forward.

For Antwi, this lesson on the importance of communication evoked reflection on his current communication style and how to improve.

Astronaunt figurine hanging in front of space station exhibit
Exhibit at the NASA museum

“I have good ideas and I know I have good ideas, but I tend to hold back from saying something because I don’t want others to feel uncomfortable,” he said. “Sharing my voice more is something I learned from the leadership seminar. During my own meetings, I need to be more articulate and assertive in what I want done. I’ve discovered the problem and I’m actively trying to fix it now.”

Throughout the seminar, participants were encouraged to apply these lessons to their own groups through guided activities found in their accompanying workbook. Questions prompted students through the process of identifying the current state of their organization in regard to each dimension as well as brainstorming how to improve. 

“I appreciated being able to walk away with action steps as to things I can try,” said Hirano. “Taking concepts and putting them into practice was something I was excited about.”

Rocket standing straight up against a bright blue sky
Rocket exhibit at the NASA museum

One way students explored the case studies was through small group discussions. Many students found that they learned a surprising amount from their peers.

Janik described his fellow students as “very passionate about their field of interest and more specifically how they could apply this knowledge and what we learned.” He shared how “together, we learned more.”

“I’m a people person,” said Xiomara. “I enjoy talking with people, and the closeness of the group was super enjoyable. The folks on the trip were super cool people.” 

Moran was inspired by “listening to everybody’s thoughts,” citing moments of back-and-forth discussion that resulted in ideas and suggestions. “It was a very enjoyable and formative experience,” Moran reflected.

At the Space Center, students partnered up to explore the exhibits. As a larger group, students also went on multiple tram tours to explore the larger NASA campus. This experience brought the stories they had been studying to life with incredible opportunities such as touching a real moon rock and seeing the actual rockets sent to space.

By visiting the Space Center, Janik found that it made the Apollo missions “more personal. I felt a deeper connection,” he said. 

Old computers from and projections of mission control for Apollo 11
Historic mission control for Apollo 11 exhibit at the NASA museum

The most memorable moment of the trip for Moran was the tram tour to the mission control site for Apollo 11.

“I did not really expect the room to be functioning and completely well preserved for that one moment in history,” he said. “It was fascinating to see the entire thing, how much the world has changed from then to now, and to see all the different stations for one common goal.”

To conclude their time in Houston, students set “moonshot objectives” for themselves, personally and professionally, as well as for the organizations they were a part of, making a commitment to put all they had learned into practice by making tangible goals. They also wrote letters to their future selves, to be sent to them by Appelquist in the coming months, reflecting on the trip.

Winston’s biggest takeaway from the trip was that they are “more capable” than they initially assumed.

“I should feel more confident in what I do and the decisions I make,” they said. “I can step into a leadership position having a background that I didn’t acknowledge before the seminar.”

Identifying a concrete lesson, Winston shared that they learned how the importance of setting a common purpose was “a lot more than I previously thought. [Establishing] the norms we are going to uphold and setting goals for the group [are things] that I am going to start doing and feel more confident doing.”

Two students standing in front of a blue screen
Students practicing their presentation skills

On April 9, participants gathered once more at the Alumni Guest House for a dinner and presentations. Following the 5-in-5 format, where the speaker presents five slides in five minutes, students shared their reflections from the trip and how they plan on making change in the Carleton community going forward.

“Leadership is about people, and the connections you build with people and how you learn with people,” said Janik. “Ultimately, one person doesn’t have enough knowledge to be competent enough to lead groups of people. They need input and need to connect with everyone in order to make competent decisions.”