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SXU Holds Fourth Annual Synergy Student Leadership Conference


Saint Xavier University (SXU) held its fourth annual Synergy student leadership conference February 8. The conference consisted of guest speaker presentations, student-led panels and engaging activities designed to help students understand the various aspects of leadership and work to become diverse, inclusive and innovative leaders.

Alison Chandler, the University's executive director of Student Development, opened the conference telling students, "We want to see your development and make sure you have opportunities both inside and outside the classroom." She encouraged students to take advantage of the many leadership opportunities available to them on campus, including internships, clubs and organizations, and mercy-driven volunteer efforts.

Celina Villanueva, state representative of the 21st district, presented as the conference's keynote speaker. Villanueva was raised in Little Village, Chicago, and she credits her background to motivating her to succeed in her field. As a former Chicago Public Schools (CPS) student, her goal is to do right by the people she sees in her community, and as a state representative, she knows the people she's serving are the most important. Like SXU, Villanueva has a mission to serve the underserved and focus on building immigrant power, developing leaders and expanding voting rights.

"You're going to have to make hard decisions to take on leadership," Villanueva told students. "Leadership isn't leadership if you don't have other people following you and working with you. It's about what we're creating together. It's getting people together that have common values to influence a large group of people to fight systematic issues."

Villanueva also encouraged students to get more involved in helping the underserved community overcome difficult situations. "We need to talk about issues that we care about. How do we change the conversation to be inclusive to people who care about these less-discussed issues? The education you're getting here at SXU emphasizes morals and values and helps you to evolve," said Villanueva.

Throughout the day, students participated in a series of panels on various topics of leadership, religion, diversity and mental health. The panels were interactive and provoked stimulating conversation, and some even included an opportunity to let loose and spark joy with dancing. Hana Tulemat, graduate assistant for Student Activities, found the sessions a chance to practice self-reflection and ask difficult questions. "Every leader is different," said Tulemat. "Leadership is about figuring out your purpose in life. Life will test our character, but who you want to become as a leader is determined by the actions you will take."

Students also engaged in powerful activities to help them learn how to understand and acknowledge privilege and disadvantage and use that knowledge to better inform their leadership. One activity, "Diversi-Beads," gave students an opportunity to build a bracelet out of beads that represented personal, family, education, health and safety advantages and disadvantages. Students were able to reflect on their choice and discuss how their privilege and marginalization help support their understanding of others.

"It's liberating to participate in a program like this," said John Calaunan, a computer science and graphic design major. Other attendees agreed, believing that the conference shapes their current and future roles. "I like that this conference helps all of us to work together and help each other grow in different aspects of leadership. All of us have different positions but we make them all one," said Tracy Baker, a jazz major.

"I started Synergy my freshman year and it's evolved so much. Presentations have changed to be more tailored to students. Each Synergy conference has impacted my role inside and outside of the school," said Alexus Woods, a communication major and president of the Black Student Union.

Another program students look forward to every year is Catharsis, a presentation designed to give students a space to openly and honestly discuss critical issues they may face on college campuses, like harassment or racial discrimination, and how they can act as leaders to confront and change those issues. Anthony DiNicola, a Catharsis educator, centered his discussion around microaggressions and engaged students in thinking about a bigger picture of how privilege and marginalization are manifested in everyday life.

"It takes all of us to do some self-examination and challenge ideas and our own perspectives. We can overcome stereotypes and reshape our attitudes and beliefs. Everyone wants to be heard and understood, and you can all make a difference. The work you are doing as leaders is revolutionary," said DiNicola.

SXU President Laurie M. Joyner, Ph.D., closed the conference with an inspiring reminder that students are in a pivotal place for figuring out what's important to them and how it will shape their leadership and scholarship. "This is one of my favorite events of the year. To see students come together as leaders of our community and so generously share your experiences and wisdom with others is truly inspiring. Leadership is a lifelong journey and the most effective leaders in my experience are the ones who understand who they are, what they value and their purpose in the world."

Joyner added, "My college education at a Catholic university like SXU completely changed the trajectory of my life. When I experienced the powerful and positive impact of education on my life, I discovered my purpose. I have devoted my life to higher education in order to change the lives of students who go on to change the world for the better. At SXU, we achieve our core purpose by educating students for competence, character, compassion and career success. We do this so you hopefully leave better understanding your driving purpose."