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Safari participants engaged in team-building exercises and games

Fired up for new midyear Safari

CMU welcomes new students to campus at inaugural spring semester leadership event

Contact: Ari Harris

​Icy winter winds and slippery sidewalks were no obstacles for new students kick-starting their first semester over the weekend at Central Michigan University's inaugural Spring Leadership Safari.

A fired-up start for every student

Leadership Safari, which began in 1996, has historically been held the week before the start of fall semester and targets incoming freshmen. Students who began their educational journey in the spring semester, or who entered as transfer students, were unable to participate in the popular program.

Harrison Watts, a student Safari staff assistant, said his own experience at a fall Safari made him want to be a part of planning the spring event. "Safari impacted me so much as a participant," he said. "I want to make sure every student has the same experience as me."

Watts said the biggest challenge was cutting down the fall Safari's weeklong agenda into a two-day schedule for the spring semester. "There is so much we would love to do and would love to see participants partake in, but there is so little time," he said. Planning required finding the right balance between activities, entertainment and speakers.


The spring event also had to accommodate the needs of a much different group of students. While the fall event primarily targets first-time freshmen, the 50 spring participants included a large number of transfer students and nontraditional students.

Planners grouped students by level of educational attainment, age and other shared experiences. Katie Neu, a graduate student and member of the planning team, said team-building activities like the challenge course were moved up on the agenda to allow deep connections to form more quickly.

“I want them to leave with a sense of belonging at CMU.” – Katie Neu

Daniel Gaken, director of the Sarah R. Opperman Leadership Institute, said that the most critical part of Safari was the easiest to replicate. In small groups with names like Team Arctic Puffin and Team Polar Bear, students had frank discussions about issues such as social responsibility, power and privilege, and race and identity.

These group discussions are not intended to solve the world's problems in just two days, Gaken said, but to "give the students the opportunity to consider their own values and to start conversations about what matters to them."

A leadership journey

Designed to help new students acclimate to the campus and its culture, Safari is also an entry point into a larger program of leadership education at CMU. At the close of Safari, students were encouraged to take the next step by getting involved with programs like the Spark Leadership series or the LeaderShape Institute.

Shaun Holtgreive, executive director of Student Affairs, told Safari participants that the No. 1 thing he hears from employers is that they want students to have leadership experience, practice working with others, and "soft skills" that must be learned and practiced beyond the classroom.

Central to the campus experience

A guidebook for Safari participants explained that the event was "about coming together, learning, making new friends and meeting new allies. It's about becoming part of an exciting, essential and historic community at a crucial moment in your lives." As participants toured campus and heard from staff and student leaders, they were encouraged to get involved and to dream big.

CMU senior Thade Hultzsch, a student guide for the event, hoped participants would leave understanding that "this is their second home. They can accomplish their goals here."

Hultzsch said his own Safari experience led him to pursue other leadership roles on campus. In addition to serving as a Safari guide, he is a Peer Involvement advisor, meeting with students one on one to help them find ways to get more engaged. "If there is something they want to do while they are here, they can do it."

A sense of belonging

For Neu, planning the Safari boiled down to one goal. "I want them to leave with a sense of belonging at CMU," she said. Their paths to get here may have been nontraditional, she said, but she hoped they would leave the program understanding that they could be successful and supported here.

Transfer student Donna Winstead, a junior from Barryton, Michigan, said she had elected to attend Safari because she is "an older, nontraditional student" and wanted to begin making connections. After completing two associate's degrees at Alpena Community College and Lansing Community College, Winstead transferred to CMU to pursue a degree in history. She attended the program to begin networking but said she is leaving with greater confidence in her own abilities.

"I can help others who are half my age," she said. "I'm realizing how far I can go."

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