Just days before the nation shut down due to the COVID 19 pandemic in March 2020, the HSS LEAP program launched at the College of Charleston. While this might seem an inauspicious beginning, the program’s passionate and innovative leaders were grateful that the extraordinary timing led to even stronger personal connections with students as together they adapted to unprecedented changes in the world. Jennifer Wilhelm, Associate Professor of Psychology and Director of Experiential Learning, inspired the HSS LEAP program and serves as its Director. She works in close collaboration with Faculty Fellows Hollis France, Associate Professor of Political Science and Department Chair, and Lisa Ross, Professor of Psychology. This faculty focuses on building community and introducing students to experiential learning opportunities, including internships, virtual study abroad, and research.

LEAP stands for Leadership, Experiential Learning, Academic Achievement, and Professional Development. HSS LEAP brings together an inclusive community of diverse students and professors committed to building meaningful relationships that will support students as they strive to achieve their goals. Eleven students made up the inaugural cohort that joined the Faculty Fellows in building that inclusive community.

According to France, “LEAP created a space in which I was able to bring my whole self with all of my identities as a mother, a political scientist, an activist, a professor, and more, and be in genuine community with others. We were able to build a sense of connection where our authentic selves could show up and be celebrated.”

Through these relationships, mentors saw increased student ownership of their educations, increased engagement in their coursework, increased awareness of enrichment opportunities, increased confidence in their skills and abilities, increased pride in themselves, and increased confidence in their futures. Students began to think more critically about their education and goals.

“HSS LEAP has molded me to be more intentional, more compassionate, and a more fully aligned person,” says Mr. Jamarcus Hunter, a U.S. Army veteran majoring in Communication with a Political Science minor.

During Fall 2020, Ms. Linda Ketner, Dr. Julio Ramirez, and Rev. Dr. Kylon Middleton shared their personal stories with the group, discussing the importance of activism and mentorship and underscoring how students could become leaders in their communities. The students engaged with the speakers in purposeful conversations and were encouraged to establish ongoing connections with them. In addition, LEAP students assisted each other by recommending resources and connecting fellow students to their own networks. Students have attributed increased GPAs and other academic successes to relationships built through LEAP, both with faculty mentors and with their peers. They rely on each other for support and act as accountability partners.

“Being in the HSS LEAP program, I’ve definitely changed. I’ve learned a lot more about myself, what I value, and what I want to accomplish in my life,” says Ms. Madeleine Odutayo, who is pursuing a BA in Political Science, a BS in Public Health, and minoring in Health Care and Medical Services Management. “In the future,” she says, “I will utilize both what I’ve learned about myself and from all the guest speakers who shared their stories of facing adversity and working hard to be successful.”

This semester, HSS LEAP partnered with Jen Wells at the CofC Career Center. Students developed and received feedback on their professional portfolios, from resumes and cover letters to sample work portfolios and professional social media accounts. Soon, group leaders hope to invite LEAP students and faculty to participate in service projects throughout the Charleston community.

Wilhelm says that being a part of HSS LEAP, “a community that honors inclusion, celebrates diversity, and creates belonging,” has instilled a deep sense of pride. She continues, “I am passionate about helping students to be successful in whatever paths they choose and supporting them as they pursue their goals. I am humbled at the opportunity to get to do this every day, and it has been one of the most rewarding parts of my time at CofC.”

Leaders are in the process of recruiting an additional ten students to join HSS LEAP, along with the group’s newest Faculty Fellows, Devin Byker, Assistant Professor of English, and Elisa Jones, Assistant Professor of History. In the future, HSS LEAP will continue to empower students to become independent lifelong learners who solve complex problems, act as informed citizens, and contribute significantly to their communities.