LEAD Scholars: Supporting Student Leaders

By Valory Anne Sarmiento Vailoces

As the daughter of Filipino immigrants, the American university system was daunting for me to navigate. Although my parents were college graduates themselves, their experiences in the Philippines did not prepare me for the life of an American university student. While I was still figuring out the difference between my NID and PID, I also had to think about the myriad of other responsibilities, like the need to complete an application to medical school. Luckily, I did not have to trek on my new journey alone. Through LEAD Scholars, I was able to find the support system that not only helped me transition to college but one that propelled me to my future endeavors.

LEAD Scholars offers various programs, with the most popular option being the two-year LEAD Scholars Academy plan. Dr. Stacey Malaret, LEAD Scholars Director, describes LEAD Scholars Academy as a “two-year co-curricular and academic leadership development program structured to help new first-year students learn, lead and serve others through leadership studies classes, service initiatives and leadership opportunities.” The LEAD Scholars Mentor Program pairs students with a professional mentor from the UCF or greater Orlando community to aid them in their career and leadership development. The U-LEAD programs teach students about empathetic and effective leadership through various cultural, racial and professional lenses. LEAD Scholars ultimately transforms students into leaders that serve their local and international communities, but even the most impactful leaders need their own support system.

Being a part of the LEAD family provides several tangible advantages. This includes access to free printing, the LEAD lounge, priority registration and smaller class sizes. However, Dr. Malaret believes that the intangible benefits are what makes the experience so worthwhile. The fact that LEAD is a small community, within one of the nation’s largest universities, enables students to reap the rewards of a tight student body while still being able to enjoy all UCF has to offer. Not to mention, the camaraderie between LEAD Scholars is unparalleled; everyone is bonded by their mutual desire to be changemakers.

As a LEAD graduate myself, I can share countless opportunities that were afforded to me thanks to my LEAD connections. Under the mentorship of a LEAD alumnus and Dr. Malaret, I was able to lead a team at the 2020 Clinton Global Initiative University Conference where we proposed a training program to prevent fatal opioid overdoses. Through one of my leadership classes, I became a pediatric hospital volunteer and gained valuable clinical experience to prepare me for medical school while aiding families through their most vulnerable moments. During leadership week, I attended a workshop about women in STEM and learned how local women were breaking engineering and aeronautics barriers. However, the most valuable endeavor to date is my role as the Executive Officer of External Affairs of Hearts for the Homeless International, a non-profit founded by a LEAD Scholars alumnus dedicated to serving the homeless through cardiovascular education and other health outreach programs. LEAD scholars has profoundly impacted my professional and personal development, and I am not the only one who has taken advantage of the support this program offers. 

When Aryssa Wells, the Selections Director of the LEAD Scholars Leadership Excellence Board (LEB), needs help, she calls upon her directors, the teaching staff and the peer mentors. She describes the second-year peer mentors as a “tremendous support for our first-year students with their transition to college by helping them become engaged in the UCF community.”

Abigail Perez, LEB Executive Director, benefitted from the plethora of committees she joined her freshman year. She credits having an “intentional” mindset as the key to making the most of the LEAD Scholars experience. Her friendships, professional development experiences and the fostering of her leadership have crafted her into the student she is today, laying the foundation for the leader she will be in the future.

When the creators of LEAD designed these support systems, they had their students’ long-term goals in mind. LEAD faculty and staff recognized that their students would become tomorrow’s doctors, engineers, teachers and community leaders, meaning each student’s academic journey would be incredibly taxing. Workshops, community events, workspaces and networking are just some of the ways LEAD invests in its students.  The benefits of this support system are beyond anecdotes of success. LEAD scholars have a retention rate of 95.9% (compared to the UCF average of 90.4%) and a four-year graduation rate of 65.2% (compared to the UCF average of 47.4% in 2015).

COVID-19 presents unprecedented challenges such as remote learning and a decreased sense of community. As the educational landscape evolves following the pandemic, I believe that now more than ever, intimate organizations such as LEAD will be integral to student success, especially at large universities like UCF. Dr. Malaret and the LEAD faculty have made significant adjustments to ensure that students can still learn and connect despite these trying times. Since service-learning is a key component of the LEAD curriculum, professors researched online opportunities to provide students with volunteering opportunities in the spring. This fall, both virtual and in-person opportunities for service were offered, such as transcribing documents with the Smithsonian Museum Transcription Center. Overall, virtual volunteering has expanded the meaning of service and citizenship.

Lectures were also offered in a variety of modalities, such as face-to-face, synchronous and asynchronous so that every student had the ability to continue through the program, whether from their homes or on campus. The LEAD Lounge has also changed its protocols, enforcing social distancing and a check-in/check-out system. Many of the LEAD in-person events have been set outside and no longer include food and drinks. LEAD Student’s Association, the LEAD scholars’ student-led leadership organization, also hosts virtual social events, such as Netflix parties, scavenger hunts and service activities to encourage community bonding.   

As my college years draw to a close, I cannot advocate enough for the value LEAD has added to my experiences at UCF. To both prospective and current UCF students, I hope you join LEAD to not only learn how to serve your community, but to find solace in that you do not have to go through college alone.