Learning leadership the Disney way

Reflecting on the Sophomore Disney Leadership Experience.

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Disney Leadership students are able to "earn their ears" by learning to be role models the Disney way. Photo courtesy of Tim Black

Disney may not be the first thing that comes to mind when discussing leadership, but the Walt Disney Company has a wide variety of areas and entertainment offerings that require diligent leadership positions. The Sophomore Disney Leadership Experience at Muhlenberg College allows students to take in this perspective while building community and having fun.

This past academic year, the program made a return to campus, even when things were still up in the air regarding COVID-19. The Disney Imagination Campus was not guaranteed, but Director of Student Organizations, Leadership, & Engagement (S.O.L.E.) Ellen Lentine and former Assistant Director of Student Organizations, Leadership, and Engagement Steve Dutton assured the group of students that the trip would happen regardless. The group included juniors and sophomores to accommodate for the pandemic’s impact on the experience. With the departure of Dutton from Muhlenberg’s team this past spring, Lentine joined forces with Director of Student Transitions and Family Programs Tim Black (successor to Dutton) and Assistant Director of Student Organizations, Leadership, and Engagement Natalie Shaw.

Black stated, “We had a mix of students last year including juniors and sophomores so I hope that those who held leadership positions were able to refine their skills and those who were new to leadership were starting to find a passion and understanding for it.”

The trip is traditionally for sophomores and allows for community building and connections with everyone involved. Jacob Forman ‘24, a transfer student, stated, “Well, I came into this school a bit shy. I was a sophomore that didn’t really know anyone. This group introduced me to like-minded individuals that were passionate about similar ideas. On the other side of that, I was able to learn about other interests outside of my department!”

“I hope that those who held leadership positions were able to refine their skills and those who were new to leadership were starting to find a passion and understanding for it.”

One of the students involved with the experience this past year, Elaina Ragusa ‘23, stated, “Looking back at pictures and videos, I get emotional because it was just such an amazing experience getting to meet so many people and learn about teamwork and leadership… Even for people interested in business or communications, this is definitely a great program for people from all walks of life.”

“It was definitely a journey! The juniors… who were accepted our sophomore year thankfully didn’t have to reapply! We were given the opportunity to still go on the trip… It honestly felt great to finally go on the trip this past spring. For a second, I thought I wasn’t going to be able to go, especially because of all the restrictions and rise in COVID cases, but when we finally went, all the excitement and happiness I felt when applying for this program two years ago came rushing back immediately,” stated Britney Jara ‘23. 

The program featured meetings and fundraising activities for the trip, including selling finals care packages for students. For this year, Lentine has transferred the entire program to Shaw and Black and they have allowed for the program to grow and evolve.

“We have a greater emphasis on the pre-trip curriculum this year. The past two years have been learning curves for figuring out how to navigate the trip during the pandemic,” shared Shaw. “This year we have a better understanding of the trip and so we are able to focus more on the experience before and after the trip to ensure that it is a full year long opportunity for participants.”

The group currently meets monthly in the fall and will meet bi-weekly in the spring up until the trip to help balance the educational elements with the amusement. Black shared, “This allows us the opportunity to do a lot of the workshops and education here on campus. When we are in Disney, we do give students the opportunity to have fun.”

“We have a greater emphasis on the pre-trip curriculum this year. The past two years have been learning curves for figuring out how to navigate the trip during the pandemic”

The duo is also an effective team and they have a strong friendship to lead the group and the overall program. “In all seriousness, working closely with Tim is a dream. He is our resident Disney expert—I literally could not do Disney without him,” stated Shaw.

Black shared, “Natalie is one of my favorite people at Muhlenberg. We both started at Muhlenberg at the same time and have only gotten close since I moved into my role as Director of Student Transitions and Family Programs. We balance each other nicely in our working styles. Natalie handles a lot of the curriculum planning while I handle a lot of the logistics of the travel accommodations with Disney and the airlines. I know that in the areas that I lack, Natalie is there to fill in the gaps.”

“It’s fun to share the magic of Disney with the group and make Disney memories,” declared Shaw.

The experience is more than just a fun trip to Disney, as it really does impact students’ Muhlenberg career and their experiences at the College and beyond. “The program is beneficial to college careers in a multitude of ways,” shared Shaw. “We create a community to build relationships on campus, engage students in leadership opportunities to make them more confident in their abilities and students have the experience of traveling (budgeting for meals, time management, etc.). We have also seen some students in the program enter the [Disney College Program] after meeting the cast during our workshops!”

Ragusa shared a similar comment by saying, “I also loved learning a little bit more about how it is working for Disney and the Disney College Program itself.” Students also got to see a behind the scenes look at EPCOT during the trip, walking through wardrobe and for areas for cast members only.

In addition to the behind-the-scenes experiences, the trip included two workshops which allowed for students to learn more about leadership and the integral role teamwork can play in the process. Brianna Moyer ‘24 said, “The most beneficial part of the trip was the workshops we did in Disney World. It was great to learn firsthand from Disney employees and to see some behind the scene stuff that normal visitors wouldn’t get. I loved that we got to do the workshops while also enjoying time in the park. Disney really emphasized the importance of teamwork in leadership and how everyone in a group plays an important role.”

Jara concluded, “Not only did I learn so much about what I want for my future and the opportunities available to me, I also had a huge amount of fun enjoying the parks with some of my closest friends and people that also share a mutual love for Disney!”

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