Learning through leadership, experience and service


LEAD Team representatives Maria Ahumada and Anthony Suarez help fellow peer Krista Schmidtt during an Academy of Leaders event.

In the summer of 2016, Anthony Suarez organized a student trip to Managua, Nicaragua, as part of FIU’s Alternative Breaks program. Suarez’s team members spent their days building a bathroom for a lady who previously had no inside plumbing. They took breaks playing with children who lived nearby. And they learned a whole lot about life and giving back.

Alternative Breaks is just one example of the various opportunities offered at FIU to help students take on leadership roles, while helping others.

Suarez’s involvement began when he participated in the Center for Leadership and Service’s (CLS) Academy of Leaders (AOL) program. Designed to help students think about what leadership is and how everyone can become a leader, the program changed Suarez’s life.

“The three-day retreat helped me figure out who I was and who I wanted to be,” Suarez says.

He became a LEAD Team member with CLS, and today is a LEAD Team Captain. The LEAD Team speaks about CLS at First Year Experience (SLS) courses and new student orientations. They also organize the weekend retreat for AOL – at which they are assigned a group of participants to mentor.

Suarez says the most rewarding part is watching his AOL participants, called “campers,” go through the same journey of self-discovery he did. “It really touches my heart when I see them cutting their hair at Relay for Life or having some of my campers come up to me and thank me for helping them.”

English major Maria Ahumada, currently part of the LEAD Team, says she was able to find her niche at FIU thanks to her involvement in CLS programs. An out-of-state student who had moved to Miami from New York, she didn’t know anyone when she started at FIU. Then she attended the AOL program and found a network of people who wanted to make a difference in others’ lives.

“We believe leadership and service go hand in hand,” Ahumada says. She’s participated in numerous campus events from Roarthon – Dance Marathon to Relay For Life. “I’ve really grown, and I’ve met so many people that empower me every day.”

Director of Morale Andy Garcia with Roarthon Morale Captains

Associate Director of CLS Sabrena O’Keefe says experiential and service learning is a foundational component of education.

“Students don’t know what they don’t know until they experience it,” she explains. “It allows them to become a critical thinker. They are pushed out of their comfort zone and pushed to explain something that they weren’t thinking of before.”

After every CLS learning experiences, O’Keefe says, staff ask students three important questions referred to as the “adventure cycle”: what happened, so what and now what? This helps students process their experience and figure out what it means to them.

O’Keefe says experiential or service learning opportunities exist everywhere, even if the more formal debriefing with staff doesn’t take place. Whenever students step up to the plate and take leadership roles, it’s experiential learning. This includes helping run a student organization; helping organize events like Uproar; and becoming a Peer Advisor or Panther Camp facilitator.

For senior psychology major Andy Garcia, getting involved on campus made him realize it’s not about what you get out of it, but what you can give to others. Garcia helped incoming students as a peer advisor and coordinator for orientation; and, most recently, he was the director of morale for Roarthon (Dance Marathon), helping raise $96,018 for Children’s Miracle Network Hospitals through the fundraiser.

“There’s more to college, than coming to college and then going home. It’s about making those personal connections,” he says. “I don’t do it [get involved] for recognitions or awards or resume builders. There’s no better resume builder than knowing that you made a change in the world.”

Maria Ahumada with Academy of Leaders peers

Here are some resources to help you find a program or event you want to get involved with:

Center for Leadership and Service

Academy of Leaders

Alternative Breaks

Campus Life

Panther Camp

Peer Advisor

Relay for Life

Roarthon – Dance Marathon

More resources for getting involved on-campus

This article is part of our Secrets to Success series.