Sara Thompson was raised on an egg farm in Pearl City, Ill., 40 miles west of Rockford. She travels home often to see her parents and their 1.5 million chickens. Family is very important to Thompson; her job is a close second. She oversees roughly 2,000 students each year as the Leadership Development Coordinator for the Illinois Leadership Center, where she has worked since it opened in 2002. She earned a bachelor of science degree in organizational administration and a master’s degree in organizational development at the UI.
What’s the main purpose of the Leadership Center?
The Leadership Center is a partnership between Student Affairs and Academic Affairs. We try to help students develop life skills. Our tag line is ‘the experience you need for life.’ And these are skills that we know students need to be successful in whatever’s next – in their families, careers and communities. We base everything on the philosophy that everyone is a leader. Leadership to me is how you interact with people on a day-to-day basis, not a hat you put on for an hour a day.
Tell me about your job at the Leadership Center.
My responsibilities are to oversee the I-programs, which are weekend leadership retreats. I do a lot of one-on-one consulting work with students and help develop the leadership programs and plan retreats. I also supervise the interns and work on their development to make sure it’s a strong experience for them. I feel like I’m an enabler connecting students with the right resources. I also work with an emotional intelligence assessment we use with our I-programs. We’re the pilot school for the Emotional Competence Inventory-University Edition. With students’ consent, we’re using the data to show growth and to learn about how students are developing their emotional competency levels.
What in your background helped prepare you for this job?
A lot of it was a passion for leadership development. As an undergraduate, I would spend my summers developing leadership programs. Then right after school, I worked for Arthur Andersen for a couple years. I worked with U.S. Country Management. We did a lot of meeting planning, facilitation of meetings, as well as internal change management initiatives. My work there was corporate versus a higher ed setting, but it helped me in terms of facilitation and program planning needs.
Tell me about your hobbies.
I love to do things outdoors. In the summers, I train for triathlons. As a swimmer growing up, it was the one way I could continue to swim. I do yoga once a week and teach a spinning class at a local gym. I just finished working my first year with the Emerging Community Leaders organization through United Way. It’s a group of young leaders looking for a way to get involved in the community. Right now we’ve adopted a room at the Center for Women in Transition. I’m also on the Champaign Alumni Advisory Board.
How does your work at the Leadership Center affect how you spend your time away from work?
Working at the Leadership Center has raised the bar for me in terms of how I live my own life. I’m encouraging students to stay balanced and to figure out what they’re passionate about and to be leaders in their communities. So I have a responsibility to role model that.
You’ve worked a lot with young adults. What do you like about this age?
The college age is such a neat age. There’s so much excitement and energy. They see so many opportunities and potential that they’re constantly in this place of possibilities. That’s what energizes me – working with young adults. They’re at a place where they’re really able to reflect and grow from their experiences.
What do you think are your own leadership strengths and weaknesses?
I’m a strong facilitator, so I’m good at interacting and helping people to see the process they should use at meetings. I’m good at getting projects moving. My own weaknesses are always hard to talk about, but I try to show the students things I struggle with too. I try to be really candid. I’m good at juggling a lot, but I over-commit myself. Finding the downtime I need is hard. I’m not overly analytical, so I’m not as good at working with data and numbers. I’m more people oriented.