‘Profiles in Leadership’ Brings Accomplished Alumni Back to the Dickinson Classroom

Laura Potter addresses a class

Lt. Gen. Laura Potter ’89, Army deputy chief of staff of intelligence, brought unique leadership lessons to bear. Photo by Dan Loh.

Dickinsonians from across a wide professional spectrum pass on lessons to the next generation of leaders

by Tony Moore

Dickinson offers leadership lessons across the curriculum—and through myriad opportunities such as internships, study abroad and research—and our students have used them to move on to roles across business and finance, the arts and sciences, sports, medicine, government, and any other professional sphere that comes to mind.

But in 2022, Steve Riccio, senior lecturer in international business & management, and Rob Symington ’86—a Dickinson Board of Trustees member, senior consultant at ITE Management and visiting senior lecturer at the SC Johnson Graduate School of Management at Cornell University—had an idea to give the classroom experience new life.

It’s a course called Profiles in Leadership, and last fall it brought a dozen leaders from across those professional spheres into the classroom. It was a hands-on, up-close-and-personal look into the lives and minds of people who are at the top of their industries, at the top of their game. And they’re leaders who know the value of a Dickinson education—and the power it holds to create future leaders.

Because they’re all alumni.

Leading from the liberal arts

The idea behind the class was one Dickinson always keeps in its sights: ensuring that our students are not only on the cutting edge of what the world needs most but playing key roles in creating it. And what better way to approach it than to recruit Dickinsonians already doing it?

“I’ve taught a class like this at Cornell and thought that we could easily attract very talented and successful alumni from Dickinson to teach a similar class,” says Symington, who pitched the idea to Dean & Provost Neil Weissman, who met the idea with enthusiasm and introduced Symington to Riccio. Before long, the two were brainstorming on the content of the class and compiling the perfect group of alums. It wasn’t long before the list was complete, broad and impressive, and slated for visits spanning the entire semester.

“The variety of guest speakers who participated in the class demonstrated to our students that they can essentially do anything with a liberal-arts degree from Dickinson,” Symington says. “We had the founder of a multibillion-dollar tech company, the CEO of a household-name company such as L.L.Bean, a three-star lieutenant general in the United States Army—not to mention a lawyer, a doctor, a professor, the leader of a nonprofit. The list just goes on and on.”

With in-depth discussions on contemporary leadership issues, the class examined present and future issues through the leadership lens, including power and influence, gender, managing crises, creativity and innovation, and professional development. All with an eye toward having students see leadership opportunities as not just something years down the road but also available right in front of them, now.

“I wanted to provide a practical element to the course in which the students were not just learning about leadership but could start applying it in their current environment—our campus community,” says Riccio, noting that this practical element had students working directly with the Enrollment Student Life Committee to identify opportunities to enhance the overall experience for both current and future Dickinsonians. “Students learned that leadership was about being proactive toward a worthy cause that benefited others.”

The student experience

A clear benefit of these classroom sessions is that students are exposed to a wide range of leadership styles and approaches. The alumni leaders come from different backgrounds and have led their very different companies in varied ways, allowing students to see the many paths to success. And their unique and diverse perspectives and experiences provide valuable lessons that can become roadmaps for students’ futures.

“After graduation, I plan on pursuing a career in healthcare administration and know that this industry involves not only business but leadership as well, so I felt that this class would be incredibly valuable for me to take,” says Keira Shoup ’23 (neuroscience, health studies certificate). “I’m very thankful that I did, as it allowed me to do a lot of reflecting on my strengths and weaknesses in my past and current leadership roles, and how I want to change in the future.”

Shoup compares the class to “coming to a Ted talk every day,” one where she learned that a common theme in leadership is those who rise to these positions often don’t follow a linear path to get there. That point allowed Marisa Almazan ’24 to take a deep breath and relax a little as she pondered her future.

“It helped ease a lot of worries about having everything put together by the time I graduate,” says the international business & management major. “A lot of the alumni thought they were going to follow a different path than they are in right now, yet they still found success by grabbing those opportunities that they were offered.”

The lessons featured interactive leadership exercises, centering on alumni presentations and follow-up Q&A sessions. Students also interviewed alumni of choice, tailoring their experience to their interests and teasing out answers to questions they wouldn’t otherwise get answered in person. The semester culminated with final projects in which students developed their own personal leadership philosophy by reflecting on the presentations, activities and exercises throughout the semester as well as their own experiences and future aspirations.

“It was fascinating to learn about their unique paths and how their liberal-arts education from Dickinson taught them to understand different perspectives, excellent communication skills and instilled within them the sense of lifelong learning,” adds Caroline Wasielevski ’23 (international business & management).

The alumni experience

“I’ve wanted the college to more formally embrace leadership as a competency that can be taught, learned and experienced for all students in so many diverse ways, and this class delivered that,” says Steve Smith ’92, president and CEO of L.L.Bean, noting that it was Symington’s vision and passion for the class and Riccio’s way of carefully connecting the academic and business perspectives that made his own participation a must. “To marry alumni engagement and their unique and successful experiences to a robust leadership curriculum is really inspired and valuable, and the curiosity and engagement of the students in the class was incredibly energizing and inspiring.”

Steve Smith addresses a class

"The curiosity and engagement of the students in the class was incredibly energizing and inspiring,” says Steve Smith '92, president and CEO of L.L.Bean, seen here addressing the class, as Rob Symington '86 (left) looks on. Photo by Dan Loh.

Like Smith, other alums were eager to engage with current students and excited to use the class as an opportunity to bring something unique and valuable back to their alma mater.

“I take a great deal of pride in being an alumna of Dickinson College and am always looking for ways to give back to the school that opened so many doors for me,” says Lt. Gen. Laura Potter ’89, Army deputy chief of staff of intelligence and former director of intelligence of the J-2 U.S. European Command, stressing that leadership skills are vital to success in any profession. “Dickinson encourages its students to actively engage with the world around them and to take calculated risks, and this course exposed them to new sectors of society and business, various leadership philosophies and different ways to solve problems.”

Paul Yater ’94, chief information officer and head of human resources at 84 Lumber, had collaborated with Ricco in the past on several occasions, speaking to his classes and students. Riccio’s senior seminar in human resources even completed a class project for Yater and the 84 Lumber recruiting team, which Yater says was “on par with a top-notch consulting organization.”

“Dickinson is a very special place to me, and it’s had a tremendous impact on the person am I and the career path I have taken,” he says, adding that while the students used the class as a growth opportunity, Yater himself experienced personal growth and fulfillment by interacting with Riccio and his students. “The Profiles in Leadership course that Steve is leading is a progressive concept that connects classroom experience with real-world interaction and learning opportunities for his students, and it was a true joy, truly like a shot of adrenaline.”

‘Bright minds of the future’

Yater says that the class, Riccio and his students inspired him so deeply that he reached out to the head of the University of Pittsburgh Katz Graduate School of Business, where he completed his MBA, and has booked a spot as a guest lecturer. 

“The quality, preparation, and engagement of Dickinson students is top notch—a tribute to the quality of students Dickinson continues to attract and the quality of instruction and experiences that Steve and his peers are providing,” Yater says, noting that Riccio’s passion for his students is clear. “I hope that I am fortunate enough to be asked back to continue to help shape these bright Dickinson minds of the future.”

With the inaugural session now in the past, the class is scheduled to be a yearly fall offering. And if this year’s students are any indication, Profiles in Leadership is accomplishing exactly what Symington and Riccio set out to do.

“I took this class because I wanted to improve as a leader, and the experience was wonderful,” says Nigel Woodroffe ’23 (international business & management), who adds that a highlight of the semester was that the course prompted him to conduct internal reflections on who he is, where he wants to go in life and ways he might get there. “This course showed me the areas of leadership I need to improve on—and it gave me tips on how to do so!”

Other alumni participants:

  • Rick Anderson '92, president, France 44
  • Karen Buchholz '88, executive vice president of administration for Comcast Corporation
  • Annie Engel '93, president and COO for Howard Hanna Insurance Services and Chief Legal Officer for Howard Hanna Holdings, Inc.
  • Judith Faulkner '65, founder and CEO, Epic
  • Ruth Ferguson '92, human resources senior leader, Wells Fargo
  • Ian Geise '94, president, Voxx Corporation
  • Kristi McFarland '93, founder & chief people & sustainability officer for Magnate Worldwide
  • Stafford Meyer '93, founder & CEO, Porte + Hall
  • Zach Wahl '98, president & CEO, Enterprise Knowledge


Published June 23, 2023