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Leadership on Campus and Beyond: A Conversation

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On July 1, 2009, Jim Yong Kim began his tenure as the 17th president of Dartmouth. In August, Student Assembly President Frances Vernon ’10 met with President Kim in his Parkhurst office to talk about campus leadership and the year ahead. (Student Assembly is the official student government of the College. It is composed of elected student representatives and delegates.) Excerpts from their hour-long conversation:

Pres Kim & Frances Vernon '10Student Assembly President Frances Vernon ‘10 speaks with President Jim Yong Kim. On his first day in office, Student Assembly presented President Kim with a "Visions of Dartmouth" report containing contributions from 525 students about their hopes for Dartmouth's future and what they value most about the College. (Photo by Joseph Mehling '69)

PRESIDENT KIM When I learned that you as Dartmouth's student body president are a pre-med major interested in health in Latin America and are from Cedar Rapids, Iowa–100 miles north of where I grew up in Muscatine–I was really excited. We have so many things in common. As a person who shares a lot of my background and interests, what are the most important things you want me to know so that I can be a good president?

VERNON I want to see you expect a lot out of Dartmouth students. They are here to become the best that they possibly can be. I think that you can help set an expectation for us.

Jim Yong Kim's Inauguration as the 17th President of Dartmouth will take place on Tuesday, September 22. Click here for a video and updates about the event.

PRESIDENT KIM So you have to give it to me straight. How do you think I should model leadership, as a new president?

VERNON Be clear and honest. If things aren't going right, how do we make them better? I want you to honestly identify the gaps in the system. And to be able to, when you meet with students, ask the tough questions. If something needs to be done, don't be afraid to bring it up. Also be realistic about what we really can do, in terms of setting and meeting goals.

PRESIDENT KIM What are your greatest aspirations for Student Assembly?

VERNON It can be hard to articulate to campus what SA really does. We provide services, like Blitz terminals. We help bridge communication with the administration. But we can also identify gaps and problems, whether it's alcohol policy or judicial affairs, and we can be advocates into the system.

This summer we've been working on our website. Everything now is online, even the student handbook, but there is no virtual campus center. We're in the year 2009. Why do we not have that? We want to create a hub where students can find any information on all of the services offered to them.

PRESIDENT KIM Why are you working so hard on SA, when you're also writing a senior thesis and taking courses? Why would you put so much time into an activity that is mostly a service to the other students?

VERNON What's most important for me is for young people to not see themselves only as potential, but as active participants. To not say, I'm too young to do this, or I'm not experienced enough, but to just jump in and do it. It's about showing someone that if you want to do something, you can do it.

I wish the young leaders, the role models in the United States, were not just the stars on the Disney Channel. I want to highlight my peers who are doing amazing things to show that these things are possible.

PRESIDENT KIM So student organizations in the past, in the 60s and 70s, used to take over Parkhurst. Do you have any plans to take over this building?

VERNON If I did I don't think I would tell you!

PRESIDENT KIM But, why have things changed so much?

VERNON Students are different these days. We've learned how the system works. We understand that, yes, we can still protest, but what goes beyond advocacy? What's the next step? Also, a lot of students now don't believe that they can enact change.

PRESIDENT KIM I guess my point is that I want you to symbolically storm Parkhurst. I hope that your fight is not so much with the administration, but there are fights to take on. Part of your job is to find the real problems that make students passionate and then launch a movement to try to fix them. That's when you really learn-when you are trying to tackle a problem with a strong sense of urgency because you want to make a change.

VERNON What do you think Student Assembly should be?

PRESIDENT KIM I don't have a prescriptive notion of what you should be and do. I do see SA as an important voice, a group that can inspire your fellow students to be more engaged with working together to create a better student experience.

But I also hope it's an educational experience for you-in leadership, in teamwork, in policy formation. It's a great experience in trying to get a complex organization of people who all have different presumptions, assumptions, and attitudes, to work together for something that's greater than anything any one of them could do individually.

VERNON So how do I translate this?

PRESIDENT KIM You do your best to find a really compelling goal. What I've learned is that unless you have a clear and compelling goal and a time by which you want to accomplish that goal, it's hard to rally people.

The task is to find what it is that you want to get done. You'll be surprised at how focus will help you build momentum and in the end feel good about what you've done. But it is hard. You've got to work really hard at it.

VERNON How do you think we should work together? At Dartmouth, I'm really lucky that I get to spend time with you.

PRESIDENT KIM So student body presidents at other schools don't get that?

VERNON No, they don't.

PRESIDENT KIM Well, I think it's important that we stay in touch and I'm going to count on you to tell me what's going on. I've had dinner at Alpha Delta, I've met with Student Assembly, and I'll be meeting with lots of other groups. I'll have a lot of information. But I have to assume that when a student group talks to the College president, it's different than when that group talks to the student body president. So I'm going to count on you to give me information that will help me to be a better president.

I also want you to come to me with your goals-is there something that the students need? Is it important enough for you to do whatever it takes to be successful? If we can find things that we know are important for the entire campus, then I'm telling you it's something I'll work on with you.

EDITED By SARAH MEMMI

Last Updated: 1/12/10