Augustana Observer

Augustana Observer

Augustana Observer

Brenda Barnes Leadership Academy provides empowering spaces by and for women at Augustana

Addon Rodgers

“A gem of the Quad Cities” might describe any number of local businesses, restaurants, museums and more. But if a diamond is forever, if sapphire is a symbol of wisdom and emerald represents truth and love, then there may be no better example of a Quad Cities gem than Brenda C. Barnes. 

An Augustana graduate of 1975, Barnes was a lifelong philanthropist, entrepreneur and businesswoman. 

Though she passed away in 2017, Barnes’ influence on Augustana has continued far beyond her 42 years of leadership. Her name and her passion for empowering women live on through a new program open to female-identifying incoming First-Years: the Brenda Barnes Leadership Academy. 

Currently in its first year of operation, the program offers skill-building sessions and opportunities for enrolled students to network among their cohort and within the Quad Cities. 

The program is made possible through Augustana alumni who are paired with students and act as mentors. 

Meeting with successful women gives students the opportunity to ask questions, share ideas and receive advice from people who are like themselves. 

First-Year Kelsey Olsen, majoring in environmental studies, said that having a mentor in the same field has been inspirational.

“My mentor was a geography and environmental studies major, and she works on the Arsenal now,” Olsen said. “It’s neat being able to meet someone with that connection and see where she took her degree.”

These meetings range in frequency and purpose and are largely student-driven. Bonding over shared interests can take many forms, both formal and informal. 

For Olsen, the meetings have taken the form of a focus on important topics related to college and careers in a casual setting.

“[My mentor and I] try to meet once a month and normally we get coffee and sit down and chat,” Olsen said. “She’ll tell me if she sees any jobs, and she’ll help me with questions I have about majors.”

Though student-mentor pairs are made with the intention of matching interests and qualifications, the beauty of the leadership academy lies in its flexibility. 

Students who are interested in joining fill out an application, but they are only required to answer one question of their choice. 

In their short essay-style responses, students may choose to write about what leadership means to them or about a leader in their life whose qualities they would like to emulate.

Though its adherence to Brenda Barnes’ legacy means that the program focuses on leadership, it is designed to be as open to different needs and goals as possible. 

The program’s principal founder, Augustana College President Andrea Talentino, said that students can and should apply regardless of how concrete their goals and plans are for college and beyond. 

In other words, the form is less like a job application and more like a way to show one’s interest in participating.

“We wanted to make the application somewhat rigorous so that people have to think about it but not so rigorous that we would deter anybody who might be interested in the program,” Talentino said.

What about students who haven’t taken up leadership before? How about those who know for sure that they wouldn’t enjoy the stress of managing a team or organizing a group? Talentino said that there is a place for everybody.

“You might say, ‘I never want to lead anything in my whole life, because that’s too much trouble,’” Talentino said. “But even if that’s what you decide, there are a lot of different ways to be a leader.”

In fact, the first meeting of this year’s cohort was focused on an aspect of leadership everybody can benefit from: emotional intelligence. 

Through group discussion of a text on the subject, students were able to share ideas among themselves about the power of emotional intelligence as a leadership tool. After all, how can you lead without nurturing your ability to understand and communicate with others?

Although the group discussed emotional intelligence, the focus of the first meeting was still primarily on female empowerment and the unique advantages women have in leadership. 

In the context of a world which doesn’t always see them as leaders or organizers, women may feel compelled to shape themselves according to the expectations of their workplace or social group. 

First-Year Monica Mawi said that she is happy to turn stereotypes into strengths.

“Yes, women have emotion. We can read the room, and that’s going to make us better leaders than some of the guys,” Mawi said. 

Other experiences with the academy include sessions hosted by business and community leaders on topics like resume writing and “elevator pitches,” or introductions used in business settings. 

Because women face unique challenges in positions of leadership, preparing for  business practices can work to level the playing field.

Besides the organized sessions, academy members also have opportunities to advocate for themselves. 

Mentees can ask for help on leadership skills they want to improve so they can take control of their college experience and future career experiences.

“If you talk to the program leaders, they are more than happy to address those points with you, and I think it also helps them create a new event or teach you a new skill that you think that you’re lacking,” Mawi said.

Because the program is composed of all women, students, speakers and mentors are able to bond over shared experiences. 

Mawi said that she is better able to express and be herself in a female-only space.

“I am able to freely converse with them and talk to them about certain experiences that I can’t with other genders,” Mawi said. “For me, it’s my nerves and my tendency to overthink, and they paired me up with a mentor who is herself an introvert.”

By providing room for students to talk about various strengths and personal interests, the Brenda Barnes Leadership Academy reminds its participants that they matter not only as leaders but as people and community members. 

Open communication within the group is also facilitated through group seminars and travel experiences intended to build a sense of camaraderie.

One such trip was a tour of donut shops around the Quad Cities, during which friendships were made and strengthened. 

First-Year Viktoriia Diachyshyn said that the trip was a highlight of her participation so far.

“When we toured the Quad Cities, we stopped in a park and decided to take pictures,” Diachyshyn said. “I had a conversation with President Talentino, and she shared her university experience.” 

By providing unique opportunities like this, the program can act as a bridge between casual friendships and professional networking. 

Whether searching for job openings or friends with shared interests and experiences, the Brenda Barnes Leadership Academy creates spaces by and for women both at college and beyond. For incoming college students, these spaces of inclusion and opportunity can be invaluable.

“I didn’t really know anyone, so it was a good opportunity to kind of force me to meet people,” Olsen said.

Others find value in the trust between them and their mentor.

“I know that if I need help, I have someone to go to,” Mawi said.

Working to overcome societal obstacles to succeed and is at the heart of the liberal arts. 

For Talentino, helping to launch the new program has meaning deeply embedded in the history of female empowerment and the future of the college she now leads. 

“We’ve been wanting to recruit more people from greater Illinois and bring to Augustana the kind of young women leaders that Brenda Barnes so championed and mentored,” Talentino said. “It’s another way to get people really thinking about vocation—what are they passionate about, what do they care about [and] what do they want to achieve?”

In the case of students involved in the leadership academy, those questions often don’t have clear answers. 

However, there is strength and power in learning how to find those answers among a group of colleagues, friends and professionally successful women who got their start right here at Augustana.


Additional reporting by Allie Rial

Leave a Comment
More to Discover

Comments (0)

All Augustana Observer Picks Reader Picks Sort: Newest

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *