Inaugural Batten Student Leadership Conference Inspires Attendees

Dignity Index
Tami Pyfer from the Dignity Index spoke about how to engage in difficult conversations to ease divisions and solve problems.

Batten student leaders held our first Batten Student Leadership Conference March 22-23 in Garrett Hall. Themed “Bridging Divides: Leading in a Polarized World,” the conference was open to all UVA undergraduates and had the goal of providing a unique platform for students to network and develop leadership skills. The conference was centered around constructive dialogue, bringing together students from various disciplines to facilitate discussions on current policy issues, connect with experienced leaders, and foster collaboration within the UVA community.

Helen Hwang, retired diplomat with the Foreign Commercial Service who holds more than 25 years of international business and government experience with the U.S. Department of Commerce, served as one of our conference speakers.  She advised us to take the Foreign Service Officer Test which opened doors for her career. Shortly after passing the exam, she began her first tour of duty in Korea as a U.S. diplomat, and she shared some of her wonderful experiences abroad. We discussed the lifestyle and benefits of becoming a diplomat and the importance of language proficiency. She recounted her time abroad and how it has influenced her and her two daughters, one of whom is currently a student at UVA. I can speak on behalf of the Batten community that it was an absolute pleasure hosting Hwang. Her enthusiasm and passion resonated with me. 

Another highlight from the conference included conversing with Professor Kenneth Elzinga in a small group discussion on servant leadership. He discussed the role his Christian faith plays in guiding his morals and principles. Specifically, we discussed the changing times and the prevalence of harsh language from our political leaders and even in daily conversations in the workplace. We shared a few laughs and reflected on what it means to serve others. 

On Saturday morning, our first guest speaker was Brenan Richards. Richards serves as the director for China Policy - Strategy, Economics, and Technology at the Office of the Secretary of Defense. Richards discussed strategies to excel in our professional careers. In my opinion, the best tip she provided was around networking. She said that every time you have a network call, there are two things to remember. First, ask if there are three other people that person can connect you with and second, reach out to a contact at least three times after meeting them. She also explained the importance of mastering the current role you are in before trying to advance. She reminded us that there is a lot of value in junior level positions. That is something that we don't hear a lot as we are all eager to advance at a rapid pace. 

Helen Hwang, retired diplomat with the Foreign Commercial Service, talks with students.

Tami Pyfer from the Dignity Index spoke to us about how to engage in difficult conversations to ease divisions and solve problems. We discussed the stark difference between contempt and dignity and analyzed cases from some of the most well-known political leaders who have reputations of using contemptuous language. We workshopped different passages with her colleague Preston Brightwell and tried to alter the passages in a way that acknowledges the other side’s dignity. Pyfer believes that we all have the ability to positively contribute to the Dignity Index's growing movement. 

Another incredible opportunity was to have two representatives from the CIA join the conference. As UVA alums, both Karen Schaefer and Sandra Moles were excited to be back on Grounds. Schaefer and Moles discussed the environment at the CIA, and specifically what it is like to be a woman working at the CIA. They also provided us with practical work advice and how to navigate workplace dynamics from a leadership lens. Specifically, Moles discussed the importance of communication, and Schaefer stressed the importance of having support in your personal life. It was an incredible opportunity to have two inspiring, enthusiastic, and engaging CIA agents in the Great Hall. 

Overall, the inaugural Batten Student Leadership Conference was a success. We are grateful to all our panelists who graciously shared their time and experiences with us. Attendees left feeling inspired to apply the valuable lessons learned in both the classroom at Batten and in our future careers as policy leaders. We hope to host the event again next year, fostering growth and collaboration within our community.

CIA agents
Karen Schaefer and Sandra Moles discussed the environment at the CIA, and specifically what it is like to be a woman working at the CIA.


Garrett Hall at Sunset

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