Inside Rensselaer
*  Rensselaer Union Provides Opportunities for Student Leadership Development

Grand Marshal Lee Sharma and President of the Union Nikki Gallant. Photo courtesy of The Polytechnic

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Rensselaer Union Provides Opportunities for Student Leadership Development

Many colleges and universities have programs to facilitate student leadership development — but sometimes it is difficult to pin down a concrete example that proves the point. At Rensselaer, a prime example is the Rensselaer Union, a student-run, self-supporting, and self-governing body that controls, finances, and organizes student activities. Home to nearly 200 clubs, sports, and organizations, Rensselaer is also recognized as one of only 20 colleges and universities in the United States that operates its student union using this structure.

“As a student, one of the best things that I have done while at RPI is taking time to get involved in various activities,” said Nikki Gallant, who served on the Rensselaer Union Executive Board during her freshman year. “It was a rewarding experience and made me feel that I was ready to take on a larger leadership role.”

As part of a long-standing tradition at Rensselaer, Grand Marshal Week is an annual student-run event that focuses on the election of new student government representatives. Each spring, the campus is buzzing with activity as students and members of the Rensselaer community participate in the event, which also celebrates student life and government, cultural diversity, and the performing arts.

Following the spring 2011 election, Gallant, a native of Tyngsboro, Mass., and a sophomore majoring in chemical engineering, was elected to serve as the 122nd President of the Union, presiding over the Executive Board, which manages a nearly $8.4 million budget.

Lee Sharma, a native of Chantilly, Va., and a senior majoring in aeronautical engineering, was elected to serve as the 145th Grand Marshal, or GM, which is the highest elected official in student government. The position was established in 1866 to honor a student respected and admired by classmates. The title reflects the military atmosphere of the Civil War era where a soldier was selected to speak on behalf of his fellow soldiers. In the position, Sharma is responsible for managing the Student Senate and also acts as the liaison between the student body and the administration.

“The best way to learn leadership is to experience it,” said Sharma. “Every day, I find myself in situations where I am either managing a motivated organization of nearly 100 students or meeting and talking with campus administrators. While all of us are working to accomplish different goals, these are real-life conditions that I might deal with in the workplace, so the experience is priceless.”

Gallant and Sharma noted that their positions come with various challenges and new experiences. However, both agree that time management and focusing on core goals — including finding a balance between academics, leadership responsibilities, family, friends, healthy living, and social activities — are important, along with eating and sleeping.

“As a student, one of the best things that I have done while at RPI is taking time to get involved in various activities. It was a rewarding experience and made me feel that I was ready to take on a larger leadership role.” – Nikki Gallant

With the semester under way, what’s their advice to students?

“As part of the RPI community, you have to learn how to hold your own,” Gallant said. “A student should not be afraid of trying new things. Get involved with the campus and local community. Everyone is looking to make new friends.”

“We can’t please everyone,” Sharma said. “College is about making mistakes and learning from them. Rely on friends and family to keep you grounded. Make the most of your experience at RPI and have a great adventure.”

According to the Institute Archives, it’s been nearly 20 years since Rensselaer has had two female students serving in the roles of President of the Union and Grand Marshal at the same time. Noting this, Gallant and Sharma hope that in the near future, more female students will consider pursing leadership positions.

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Inside Rensselaer
Volume 5, Number 14, September 23, 2011
©2011 Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute
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