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Coury Program Creates Leaders Out of First-Year Marshall Students

Coury Program Creates Leaders Out of First-Year Marshall Students

The Robert J. Coury Applied Leadership Program teaches its participants how each of them can become a leader.

01.15.24
Students smiling at a table outside.

Students pose with their mentors during a Coury coaching session.

[Photo/Courtesy of Isabel Yang]

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USC Marshall is in the business of creating leaders, thanks to the ROBERT J. COURY APPLIED LEADERSHIP PROGRAM. The workshop series, founded over seven years ago, helps freshmen and first-year students identify their strengths and grow into campus leaders.

The program is built around the concept of positive psychology, in which students’ self-awareness is incubated through an emphasis on strengths, as opposed to weaknesses. Each spring, around 100 students take the CLIFTONSTRENGTHS ONLINE TALENT ASSESSMENT, which provides each participant a specific, individualized evaluation of their strengths. From there, students attend seminars and coaching sessions with program mentors (who are also former participants) to grow their courage, confidence, and character.

The Coury Program has been helping hundreds of students since 2017, when Assistant Professor of Clinical Management and Organization JODY TOLANcame aboard as its first academic director. Over and over, she heard from industry leaders that college graduates didn’t speak up with their ideas at meetings. It was Tolan and the program’s job to give them that courage.

“How are we going to help students better understand themselves? We know, first of all, that leadership begins with self-awareness,” Tolan said. “That is a fundamental principle of leadership. And with that, you can then understand your strengths and your gaps.”

The objective was to build classes of leaders at Marshall, not just for the sake of their future employers but for the students’ futures most of all. In her six years at the helm, Tolan believed the program provided its participants a time to reflect and develop who they were.

“When you come to college, you’re still in a developmental stage with students,” Tolan said. “It’s a time of discovery, of experimentation, of reflection, of setting the foundation of who you want to be. What purpose do you want to identify going forward, and how are you going to get there?”

This year, Tolan has passed the torch to the new academic director, REBECCA HEINO, the Cyrus the Great Teaching Chair in Timeless Leadership and a professor of clinical management and organization. Though new to Coury, Heino’s passion for leadership extends back years to her own time as a PhD student at USC working closely with legendary leadership expert WARREN BENNIS. During that time, she learned valuable lessons she’s still carrying with her to Coury.

There’s a lot of people that still have the misnomer that being a leader is about having a certain personality type, like being a leader is about being extroverted, and you’re either born with that or not…Anyone can be a leader. And I think [Coury] is about helping students see themselves as a leader.

— Rebecca Heino

Cyrus the Great Teaching Chair in Timeless Leadership / Academic Director, Coury Program

“I think leadership is made and not born,” Heino said. “I believe that 100%. There's a lot of people that still have the misnomer that being a leader is about having a certain personality type, like being a leader is about being extroverted, and you’re either born with that or not…Anyone can be a leader. And I think [Coury] is about helping students see themselves as a leader.”

Leading the way with Heino is Ani Hakobyan, the administrative director of the Coury program. Hakobyan was drawn to the program by its overwhelming inclusiveness (all first-year students are welcome, whether they be freshmen or transfers). The sessions are also built around empowering each participant to discover their identity, without judgment.

“You’re never going to be as young as you are right now,” Hakobyan said. “So take the time to invest in yourself. This is something that you can use both in your personal life and in your career. Understand who you are, and that can definitely change the trajectory of your time at USC and in your career. When else are you going to have so much time to figure out who you really are?”

With approximately 100 students taking 100 different individualized strength assessments each year, it might seem impossible for any of them to receive personalized guidance. That’s where the student mentors come in. Each of them has been in the program before and then applied to be a mentor, hoping to pass down the leadership lessons they learned at their time in Coury.

“Our mentors are our secret weapon,” Tolan said.

One of the current mentors is Natalie Chan, a senior studying business at Marshall. As a transfer from Loyola Marymount University, Chan arrived at USC knowing few people. Coury exposed her to a welcoming atmosphere and introduced her to dozens of new students who knew what she was going through.

“This was the first program I got involved with at USC that was really collaborative and creative and fun,” Chan said.“I got to learn more about my leadership strengths and styles too while working in teams.”

Now, Chan is a leader on campus. She serves as vice president of the USC RISK MANAGEMENT SOCIETY and is also entering her second year as a Coury mentor. She believes every Marshall student should seize this opportunity and join Coury.

“Not only are you gaining more experience, learning about your strengths, and [learning] how you can be a leader, but also this is really a great way to get involved with USC as a whole,” Chan said.

When the program concludes in April, the first-year students will participate in a capstone event led by representatives from the MASTER OF BUSINESS FOR VETERANS (MBV). In a day of outdoor activities, they will put their new leadership skills to the test in a series of competitions and games.

At a school full of young leaders and aspiring innovators, the Coury program strives to empower every single student, no matter where they come from, to help them get where they want to go.

For information on how to apply to the Coury Applied Leadership Program, please click HERE.