Passion for Leadership: How I Found My Graduate Field

Dharini, a graduate student at New York University, found her purpose and passion for helping students when participating in a special leadership program during undergrad. Read on to learn more about her student journey and how it led her to the field of Higher Education and Student Affairs.

Dharini is currently pursuing her master’s in Higher Education and Student Affairs at New York University. During undergrad, she majored in STEM fields but found her purpose and passion for helping students when participating in a special leadership program at Miami University. Read on to learn more about her student journey and how transformational leadership helped her find her ideal graduate school program.

It was spring semester of my first year as an undergraduate Electrical Engineering student at Miami University when I first heard about the Lockheed Martin Leadership Institute, a three-year program for students in the College of Engineering and Computing. Curious and always looking for opportunities to get involved, I wanted to learn more.

At first I was interested because of the Leadership Institute’s affiliation with Lockheed Martin, a well-respected engineering company, as well as the events the Leadership Institute put on, like Engineers Week. There was also a small (okay, large) part of me that wanted to apply because the Institute seemed like an elite group, and I wanted to be a part of that. At the time, the word “Leadership” was overshadowed by “Lockheed Martin” and even “Institute.”

These motivations changed quite early in the application process when I first met Louise Morman, the Executive Director of the Leadership Institute. My interview with her was one step in the application process, during which she discussed the Leadership Institute and her reasons for forming it. Transformational leadership: that was the purpose of the group and a phrase I’d never heard before. It was an impressive phrase to hear then, even if I didn’t completely understand what it meant.

Related: Do You Possess Innate Leadership Talent?

As I went through the program, I developed a better idea of what it meant for me. The textbook definition describes it as the process of inspiring followers to achieve their (and the organization’s) goals. But to me, transformational leadership means something much more internally directed.

To me, transformational leadership is a journey. It’s driving on a long, meandering road that sometimes has sharp turns, maybe even a hill or two, and the occasional rest stop to recuperate and check to make sure we’re still up to driving. It’s a journey where we create the road signs and speed limit. Though we need not travel alone, for the most part, the journey—the transformation—is one we make for ourselves.

During my first year at the Leadership Institute, I traveled on a stretch of road titled “Personal Leadership.” I truly learned the meaning of reflection that year. My cohort in the Leadership Institute did several assessments such as the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, which helped us understand who we were as leaders, our strengths and weaknesses, and how we worked as part of a team. We talked about goals and purposes, focus and emotional intelligence, and finding ourselves amidst all that. We each created a Purpose Statement and a Personal Leadership Development Plan.

In my second year, titled “People Leadership,” my cohort spearheaded an Institute-wide project called Listen4Insight, where we created podcasts on creativity, innovation, and leadership in conjunction with Miamideas, a University-wide effort to pursue creativity and innovation. In my third year in the Leadership Institute, the program focused on Strategic Leadership and what it meant to lead a long-term, sustainable organization in a competitive and culturally diverse environment.

Of all that I learned and created as part of the Institute, my Purpose Statement had the most impact on me. If transformational leadership is a journey, then my Purpose Statement is the car. It’s what drives me and stays with me as I travel the road. My Purpose Statement underscores everything I’m involved with. In fact, it’s what prompted me to choose the field I want to pursue in graduate school.

My Purpose Statement is as follows: To develop intellectually and professionally, and to help others do the same. At Miami University, I pursued bachelor’s degrees in Electrical Engineering, and Mathematics and Statistics—two very technical STEM fields. I have to admit, I have an affinity for the subject matter in these fields and a joy in learning and expanding this knowledge. So, when I first created it, my Purpose Statement meant that I should do well in my classes, try for internships and research, join professional societies, and check off as much as possible from my college “checklist.”

However, I realized while I continued to gain knowledge and excel in these subjects that I was missing something—the passion to create a career and life in these scientific fields. I asked myself, if I stayed in the field, would I wake up every day excited to go to work? The answer was no. Taking this one step further, if purpose is the car, then passion is the steering wheel. Without the steering wheel, who knew if I was going in the right direction?

So I began searching for my passion. I looked back on all the classes I had taken, all the organizations I was a part of, and everything that I did. A pattern emerged: Working with international orientation, I led our new international student population. As the Student Aide at the Dean’s Office of the College of Engineering and Computing, I guided tours for prospective students. As a leader in student organizations, I helped other students as they explored their leadership styles. And as a participant in LeaderShape Institute, I strengthened my own authentic leadership style. Reflecting on these college experiences led me to two realizations:

#1: I love working with students

I am passionate about working with them, guiding them to find their own paths to success in college. I can see this passion when I look at my experience as a Teaching Assistant for the Leadership Institute. Working with students who are just starting their leadership journey opened my eyes to a new side of leading as an educator. I facilitated in-class activities and workshops, worked with students on their projects and goals, and served as a role model. Through this experience, I learned how to step back from the role of an active leader to one of an advisor and guide, to help other students lead by providing resources, information, and support and letting them become their own kind of leader.

#2: What I wanted to do had a name: Student Affairs

When I found that out, I knew it was the field for me. And this leads me to where I am now, a first-year graduate student at New York University, studying Higher Education and Student Affairs!

I’m now driving steadily on the road of my transformational leadership journey, in a sturdy car with both hands on the steering wheel. I’m living a life with both purpose and passion. I’m still learning, and I hope to continue doing so.

Funny thing is, I can’t actually drive—I never learned!

Related: How to Find the Right Graduate Program for You

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About Dharini Parthasarathy

Dharini Parthasarathy was born in Abu Dhabi, UAE but pursued education in Chennai, India in high school. After high school graduation, she moved to the US for college. She graduated from Miami University—Oxford in 2017, with degrees in Electrical Engineering and Mathematics & Statistics. During her years at Miami, she worked as an International Orientation Leader for two years and in International Student and Scholar Services for a year. She was also part of a three-year leadership certification program for Engineering students called the Lockheed Martin Leadership Institute. Through the Institute, she was part of a University-wide endeavor called Listen4Insight, a podcast series that interviewed leaders in different fields about their thoughts on creativity, innovation, and leadership. At New York University, she works with faculty and students with different experiences and goals in higher education and to shape her own career, values, and goals.


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