Chatham Leaders Emerge at Camp Guyasuta

Eighteen college students head into the wilderness. If you’ve seen enough movies, that sounds either terrifying or like the kind of fun you can’t write home about. But these folks—first-year students, one sophomore, and Emily Fidago, associate director of student engagement and retreat leader—were interested in something very specific: Leadership.

The students had signed up for the Emerging Leaders Overnight Retreat at Camp Guyasuta, about 30 minutes north of Pittsburgh. The goal was to fine-tune their understanding of what leadership really is, hone their leadership skills in the great outdoors, make friends, and step outside of their comfort zones.

“It was my first time doing everything on the trip. I’d never hiked, done mindfulness activities, or even eaten a s’more,” says J. Bishop Hagan ‘22.

On the first day, the group was joined by Chatham President David Finegold, DPhil, who shared the obstacles he encountered and failures he overcame on his own personal leadership journey. There was plenty of time for students to bond over campfire games, s’more roasting, and impromptu dance sessions. At lights out, the Emerging Leaders tucked into bunk beds in a comfortable lodge.

The next day, the students moved from discussion to action. They took a silent hike to a nearby waterfall, spending twenty minutes in nature without speaking. Once there, Amanda Oaks, executive assistant to the dean of students, led students through a gentle yoga session. This session aimed to reinforce the importance of mindfulness and to call on students to employ it in their own leadership styles.  

Later, Chatham Student Government joined the group for a ropes course, overcoming obstacles that called for group balance, communication, strategy, planning, and cooperation.

“Over the course of two hours, our group went from not really knowing how to communicate with each other to knowing how to get everyone through an obstacle,” says Fidago.

After completing the ropes course, students were free to enjoy camp activities including a zip line, rock wall, tightrope walk, harnessed free fall, and variety of other physical challenges.

The retreat concluded with a discussion of how emotions and communication play into group dynamics and overall performance. “Students often come to college thinking that the person talking the most is the leader, and that’s really inaccurate,” says Fidago. To combat this notion, she asked the groups to reflect on the way they took turns leading and listening throughout the ropes course. “At the beginning, they might think the person talking the most is the leader but by the end, they may realize that someone else has been guiding their group and supporting people emotionally,” Fidago said. And this sentiment was reinforced by the participants, who began to see leadership from a more multi-faceted perspective.  

“It’s important to remember that being a good follower will lead us to being better leaders in the future,” said Jay Jayathilak ‘22.

As the students headed back to Chatham University, they were energetic and excited. Fidago set out to introduce them to leadership, group dynamics, and communication, but there were other benefits, too.  

“We started the day as strangers and ended it as good friends,” said Jayathilak.