What Happens When You Put 53 Young Leaders In the Same Room? | By Zosia Czarnecka & John Hampson

The Peter Lougheed Leadership College (PLLC) is a new initiative at the University of Alberta, led by former Canadian Prime Minister, the Rt. Hon. Kim Campbell and Dr. Martin Ferguson-Pell, former dean of rehabilitative medicine and former senior advisor to the president of the university. The aim of the college is to provide an interdisciplinary opportunity for undergraduates to learn and develop their leadership skills in such a way that they may apply them in any field later on in their careers. John Hampson and Zosia Czarnecka are both students currently in the inaugural year of the program.

Things have not been easy. As the guinea pigs of this initiative, we are often frustrated with lack of communication and lack of information available to us. But PLLC is a work in progress and we do our best to accept that. Despite the ups and downs, one thing we all agree on is that the college has become our family. Our forum of ten students, each from a different program, has made campus smaller. It’s rare for us to not run into at least one other PLLC student each day. For those of us from large faculties such as science, having a small group of students we can reach out to and rely on is invaluable. It makes university less lonely, less competitive, less stressful. Coming into this program, we all wondered how on earth 53 leaders could be brought together to have a civil discussion. There’s no way that could end well! Surely, we would all end up yelling at one another. But that was one of the most pleasant surprises of the PLLC; how open everyone is to listening to different opinions and accommodating them in discussion. It’s unique, and this conversation is what will help us make a difference in our communities. The other benefit of being so closely knit is that when a scholar is struggling with anything, be it college related or not, someone immediately notices. A teaching fellow or classmate will immediately reach out to see if the student needs help. If serious, the teaching fellows or professors can refer the student to professional help, helping us balance the program with our other classes and infinite other commitments.

We would be remiss not to acknowledge the contentiousness of the PLLC, especially here on campus. From conception in 2013, certain faculty and student groups have continually expressed scepticism of the initiative’s merit and necessity at the University of Alberta. Prevailing criticisms paint the PLLC as an “exclusive” and “elitist” program only benefiting a small number of students and diverting funds that would have otherwise been allocated to existing programs. Our discussions with others have led us to the conclusion that the truth is more complex.

Let’s tackle the funding issue first. As it turns out, the PLLC receives absolutely zero funding from the Campus Alberta Grant, which is the annual operating purse provided by the Alberta government to the University of Alberta. So where does the money come from? There are two revenue streams. One of them is from the provincial government in the form of a restricted grant worth $70 million, which can only be used for Peter Lougheed Leadership Initiative expenses. The University of Alberta’s portion of this grant amounts to $35 million over a 10-year period; the other $35 million was allocated to The Banff Centre. Donations then serve as another funding source. Roughly $12 million has been raised thus far, largely due to the philanthropic efforts of prominent Edmontonians (and close friends of the late Premier Lougheed), Bunny and John Ferguson. You may wonder whether the $35 million from the government would have found its way to other programs had it not been for the PLLC. The answer is no. What transpired was very much an alignment of priorities. The government was looking for a way to honour the life and leadership of Peter Lougheed; the Lougheed family came forward in support of the Peter Lougheed Leadership Initiative, of which PLLC is a part. Our university just so happened to be a beneficiary. Regardless of whether we believe the government made smart budgeting decisions in 2013, faculty and students can rest assured that this was not a case of robbing Peter to pay Paul.

Moving on to suggestions that the PLLC is an “exclusive” and “elitist” program. It is true that there is an intake capacity of 125 students per year. Being a two-year program, this allows for a maximum of 250 students. Yes, we acknowledge that this is a small number in proportion to the nearly 40,000 student population at the U of A. But these are merely operational constraints, similar to those faced by every other program on campus. This year, there are only 53 students in the program as there were not enough applicants in the first year to satisfy the full occupancy. It is not as if the PLLC has actively sought out to foster an aura of exclusivity — quite the opposite. They appear to be taking significant steps to ensure that the program is accessible to anyone with an interest in participating. This is evident in the admissions process. Recognizing that grades are not always synonymous with leadership potential, there is a lesser emphasis on an applicants’ GPA. Also, let’s face it — volunteering and participating in extra-curriculars can be an unrealistic expectation at times. Students have bills and loans to worry about, in addition to packed course loads and part-time jobs. The PLLC recognizes these realities and, as a result, ensures that admission decisions are based more so on leadership potential as opposed to previous experience. Each student also receives an award to offset any costs associated with the experience. The result of these efforts is a more evenly leveled playing field, and a reduction in academic, financial, and class barriers.

Despite criticisms, the PLLC is a worthy addition to our campus community. It offers unique leadership development opportunities unlike any other in the country. Students learn according to interdisciplinary values with an emphasis on teamwork and collaboration. Forums have been designed to replicate real-life with each scholar bringing their own perspective and leadership style to the experience. This intraforum diversity lends to one of the greatest takeaways from the PLLC—an ability to learn from our peers who no doubt have much to offer. We should be proud to have this opportunity right at our doorstep.

Our meeting with Dr. Ferguson-Pell, one of the founders of the college, reassured us that the college’s administration is willing to listen to our concerns and accommodate our suggestions. In the first week of the semester, we worried that the workload was too overwhelming. Immediately, the modules were restructured and the workload lessened from three writing assignments to one synthesis paper every two weeks. Manageable and predictable — easily incorporated into our different schedules. Most recently, this grading scheme has been updated to allow for more flexibility. Students are now required to only complete six out of nine of these syntheses and their lowest grade will be dropped. It’s not easy to create a program that accommodates the workload of every faculty on campus, but it is evident that the PLLC is doing their best. Lately, some students have been frustrated by their marks in the program, concerned about the subjectivity in grading. In the PLLC, the pair of teaching fellows for each forum marks their respective forum’s work and then passes the graded assignments to the lead professor of the course to audit the grades. Our teaching fellows underwent intense training in marking and teaching and are well-prepared. However, there is still the concern that certain teaching fellows may be easier markers than others and so on. To address this, there has been talk of offering students the option of taking PLLC courses for pass/fail credit rather than a grade. Currently, this is nothing more than an idea; however, the administration is looking into how to make this program the most beneficial to its students as possible. As Dr. Ferguson-Pell elaborated:

PLLC [should] not just be another part of the classic academic [scheme]. It [will] differentiate itself in that [students] will learn things about themselves, the way they interact with other people — things you could never and should never give a grade for.

As inaugural students, we will likely not see this change made for our year; however, the important thing is that we recommend changes for future years of students.

The greatest frustration in the program right now is communication. Since we mainly interact with our individual teaching fellows, there is often a delay in the delivery of information. One forum will hear something, excitedly pass the news on to friends in another forum, and then the never ending game of “he heard, she said” begins. Just last week, when the grading scheme for syntheses was changed, each forum was notified by email from their teaching fellows. These emails came out at staggered times instead of one email with the same wording being sent to all students. Had the information not been so time sensitive (as we had a synthesis due just a few days later that we could now decide to omit), perhaps we would not have been as frustrated. Regardless, there should have been a clear line of communication. 

Another frustration is rooted in the need for a clearer delineated hierarchy of roles within the college. Students are often unsure of how to appeal a grade or who to turn to when frustrated with a class discussion. Should we speak to our TFs (graduate students, some of whom are only a couple years older than us)? Or should we speak to the head professors of the course? Or take it even higher to Principal Campbell, the former Prime Minister of Canada? It all just leads to anxiety. We’re proud to be in a program surrounded with leaders, role models and mentors. Unfortunately, their titles can often be intimidating and make them seem inaccessible to us. On the bright side, however, the college will be hosting a Town Hall next week where students will have the opportunity to ask questions and comment on the program thus far. Perhaps this will serve as a fresh start in addressing our communication concerns, further resolving any tensions in the college.

As we submit our last assignment for the semester, we can feel a weight lifting off our shoulders. The month off from classes, lectures, and discussions will come as a much needed break. Of course, forums will most certainly meet up to relax, exchange gifts, and celebrate the holiday season together. It would be hard not to see the PLLC family for this long! And it truly is a family. In a matter of four quick months we have bonded and cemented friendships with fellow students from every corner of campus, many of whom we would have gone our entire degrees without even passing in the hallway. Yes, there are growing pains with PLLC. We remain hopeful that when we return in the New Year communication will be more streamlined, assignments will be clearer, and tensions resolved.

Note from Wanderer Admin: At the time of publication, the PLLC administration had responded to some of the writers’ questions.  The article has been published as originally conceived to remain true to the spirit of the students’ experiences.


John Hampson: John is a 3rd year BA student, majoring in Political Science and minoring in International Studies. An avid volunteer, he spends much of his free time as a member of the Rotary Club of Edmonton Glenora. His passions revolve around children and youth, as well as gender equity initiatives.


Zosia_EditorZosia Czarnecka: Zosia is currently in her 3rd year of a BSc in Biological Sciences with a minor in Spanish. She loves learning new languages and is addicted to travelling. Off campus you’ll most likely find her skiing, working in a lab or reading a good book.


Banner photograph courtesy of Wanderer Online Marketing Director Jeff Tao.

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  • RealityCheck888

    This is an interesting article, thanks for posting it. The sense of making campus a bit smaller seems to be the defining feature of participation in the program. I think that many university students would benefit from a network of peers in this way. I wonder if there would be some way to duplicate the success of the PLLC and establish more networks of students on campus. This way, more could benefit.