New scholars program builds future leaders


This was published before Marshall Baker became director of the program for the 2014-15 academic year, which featured 51 McKnight Leader Scholars.

Parker Schultz made strong connections to Oklahoma State his freshman year through a new scholars program meant to guide students to become ethical leaders. He was one of 37 students included in the first class of the McKnight Leader Scholars Program, which included a scholarship and enrollment in Introduction to Leadership courses.

While the scholarship helped solidify his choice to come to OSU, his involvement in the program provided benefits beyond financial aid.

"This scholarship and this group of people have really gotten me involved on campus and allowed me to meet some really great people," says Schultz, a Wichita Falls, Texas, finance junior. "It was an important part of my freshman year."

Now rooming with two of his fellow McKnight Scholars, the experiences and friendships he made in the program are sure to be long-lasting.

Launched in the fall of 2011, the program aims to develop the type of leaders that society needs while also creating a community of leader scholars at OSU, said Dr. Steve Harrist, director of the McKnight Leader Scholars Program.

"We want students to understand they have the ability to become leaders in their own life," he says. "Sometimes there's a di‘cult transition to college, and students don't feel ready to take on the mantle of leadership. We want them to have a sense of their own capability in that regard."

The program was created and endowed with a $10 million gift made by Oklahoma State alumni Ross and Billie McKnight and will eventually be matched 2:1 through an estate gift by T. Boone Pickens. The McKnights, who chair the ongoing $1 billion campaign for OSU, announced plans for their gift at a Branding Success event in 2010.

Parker Schultz

Parker Schultz came to OSU from Wichita Falls, Texas.

"We are both grateful to Oklahoma State and fondly remember the faculty and administration who took an interest in us and challenged us to be more than we thought we could be," Ross McKnight said at the 2010 event. "This gift reflects our appreciation to OSU and our desire to help students from rural communities attend Oklahoma State, where we are confident they will discover a path to success as we did."

The program provides its scholars a full out-of-state tuition waiver for four years and a $5,000 scholarship for their first two years at OSU. Scholars are enrolled in fall and spring leadership courses and participate in a field experience during a retreat over fall break at a team-building ranch during their freshman year. Students, who are chosen according to leadership and extracurricular activities, are all from out of state.

"We believe that if students become ethical leaders they will have a tremendous positive impact on our society in the long term," Harrist says. In 2012, the class of scholars included 44 students.

Harrist says he has a three-step approach to help students develop as ethical leaders, which includes introducing students to theories of leadership and ethics, experiential learning at a three-day field experience, and real-world application of ethical leadership concepts and skills in a service-learning project.

Students in the inaugural class said the retreat during fall break was a turning point in the program.

"It was a whole new environment" after the field experience, says Sara Slabbekoorn, a Monument, Colo., microbiology and pre-med junior. "Students were more comfortable with each other and changed the dynamics in the classroom to a more collaborative atmosphere."

Harrist says the field experience and group work on a service-learning project allowed students to grow friendships he hoped would be enduring.

"The field experience was deliberately designed to help create these relationships … Students work together in teams to overcome challenges and di…culties," he says. "We also talk explicitly about the idea — from Aristotle's virtue ethics — that friends are integral to living a good life and developing as virtuous people and ethical leaders."

Schultz says the experience taught him that you can learn a lot from other people.

"Everyone's di‹erent, and that's one of the things I've gotten most out of the program," he says. "There's not just one right way to lead."

Erin Scanlan, a management and marketing junior from Portales, N.M., says working with Harrist and participating in the program motivated her to do her best while at OSU.

"Being able to work with and under Dr. Harrist — with the other McKnight Scholars — has been a huge blessing," she says. "He's a great leader and has really made me strive for excellence in every aspect of school, whether that's working on campus or being a leader of my sorority house."