McMaster University: Refreshed curriculum re-imagines traditional notions of leadership through humanities and equity lens

Social work, music, engineering — no matter what a student’s field of study, developing leadership skills like critical thinking, conflict transformation and project management can open a world of possibility.

The McMaster Humanities Leadership curriculum offers opportunities for undergraduate students across all Faculties to develop their own approach to leadership through a blend of in-class and hands-on learning experiences. Students can take individual courses, or they can work toward a Concurrent Certificate in Leadership, Equity and Social Change, which has recently undergone changes to deepen its focus on equity, diversity and inclusion.

“In response to the high level of student interest and shifts in in conversations around equity over the last few years, we have expanded the focus on topics such as ‘social location’, ‘power dynamics’ and ‘advocacy, activism and social change’,” says Alpha Abebe, director of the McMaster Humanities Leadership curriculum and assistant professor with the Faculty of Humanities.

The certificate program has also undergone changes to make it more accessible, including changes to the prerequisite structure and the opportunity to take a wider variety of courses across Faculties that count towards the updated certificate.

“What’s great about this is the ‘diversity, equity and social change’ list includes courses from most Faculties so there is a good chance that these credits can also count towards a student’s existing program of study,” notes Abebe.

One of the most unique aspects of these courses is that students are given the opportunity to build their leadership skills while also making a positive impact in their community. Through their coursework, students have developed initiatives ranging from distributing care packages to people experiencing homelessness in Hamilton, to creating a popular survival guide titled ‘Making It @ Mac’ for first year and incoming McMaster students.

Students also have the opportunity to work with the McMaster English Language Development (MELD) program, where they mentor first year international students.

Hilary Menezes, a Humanities Leadership student, found that partnering with students in the MELD program provided her with cross-cultural literacy skills that she continues to value. “I really liked [working with MELD students] because often students are coming from other countries around the world and I get to learn from them. So, rather than just teaching, it’s a shared learning experience,” she says.

Students who have gained transferable skills through Humanities Leadership courses have gone on to apply them to their future endeavors including graduate school and workplace settings.

Sabrina Wang, an alumna who took a Humanities Leadership course during her undergrad is now in her second year of medical school at the University of Toronto. “A lot of the things I’m involved in in medical school right now have been leadership roles. That’s thanks to this course and courses like this that have given me the confidence to be a better leader in my community,” says Wang.

From mentoring first year medical students to co-authoring and illustrating a global best-selling children’s book on COVID-19 safety, Wang continues to build on her own approach to leadership.

The Humanities Leadership curriculum was developed with the knowledge that leadership looks different for everyone. “These courses reflect a re-imagining of the traditional notions of ‘leadership’,” says Abebe.

Sheena Jary, a Humanities Leadership Instructor and TA and PhD candidate in English and Cultural Studies, describes this approach further. “Being a leader does not mean that you need to be the loudest or most popular. It doesn’t even require that you ‘change the world’ or stun people with your innovativeness. Humanities Leadership teaches students how to find their own approach to leadership – and an essential part of this process is learning about who you are, what you value and what your sphere of influence looks like,” Jary says.