Joan Kuhl | Reflections on The Global Academy

Joan Kuhl | Reflections on The Global Academy

It’s 5am and I’m ready to board my flight from Pittsburgh back to my home in New York City. And I’m probably the HAPPIEST and most energized person in this entire airport. I spent the last 3 full days with 50 of the most extraordinary student leaders in the world at the Frances Hesselbein Global Academy for Student Leadership and Civic Engagement. Students traveled from 25 countries and 15+ states across the US after being selected in an application process that attracted 500+ submissions. This group includes men and women who have already launched non-profits, global campaigns, toured with Broadway shows, double and even triple majored while working to pay their education themselves….and the stories of extraordinary accomplishments and impact go on for days.

As an advisor to the Academy since its inception over seven years ago, I decided I need to do something more this year. I wanted to devote my time to an individual group and serve as a team mentor to truly immerse myself in the program I helped support. My team included Seth from Cambodia, Raj from Nepal, Danielle from Pittsburgh, Ieroniawakon Deer from Canada, Andrew from UVA and Presha from India/Iowa. Brianna joined me to experience this incredible leadership immersion and join forces in our mission to unleash their potential. Now the secret is out…they actually mentored US not the reverse…their potential, their talents, their gifts and their infectious enthusiasm far surpassed anything we could cultivate. All we needed to do was offer them a launching pad and a net.


The program is designed to group the students in clusters assigned to professional experienced mentors…a.diverse representation of generous and accomplished professionals such as Deborah Walker, Appointed to the Mayor’s office and former Conduct Officer at Pitt Police; James Helis, Superintendent, U.S. Merchant Marine Academy; Davie Huddelson, D&I Leader PNC Bank; General Randy Fullhart,, US Air Force and Virginia Tech; Toshiko Inoue, AXA Equitable Life Insurance; Laurie Kelley, Lecturer,/Consultant Yale School of Management; Jim Earle, Asst. Vice Chancellor, Pitt; Tony Fountain, Sr Vice President (retired) URS Corporation.

We spend what feels like 22 out of the 24 hours a day facilitating workshops, group activities and discussions to expose the students to the key principles and core strategies demanded of global inclusive leadership. The students are coached on their own personal leadership plan and encouraged to speak up about their passions, their ideas and their opinions about the role of leadership in today’s society. The final assignment in the program is a project where each team is sent to a local organization in Pittsburgh to solve for a challenge presented by the organization’s leadership team. I’ll share more about my team’s project in a moment.

Sunday evening, my team and I were invited for a very special dinner at the home of Pitt Trustee, Sam Zacharias, Founder of Gateway Financial and BPL Global with 40+ years of life insurance experience. But I know Sam and his wife, Anne, like family having met Sam when I was 19 years old. I was a member of the student alumni group, The Blue & Gold Society when he served as the president of the Alumni Association. He was strong, loyal, an always present and generous mentor while I was Student Government President then throughout my entire career…from writing me letters of recommendation to attending my wedding, being one of the first notes I sent when I learned I was expecting my daughter and now he continues to serve steadfast as a mentor giving his time and opening his home to every generation of students that follow. Sam is my role model for genuine servant leadership and integrity. How could I not devote time in my own life to mentoring after having been lucky enough to be connected with someone as special as Sam who I know will always be in my corner?


The following morning, the Hesselbein Academy students were transported to their civic engagement project locations.

My team was assigned Magee Women’s Research Institute, the home for University of Pittsburgh researchers who are engaged in research that spans reproductive biology and development and diverse aspects of women’s health.. Magee is launching a global movement to increase awareness about women’s health and empower global citizens to act …… My team had only a couple hours to brainstorm but as expected from this group of overachievers, they had already begun to ideate the evening before until 2am. They took over the board room with flip charts, white board illustrations and teed up both a Prezi AND a spoken presentation that allowed for every voice and idea to be heard. At 130pm when Arthur Scully, Director, and his team entered the room, my students launched into their ideas using their social and mass media expertise presenting message and brand strategic recommendations and a cascade of design ideas that kept me at the edge of my seat!! Arthur and his team were blown away by the students’ professional and innovative thinking.

I had the honor of introducing my mentor, Frances Hesselbein, at the annual lecture where we officially “graduate” the Academy fellows. Frances (former CEO of the Girls Scouts of the USA; Presidential Medal of Freedom recipient from President Bill Clinton for her work as “a pioneer for women, diversity, volunteerism and opportunity) joined via Skype from NYC and beamed into the lecture hall at O’Hara Student Center on Pitt’s campus. Frances delivered one of her most memorable and touching speeches yet that I’ve heard since knowing her for 15+ years. Her words of encouragement included her famous story about her “defining moment” and how important one’s personal mission is to achieving their fullest potential and greatest impact in the world.

Frances motto is “To Serve is To Live.” And she speaks often of her long time dream (now fully realized) to create this academy, a program designed to bring together emerging global leaders, to inspire, develop, and reward accomplished student leaders who work to solve the challenges of tomorrow. It was beyond inspiring to witness what one woman has set out to create and the tremendous energy it has unleashed among young men and women around the world. The lives that have been changed for the better because of this academy is infinite. It is with great honor that I stay committed to Frances vision and her inspiring legacy to inspire, empower, engage and unleash the talent from young leaders all over the world.


Hey Joan, it is nice to read your reflection! I resonate a lot with the excitement, inspiration and humility when we meet with young, passionate and bold people 🙂 Hope to meet you some times in some of these conferences 😀

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