The Power of Becoming Visible

David Hoffman is UMBC’s Assistant Director of Student Life for Civic Agency.

David Hoffman[Cross-posted on Co-Create UMBC]

We had started the week as strangers, but the twelve of us had bonded by sharing experiences and stories at UMBC’s winter 2015 STRiVE student leadership retreat. Over the preceding few days we had dropped most of our pretenses, and together created a space in which we could comfortably be both honest and uncertain. As we sat in a circle facing each other on the retreat’s final night, two coaches and ten STRiVE participants giving each other constructive feedback, positive energy filled the room. Andrew, marveling, pointed out that we didn’t even know each other’s last names (we immediately shared them). Yet somehow each of us had become visible to the others in ways that revealed both our enormous potential and our necessity to the group.

That moment of power and possibility has important implications for all of us concerned with preparing undergraduates to be capable participants in democracy and agents of positive change in their communities. Conversations about civic learning and democratic engagement in higher education often focus on building knowledge and skills. Both STRiVE and the class I teach with Craig Berger on Civic Agency and Social Entrepreneurship (AMST 205/POLI 205/SOCY 205, fall semesters) highlight analytical frameworks, tools, and tactics for working in groups, communicating across difference, developing strategic plans, and managing projects. Yet without the sense of presence, connectedness, self-worth, and indispensability that STRiVE also inspires, all that information and all those tools would have limited value, like so much firewood without a spark.

All of us in that room, and others in similar groups in other rooms at the retreat site, had contended with feelings of powerlessness and isolation in other settings. My own anxieties about my worth and potential contributions began in childhood, and no amount of jumping through hoops on the straight and narrow path to conventional success ever allayed them. My life changed when I finally allowed myself to choose a career in which I could express and be my authentic self: curious, vulnerable, and incomplete; in which my ongoing growth could serve and fuel others’ growth. I became newly and truly visible to myself and others, and alive to the ways people can pool our passions and talents to shape our world together.

Sitting with my new friends in our circle last week, I could see very clearly how our individual struggles and stories had put us in a position to help each other. Each of us mattered, in part because each of us knew what it was like to doubt the value of our presence and the possibility that we could make a difference. The genius of STRiVE is that it engages coaches and participants in opening spaces in which all of us, students and non-students, can become visible to each other and discover our collective power. If higher education is to teach and inspire a new generation of students to renew our democracy and tackle the great problems of our age, our colleges and universities also must be spaces for liberation.

STRiVE Winter 2015



Contact the author, David Hoffman, at

Civic Agency in Practice: American Democracy Project Takeaways

David Hoffman is UMBC’s assistant director of student life for civic agency.

David HoffmanThe American Democracy Project’s annual meeting took place earlier this month in Louisville, Kentucky, with UMBC sending 18 participants: the largest of all the campus delegations. Our team of students, faculty and staff members led two presentations and hosted a roundtable discussion about practicing democracy on campus, shining a spotlight on The Garden (winner of this year’s SGA Prove It! competition) and the STRiVE student leadership retreat. We also had a dinnertime conversation with Harry Boyte, director of the Center for Democracy and Citizenship, who found inspiration in the confidence and mature public presence of UMBC’s student leaders.

As in the past, we found that we had much to gain from spending time with the people in higher education doing some of the most creative and important thinking about how our institutions can strengthen democracy. And as in the past, we found we had something distinctive to contribute: insights from the ongoing experience of co-creating a university in which the democratic spirit infuses our teaching, research, student organizations and daily interactions.

Beverly Bickel, a member of the UMBC delegation, shared some of her reflections here. Below are thoughts from other members of the UMBC delegation about what we did and what we learned in Louisville.


Transforming the Here and Now

David Hoffman is UMBC’s assistant director of student life for civic agency.

[Cross-posted on Co-Create UMBC].

David Hoffman

STRiVE 2013, UMBC’s fifth annual homegrown student leadership retreat, sponsored by the Office of Student Life and Student Government Association, took place last week at the Skycroft Conference Center. I served as one of 12 coaches (6 staff members, 6 students). Each STRiVE is different (I’ve participated in all five), but they are always life-altering. [My reflections on previous STRiVE retreats: 2012201120102009].

B-1The phrase “leadership retreat” really doesn’t do STRiVE justice. It obscures the poetry and magic of the lived experience. What happened in the hills west of Frederick last week was mostly spontaneous, profoundly real and deeply poignant. 62 UMBC students and staff members, most of us strangers to each other when the week began, helped each other to discover that despite our fears and vulnerabilities, and partly because of them, we are strong, wise and perfectly capable of transforming our lives and world together. We know this now without a doubt, because by week’s end the transformations already had begun.

C-14STRiVE’s intellectual foundations include the “social change model” of leadership developed by higher education scholars, student development theory, social cognitive theory, and Harry Boyte’s pioneering ideas about preparing people for active roles in democracy. Based on our synthesis of these ideas, one of the core principles of STRiVE’s design is that we coaches empower the participants as co-creators of all their experiences, including the retreat itself while it is happening. To do otherwise would risk stunting their growth by equipping them to thrive only in leadership simulations, when authority figures are available to give instructions and assign roles. [Read more…]

Leadership Education, Co-Created

Virginia Byrne is Coordinator for Leadership Development and Education in UMBC’s Office of Student Life

This summer I moved to Maryland to join the Office of Student Life staff, and I couldn’t be happier. In my role, I facilitate the creation of experiential and reflective leadership learning opportunities for UMBC students. Partnering with students to create these programs is essential. While I could prepare leadership development activities on my own, students are the best sources of expertise about their own experiences. And learning from experience–making leadership real by locating it in students’ lives on campus and beyond–is crucial if students are going to solve real problems and contribute their communities in ways that make a difference.

LeadingOrgs, November 2012

One of the programs I co-create with students just happened: LeadingOrgs is a weekend retreat for 30 student organization officers that took place this past weekend. You can see more of our fun photos here.

What may be UMBC’s best-known and most popular leadership program created collaboratively by students and staff is STRiVE, for which the application deadline is less than two days away (Thursday, 11/5 at 5:00 p.m.; apply here). Held each January during winter break, STRiVE is a five day, intensive and engaging off-campus leadership retreat for about 50 students. Participants experience thought-provoking hands-on learning activities, facilitated by a team of student and staff coaches. The coaching team spends the four months prior to STRiVE reflecting on previous retreats and tweaking the curriculum to provide a unique experience each year. I think the best way for students to understand why they should apply to STRiVE is to hear it from the coaches themselves:

Contact the author, Virginia Byrne, at