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Alumnus endows new leadership program for UConn students

by Richard Veilleux - March 19, 2007

When Douglas Bernstein was a UConn student in the 1980’s, he didn’t hesitate to take on leadership positions, joining the Student Union Board of Governors (SUBOG) as a freshman (he eventually became its president), serving on the Board of Directors of the UConn Co-op, and being named student representative to the state Board of Governors for Higher Education.

Today, he leads more than 1,000 employees worldwide as co-founder, with his wife, Melissa, of Melissa & Doug Toy Co., one of the leading makers of educational toys in the world. And he wants to see more students follow in his footsteps.

“Our business would not have been possible if not for the education I received at UConn,” Bernstein says, “especially the education I received by being a student leader.”

Hoping to help others follow in his footsteps, Bernstein and his wife last year donated $100,000 to fund the Douglas A. Bernstein Legacy Retreat and Summit, the kick-off event for a new leadership program – the Connecticut Leadership Legacy Experience.

“We hope the program will help refine the students’ leadership skills, hone them, and help them think about how to broaden their skills in the wider world,” says Joe Briody, associate director for leadership development.

“The program will bring a bit of prestige to the students who are part of it. They’re among the best of the best.”

The 13 students chosen to participate in the program’s inaugural year are among UConn’s most active students.

They include SUBOG members, peer leaders, Husky Ambassadors, FYE mentors, merit scholars, and volunteers.

And although participation doesn’t require a specific grade point average, they regularly appear on Deans’ Lists.

The program aligns each student with an alumni mentor and a faculty or staff mentor, each of whom meets with the students periodically during the year they are involved in the program.

The mentors are experienced leaders with whom the students can speak about their time at UConn, reflect on how to handle situations that may arise during the year, and discuss how they can use their leadership skills once they graduate.

The students also are required to attend six or more workshops and lectures throughout the year that focus on leadership.

Last month, they attended a workshop that featured long-time Congresswoman Barbara Kennelly and Edward Silverman, managing director and head of public policy for RBS Greenwich Capital, who discussed creating public policy.

After the lecture, the students dined with the two leaders.

Samantha Sherwood, who is majoring in human development and family studies with a concentration in public policy, thinks the lecture and other experiences so far in the Legacy program have been excellent.

“The program has exceeded all my expectations,” says Sherwood, a junior from West Haven.

“The camaraderie within the group, my mentors, Joe (Briody) – they’ve all been great. I’m getting to know people and I’ve been involved in things I never would have experienced without the program.”

Sherwood has known her staff mentor, Jennifer Lease-Butts, associate director of the Honors Program and director of the Office of Undergraduate Research, since her freshman year.

“Jennifer is the one I go to for advice, information. She gives me constant support – academic, personal, professional. And Jen (Jennifer Ryley Welsh ’90, Sherwood’s alumni mentor) has been an awesome contact. She’s put me in touch with a couple of people who will help me prepare for the next step. She’s very interested in what I’m doing.”

Briody encourages the mentors to maintain contact with the students throughout the year. “Their help and advice are key components of the program,” he says.

In addition to the Bernstein summit at the beginning of the year-long program, an outdoor leadership retreat is planned for next month.

There will also be more lectures, seminars and dinners, Briody says, and the group is brainstorming what they would like to do during the fall semester.

The program runs from January through December.

“These students are the first group,” Briody says, “so we’re relying on them to help shape the experience for the future.”

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