A Q&A with Michael Thurwanger

Ronald W. Reagan Leadership Program at Eureka College

Michael Thurwanger of Peoria, a former commander and public relations specialist with the U.S. Navy, was named director of the Ronald W. Reagan Leadership Program at Eureka College in July. He retired from the Navy in 1996 after 20 years of service and taught communication at Bradley University for the past nine years. For more than 25 years, the Reagan Leadership Program has awarded full-tuition, four-year scholarships to six incoming freshmen each year. Based on leadership, service and academic excellence, the award includes two mentorships within the United States and abroad.

What is the history behind the Ronald W. Reagan Leadership Program at Eureka College? How did it get its start?
The roots of the program began with a visit by former Eureka College President Daniel Gilbert to the White House in the summer of 1981. He met with President Reagan and proposed establishing a “significant leadership scholars program at Eureka College to be named and established in Reagan’s honor.” The program was initiated by friends of President Reagan to “provide leadership scholarships to outstanding young leaders…who attend Eureka College.” The program was officially established in the spring of 1982, and one year later, the first class of Reagan Scholars visited Washington, D.C. and the White House, accompanied by members of the Eureka College administration. One month later, this group moved onto Eureka’s campus as new freshmen.

In 1984, 36 Reagan Scholars visited the White House and participated in a reception fundraiser for the program. In the spring of 1986, Kenneth Barnes of Williamsville became the first Reagan Scholar to graduate from Eureka College. He had already completed his freshman year when he was selected to join the first class of 20 incoming scholars as a sophomore. The following spring, the first full class of Reagan Scholars graduated.

In the spring of 2007, the program celebrated a quarter century of success in preparing talented and motivated students to assume positions of leadership in their chosen professions. We pride ourselves in this unique program which can trace its beginnings to an endorsement by the president while in office. Students in the program have had the opportunity to meet with the president and with members of the Reagan family throughout the history of the program, accentuating the close, personal interest President Reagan took in his college home at Eureka, in addition to the leadership program named in his honor.

How does the program differ from the traditional curriculum at Eureka College? What makes it unique?
The program embodies the values and traditions of Eureka College— learning, service and leadership. These are the same values that Reagan credited with helping him to get his start and discover his public voice while a student at the college. In that sense, we strive to share those values and traditions with all of our students.

In addition to the scholarship that provides full tuition for four years, these students receive funding to support two mentorship experiences that target opportunities to work closely with national and international leaders in the students’ fields of interest. Typically, we first try to encourage an experience at the national level and then help our students look for an international opportunity.

The critical difference in the program is that we provide the Reagan Fellows with additional opportunities, challenges and resources to further develop the leadership potential they’ve been able to demonstrate in the selection process.

During the spring break of their freshman year, the whole group of new fellows has its first opportunity to travel. The trip serves several functions—it helps prepare students for later travel connected to their mentorship experiences, expands their educational opportunities and helps to cement the sense of camaraderie felt among the fellows that continues well beyond graduation. Current fellows benefit from that bond as they are often able to reach out to a network of former Reagan Fellows, as well as other Eureka alumni to open doors to meaningful mentorship experiences.

Throughout their time as members of the Eureka College community, fellows are required to participate in individual and group service projects. We constantly look for opportunities to introduce them to guest lecturers and featured speakers who regularly visit campus, as well as off-campus opportunities in the region. They also attend various workshops and retreats throughout their four years.

An additional aspect of the program that is less formal and often overlooked is that these students have high visibility in the campus community, and high expectations are placed upon them. They are expected to maintain their grades and take a very active role in student life, as well as the broader life of the college and surrounding community. They quickly learn that with leadership comes accountability. And to meet those expectations, each must learn to manage his or her time, prioritize activities and consider the consequences of his or her actions as representatives of the program and the school.

How do you select individuals for the program? What are the qualities you look for most in a candidate?
Reagan Fellows are selected in a competition held on campus in February. Interested high school students may take the initiative to compete for this program by visiting the Eureka College website, they may be recommended by teachers and counselors, or they may receive information packages from our admissions office based on our becoming aware of their qualifications and potential.

After an initial screening process, qualified students are invited to visit campus during Reagan Weekend, when they complete interviews and participate in various group leadership exercises. Throughout the two-day visit, high school seniors also interact with a very large cross-section of students, faculty and staff. This is truly an all-hands effort, and the entire college supports the selection process.

Once feedback is collected from participants in the selection process, a second screening narrows the list, and follow-up phone interviews are conducted to finalize the selections for entry the following fall.

The selection process focuses on evidence of the students’ past performance and future potential to succeed in three areas—learning, service and leadership. It’s not enough to be a straight-A student; we’re looking for the well-rounded individual who has already shown the ability to succeed in all areas. On top of that, we look for young people who are team players, work well with others and bring a sense of moral and ethical integrity.

Describe some of the special travel and mentoring opportunities available to Reagan Fellows.
Each fellowship is funded for two mentorship experiences during the four years on campus and, typically, these include an opportunity anywhere in the U.S. and a mentorship in a more international setting. We currently have a student in Washington, D.C., completing a prestigious internship with Amnesty International. Another student is in Australia working with a team researching anxiety disorders in children. These are just two current examples of the extraordinary opportunities made available to students.

In addition, our newest fellows take a group trip during spring break of their freshman year. In the past, these have focused on educational trips to Washington, D.C., Philadelphia and New York. More recently, the trips have been international, to such cities as London, Paris, Athens and Rome. On occasion, additional trips to Washington or California have been undertaken, often in connection with the ongoing relationship between the program and its namesake.

Fellows are encouraged to take their own initiative in identifying and pursuing mentorship opportunities while the program works to help identify contacts and potential mentors and open the doors to facilitate these opportunities. Mentorships are chosen based on the interests and aspirations of each student, with an emphasis on the potential for creating a true mentoring experience. To enhance these efforts, we’re initiating efforts to identify local mentors who can advise and assist our fellows earlier in their college experience to better position them to take advantage of more formal mentorship opportunities as juniors and seniors. We’re also working hard to develop a network of past Reagan Leadership Program alumni, as well as other alumni and friends of the college who can benefit the fellows. I see these efforts as having the potential to provide similar contacts and opening doors to new opportunities to all Eureka students who want to take advantage of the benefits offered by such a network.

How does this program develop leadership skills above and beyond the traditional college path?
The program is unique in that it builds upon the legacy of Eureka College’s most famous alumnus. Ronald Reagan began his college career coming from a central Illinois family with limited means. Here, he found his voice and began to explore his potential, allowing him to pursue a variety of paths leading to his presidency. Our fellows follow that tradition to discover their voices, develop their potential and explore paths. The resources, preparations and experiences we make available through the program can literally open a world of possibilities and provide fellows critical access to global leaders who provide advice and insight unavailable elsewhere.

Is there anything else you would like to add?
Eureka College is in the process of identifying potential candidates for the incoming class of fellows to be selected in February 2009, enter Eureka College in the fall of next year and graduate with the class of 2013. Qualified students who are interested in learning more about the program can visit the Eureka College website at www.eureka.edu for additional information and to begin the application process. iBi


IMike is my nephew and I am very proud of him. This program is very interesting. I'm sure Mike will do his best to make it a big program for high school seniors to think about.

A good,broad, comprehensive discussion of the Reagan Leadership Program. Our congratulations, Mike on being selected the new director of the program. You have always been a leader yourself, we know you will do the program, the Fellows, and Eureka College a great job. We are a proud mom and dad!

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