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The Penn Athletics Wharton Leadership Academy aims to cultivate the leadership abilities of student-athletes on campus. Credit: Zenna Haroon

In 2017, following a $1 million donation from a former Penn standout wrestler and football player David Pottruck, the University announced the creation of a new program: the Penn Athletics Wharton Leadership Academy. 

The program is designed to cultivate the leadership abilities of student-athletes through a partnership between the athletics department and the Wharton School’s Anne and John McNulty Leadership Program. The goal of the program is to provide a space where both coaches and athletes could participate in lectures, workshops, and experiential sessions in order to build a culture where student-athletes and staff members can collaborate more effectively. 

Checking back in on the program nearly six years later, it would seem as if the Academy has achieved its original purpose. 

Coming into Penn usually takes a toll on the mentalities of many recruited student-athletes, especially as plenty of the recruits are coming from environments where they are used to being the best. The freshman curriculum, required for all student-athletes, spends a large portion of its time focused on what leadership looks like, with a huge emphasis on how to be a good team player. Split into groups led by junior student-athlete facilitators, the freshmen — coming from a variety of athletic and academic backgrounds — get their first taste of how leadership principles can be applied directly to their crafts. 

Following that freshman-year curriculum, student-athletes are given the opportunity to opt out of the program heading into their sophomore year. It speaks volumes about the program’s quality and usefulness that most sophomores continue to partake in its activities. 

“I like to think of myself as a leader,” said junior lightweight rower Troy Riesenberger. “but I'm also always trying to develop that skill set to become better at what I'm doing. So that's a big aspect of the second part of the program that I really enjoy.”

A key part of the sophomore-year curriculum is the more personalized design with which student-athletes are approaching their leadership skills. Athletes take the "Dominance, Influence, Steadiness and Conscientiousness" assessment, which is a behavior assessment tool designed to help people understand their leadership styles. What makes this assessment so noteworthy for many of the student-athletes is how they can be used to make teams stronger. 

“Taking this test allowed me to evaluate how I could contribute best to my team and what some of my strengths were, and then also what some of my weaknesses are when it comes to being a good teammate,” junior volleyball outside hitter, Ella Green, said. “Having other people on my team also take this test helped us better understand each other.”

Many student-athletes — especially those poised to undertake leadership roles such as captaincies on their respective teams — return to the program in their junior and senior years. The biggest change that comes from these two years is that the students are now taking on more responsibilities and stepping into bigger leadership roles within the programs. As juniors, they become the facilitators leading freshman groups and putting the concepts they have previously learned into practice. 

“I really found that it was a great opportunity to get in the minds of younger people,” senior wrestler Lukas Richie said. “It was also a chance to look back on how much my mindset coming into college and coming into the Division I athletic world at an Ivy League institution has changed.”

One of the more unique aspects of the program is the ability for student-athletes to connect with other student-athletes who play different sports that they wouldn’t have had the chance to get to know otherwise. By having the groups set up such that there was a diverse mix of the various athletic teams represented, the Penn Athletics Wharton Leadership Academy has done a lot to create a more cohesive sporting environment at Penn. 

Despite the very promising start, there is still plenty of room for improvement for the relatively young program. Getting the freshman to be more involved and interested in the curriculum has been a struggle in the past, which leads to some athletes choosing to not continue with the program. Furthermore, there seems to be some discrepancies that exist concerning how active some of the sports teams are. Moving forward, this will be a point worth tackling in order to ensure that the Academy can maximize its potential to cultivate leaders for the sports teams here at Penn. 

“I think this is so promising to see how engaged and how much people are enjoying it now, especially when it's still in its premature stages,” junior women’s lacrosse midfielder Anna Brandt said. “So I'm so excited to see where it's going to go. It has so much potential, so I know there's just so much promise for the future.”