Four years ago this fall, Martha Spangler and Ben Kaipust began their journey to becoming the University of Nebraska at Omaha’s student body president and vice president- they just didn’t know it yet.
In November of 2010, the two talked amongst each other and 13 other freshman students, waiting eagerly to get headshots taken of them. One-by-one the students lined up and flashed their pearly whites for the camera, each individual taking a photo as members of a then new group titled Freshman Leadership Council. Seemingly quicker than a flash on a Kodak, Kaipust and Spangler connected within the group and stood out as its leaders, a dynamic duo that would eventually take student senate by storm and rise to the top of its echelons. That first meeting of FLC not only proved to be a chance for the two to meet and thus become the catalyst for Spangler and Kaipust’s assent, but the beginning of an organization that would produce student leader after student leader, spitting them out as freely as a Polaroid spews film.
“FLC really did have an impact on me,” Spangler said. “Informally, it gave me a lot of mentors who I could observe and learn a lot from about Student Government. It really was my foot in the door that led to more and more open doors, and I definitely don’t think I’d be [student body president] without FLC.”
Serving as an introduction to the university’s Student Government, FLC consists of a group of freshman level students who meet every Thursday to learn how UNO operates and to give them the chance to network with other driven peers. Led each year by the vice president, FLC also gives participants the chance to be elected to serve as freshman senators and craft policy to impact the community, furthering honing their leadership skills.
Amid years of freshman senators struggling to deal with complex campus issues after coming straight from high school and into the often debate-ridden student senate floor, the idea of FLC was born. Instead of throwing freshman straight into the policy-making ring, causing many of these young leaders to drop out of senate prematurely, FLC was formed to act as a minor league student government that supported participants and teach them leadership skill. The ultimate goal of the organization was to prepare its members for future leadership positions on campus.
“It’s a chance for students to really invest in their college education,” said Kaipust, current leader of FLC. “When you really work towards a goal together as a group in FLC, it gives everyone involved something to be proud of and makes you driven to accomplish more.”
While the founding class of FLC’s biggest accomplishment was creating a monstrous 9-by-4-foot greeting card, which was signed by current students and given to the next class of freshman to welcome them on campus, their ambition seemed to have no measured limits. As this class prepares to graduate this spring, its members are leaving quite the legacy behind. From the original group of 15, they have went on to become Greek life presidents, student body president and vice president, editor of the campus newspaper, chief justice of Student Court and hold a myriad of senator positions.
“While you can’t attribute FLC as the cause to these students becoming leaders because they find these positions in and of themselves, it is the one commonality between them all, and that’s impressive,” said Ben Jager, Student Government’s advisor.
Fast forward from fall of 2010 to today, and the program is still impacting campus. Under Kaipust’s leadership, the current 26 members almost double the size of the original group. They have been divided into five separate committees, each working on a different piece of legislation to pass through senate.
“It’s definitely really weird to have once been a member of this group and now be its leader,” Kaipust said. “I’m the first FLCer to now be leading it, so I know firsthand what works and what doesn’t work for the group.”
With this knowledge in place, Kaipust divided the program into three separate sections. First FLC members learned how the university and student government operates through a series of guest lecturers. Now they are working on their legislation, and next will be learning different styles of leadership.
“I think [Kaipust] has done a good job balancing the program,” said Will Bakke, a physics student and current member of FLC. “He has done a great job of letting us interact and have fun, but also showed us the right avenues to get involved and make change happen.”
Instead of just one gigantic greeting card, the current class of FLC is exploring many different avenues to impact campus with their five separate committees. Their current projects include: bringing puppies to campus on finals week to distress students and benefit the Humane Society, hosting an outdoor movie showing where students bring one canned food item to attend, putting together spring break packages with sunglasses and hacky sacks, working towards making UNO a smoke-free campus and throwing a tailgate at Dudley’s Pizza to support UNO athletics.
Kaipust said the key to the program’s success is to give the students direction but to let them choose their own leaders and own issues to pursue.
“He has the perfect energy to motivate and work with freshman,” Spangler said.
Originally, as freshmen, she had her eyes on Kaipust’s position and he wanted to be president, but the two decided to trade spots before running for election once she worked more heavily with UNO’s administrative hierarchy.
“I think we definitely made the right decision on pursuing the positions we are in. His personality and strengths have really complimented the program and helped it evolve.”
While the program has changed significantly over time, its mission to get students involved as leaders on campus and to teach them how to do so hasn’t changed.
“The aspect of FLC that I’ve most enjoyed is learning and gaining these new skills to become a better student here at UNO,” said Yajaira Gonzalez, an international studies major and current FLC member. “Learning about the infrastructure of UNO has also been fascinating to me.”
Standing before senate on Feb. 20, three FLC members just passed their first piece of legislation. They asked for $1,000 for free t-shirts and free food to be provided to the first 150 students at Dudley’s Pizza in Aksarben on Friday to tailgate for the UNO hockey game. Like the rest of their FLC class, and Spangler and Kaipust before them, they stand before senate full of potential and unaware of the impact they may have on campus.
“Not only have I met so many people and enacted a number of projects during my time here in student government, but I think I’ve improved campus,” Kaipust said. “It all started with FLC, and it’s awesome to make an impact and know while I was here I did something worthwhile.”