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Students learning firsthand how to become leaders

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Bill McElroy, an adjunct engineering lecturer at the University of Florida, looks for people who can define leadership for his students and tell them why it’s important.

A great opportunity came to him this fall, when Preston Haskell, the founder of one of the nation’s largest design-build construction companies, met with them.

“You don’t just walk up and get a chance to meet someone like Preston Haskell day to day, but in these classes they were able to do that,” he said.

McElroy was able to host Haskell thanks to UF’s Knight Fellowship in-Residence program, which started this year. The program allows UF’s Bob Graham Center for Public Service to bring public- and private-sector leaders to campus over two academic years. Haskell was the program’s first.

A large part of his schedule involved interacting with students in a classroom setting. Haskell spent time in both of McElroy’s classes: engineering leadership, and engineering ethics and communications. McElroy said he found the discussion of ethics very helpful.

“You just can’t solve it by an equation. You have to vet out the issue and understand the scenario,” he said. “Having him in class and having his perspectives was hugely valuable.”

The fellowship is funded as part of a three-year, $3 million grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. Former Florida Gov. Bob Graham, who founded the Graham Center, said he hopes the fellowship will build relationships between the center and UF’s other colleges.

“Public policy impacts all facets of life,” Graham said. “It’s not limited to those in the fields of arts and sciences. The fellowship intends to broaden the reach of civic responsibility on our campus.”

David Colburn, interim director of the Graham Center, said Haskell has been a terrific first Fellow. Colburn said the vision for the fellowship program was to expose students to professionals who have been successful in the business world and contributed to their communities.

“What we’re trying to convey to young people is that if you want a rich and full life, it’ll take more than just being professionally successful,” he said. “It’ll take giving back in tangible ways that’ll improve the lives of others. Our Fellows are people who have done that.”

Haskell founded Haskell Co., an integrated design, engineering and construction firm headquartered in Jacksonville, in 1965. The company employs more than 700 people and has $600 million in revenues.

Haskell said he had two goals while at UF: to bring real-life experience to students and faculty, and to discuss the interrelationship of engineering, architecture and construction.

He said he learned a lot about the University of Florida in his time on campus visiting different colleges. Haskell had a full schedule meeting students and faculty in the Innovation Academy and the College of Design, Construction and Planning as well as the College of Engineering.

“I hope the students and faculty with whom I’ve interacted have also gotten some meaningful takeaways,” he said. “I do feel, based upon comments from students and faculty, that they have enjoyed working with me. And I gained a great deal of knowledge from student, faculty, and administrative leaders throughout this vibrant campus and great university.”

Writer: Ayana Stewart