The lights dim and a hushed excitement falls over the room.All eyes are drawn to the stage where in a few moments a prominent global figure who has shaped modern history will enter. Promising young scholars fill the stage eagerly waiting to greet this notable guest.
For nearly a decade, presidents, prime ministers, ambassadors, royals, and more have graced this stage to share inspiring stories and encourage leadership in all who attend. “Getting a person like George Bush or Mikhail Gorbachev to come to our campus and being 100 feet away and listening to them speak, it’s kind of humbling to hear their stories and where they came from,” said Adam Westhauser, a former Judson student.
This rare opportunity for influential world leaders to visit suburban Chicago is the World Leaders Forum (WLF), an annual event hosted by Elgin-based Judson University to inspire its students and the community to think like leaders and global citizens. “People wonder ‘How can this little university bring leaders from all over the world to our community?’ But we do,” said Fran Houlihan, a member of the World Leaders Forum board of directors.
With more than 1,200 students, Judson University is a private Christian liberal arts college in Elgin gaining a national profile for its ability to draw well-recognized global leaders to campus and our community for thoughtful and timely dialogue. Launched in 2011 with former President George W. Bush, previous World Leaders Forum keynote speakers include Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Russian President Mikhail Gorbachev, United Kingdom Prime Minister Tony Blair, Mexican President Felipe Calderón and former U.S. ambassador Caroline Kennedy, the only surviving child of President John F. Kennedy and First Lady Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy.
“The World Leaders Forum takes our small Judson community and immerses us more deeply in the global community. I think that it’s really important for us to broaden our horizons a bit,” said Lindsey Mellema, Judson Leadership Scholar ‘19.
The ninth annual World Leaders Forum, coming April 2021 to Schaumburg, features retired General David H. Petraeus, who served both President George W. Bush and President Barack Obama. Here’s a look at how Judson University draws some of the most influential world leaders to our backyard.
From communist Nobel Peace Prize winners to female Middle East peace advocates, the World Leaders Forum has surprised attendees each year by showcasing a wide array of perspectives. While some schools have faced backlash for inviting controversial speakers, the World Leaders Forum is committed to creating an open dialogue.
Less than 18 months after the 2016 election, the World Leaders Forum hosted a discussion between political rivals Newt Gingrich, former Republican Speaker of the House, and Howard Dean, the former Democratic Governor of Vermont and Chair of the Democratic National Committee. The two politicians of differing ideologies shared a belief that the nation’s future relied on protecting open and unfettered political dialogue. The City of Elgin hosted royalty for the first time in 2016 when Her Majesty Queen Noor of Jordan was the keynote speaker. At this upcoming event, military leadership will take center stage for the first time with General Petraeus as the featured speaker.
“With President George W. Bush as our inaugural speaker, we might have signaled that the World Leaders Forum was going to be focused on that ideology,” said Dr. Gene Crume, Judson University president. “But every year we are intentional about inviting people who have something new to share. We specifically look for leaders who have stepped out of public life and away from partisanship.”
Selecting leaders who are no longer involved in partisan politics creates candid and memorable conversations. “With these two speakers, it was great to hear them outside of the D.C. context speaking here about how these issues affect us locally in Elgin,” said James Fleshman, Judson Leadership Scholar ‘19, of the 2018 event featuring Gingrich and Dean. “We’re all able to be empowered to make a change. We should all be involved in politics whether it’s in very small ways or on a national scale.”
Discussions are often moderated by community leaders and local media personalities. Chicago’s own Lisa Chavarria, a reporter for WMAQ-TV (NBC Chicago), has twice emceed World Leaders Forum events. Distinguished Judson alumnus Mark Vargas ‘04, who hosted entrepreneur, investor, and “Shark Tank” star Mark Cuban on campus for a discussion about entrepreneurship, will moderate the 2021 World Leaders Forum. Vargas met General Petraeus while serving as a civilian on a Department of Defense task force to stabilize Iraq through economic development, and they remain in close contact today.
“Since graduating from Judson, I’ve really expanded my network. Through my work as a consultant and political advisor, I’ve been able to meet a number of powerful and influential people. I want to bring them back to where it all started for me—Judson University,” said Vargas, who is also a member of the World Leaders Forum board of directors. “This year with such a distinguished military leader, I really want to understand how General Petraeus decided to serve his country and where that drive comes from.”
Though open to the community at large, the World Leaders Forum has had a tremendous impact on Judson students for nearly a decade. To date, more than 1,000 Judson students have attended a World Leaders Forum event.
Originally, the event was created to fund the Entrepreneurial Studies program at Judson. Thanks to proceeds from the World Leaders Forum, Judson began offering an entrepreneurship certification program in 2016. Open to students from all majors, this program is designed to help students gain the professional skills needed to create new ventures and put ideas into action. The certificate covers topics like business management, personal finance and accounting, and consumer behavior while offering hands-on opportunities to explore new business ideas.
“What we’ve seen from our alumni and the business community here in Elgin and the Fox Valley is that the ability to turn ideas into successful business ventures is a critical skill,” said Dr. Crume. “Offering hands-on experience to our entrepreneurial students while also connecting them to global and local leaders is a winning combination.”
The university is also researching development of a distinctive entrepreneurial competency within the higher education sector that does not duplicate its existing programs. As its popularity has grown, the World Leaders Forum became the school’s signature fundraising event generating income to sustain entrepreneurship programs at the school and establish the Judson Leadership Scholars program.
Beginning in the 2014-15 academic year, the scholarship program provides the most prestigious scholarship that a Judson University student can receive, with only five recipients selected per year. To be eligible, a student must show attributes of entrepreneurship, creativity, leadership, innovation, mission, and faith. Along with the financial aid package, Judson Leadership Scholars have access to unique opportunities for the purpose of cultivating their aptitude for leadership. They receive a sponsored ticket to the annual World Leaders Forum and are the guests of honor at the Scholars Dinner in downtown Chicago, an exclusive dinner with Judson’s president, distinguished alumni, and a renowned business leader. Since establishing the program, 28 outstanding Judson students have become Leadership Scholars.
“I think the World Leaders Forum is an amazing opportunity not only for scholars like myself to network with the organizations and companies and the people who run them, but for them to also get a taste of what the next generation is going to do,” said Ce’Nedra Fogg, Judson Leadership Scholar ‘22.
In recent years, the event has also raised funds to support educational opportunities for youth in foster care. The school is currently partnering with Foster Progress, a Chicago-based nonprofit which helps Illinois youth currently or formerly in foster care to attain a college degree and transition into adulthood successfully by providing mentorship, advocacy, and educational opportunity.
Originally held on the university’s campus, the World Leaders Forum has now relocated to a larger venue in Schaumburg to provide greater opportunity for the community at large to participate. It’s also created a new audience for the event.
“We’ve really been welcomed by the Schaumburg business community and we’re encouraged by the community leaders who see the value of the conversations we’re having each year at the World Leaders Forum,” said Julie Schmidt, World Leaders Forum director.
Many businesses in the Fox Valley area are longstanding sponsors of the World Leaders Forum. Their support gives more Judson students the opportunity to attend and in exchange, sponsors have exclusive opportunities with World Leaders Forum speakers. A VIP reception typically precedes the World Leaders Forum event where sponsors, VIP attendees, and Judson Leadership Scholars engage with the guests, meet and take a photo with the keynote speaker.
“The bottom line is to give the students an experience to take with them,” said Merrie Meadows, a World Leaders Forum board member. Her family’s company W.R. Meadows headquartered in Hampshire, has sponsored the event since the beginning. “If they attend Judson for four years, they get to see four different speakers and that broadens their worldview and what they will carry with them long after they’ve graduated.”
As the World Leaders Forum approaches its 10th anniversary, Judson University remains focused on the event’s foremost mission of inspiring the next generation of leaders.
Tom Roeser, president and owner of OTTO Engineering, has been a longtime supporter of the program and Judson’s scholars. “I support the World Leaders Forum effort for two reasons: The stature of the speakers that have come to our community shines a bright light on our community,” said Roeser. “The second reason is the students. This investment also supports the development of our future leaders providing a moral compass, exposure to different ideas and perspectives, and hopefully the understanding that America is the ‘Exceptional Country’ of the world.”
The ninth World Leaders Forum returns April 7, 2021 to the Renaissance Schaumburg Convention Center with General David H. Petraeus. For tickets and more information visit, worldleadersforum.info.
Cali Owings is the lead writer at Goff Public and is a communications consultant for Judson University.
If someone asked me, “What did you learn by being a part of the Judson Leadership Scholar program?” I would have a lot to say. For one, I am always impressed by the individual talents of my peers who are in the JLS program. We are student leaders not because we want the best seat at a given table, but because we each have a tendency to serve in different ways. In our group there are fantastic organizers, compelling speakers, gifted thinkers, talented writers, and more. Some are quiet, some are exuberant, but all are in the same room for one purpose—to learn how to lead well.
Through our monthly meetings, tours with business leaders, and events like the Inspirational Series, World Leaders Forum, and Constitution Day, we have all been challenged in our own way. Looking back, I think I have grown in my ability to walk up to someone and just say, “Hello!” I have found that the simple ability to have a conversation with a stranger, to establish a sort of common ground, is a wonderful skill. It seems that our generation is uniquely challenged by real social interaction, which unsurprisingly, is still a foundational way that relationships are built. My time as a Judson Leadership Scholar has given me a good foundation for these interactions.
As a Judson Leadership Scholar I learned about the power of positive leadership. Positive leadership is about leveraging both your own strengths, and the strengths of those around you. I realized that a negative work environment is bound to kill motivation, creativity, and risk-taking. I am excited to take this awareness with me as I look forward to starting a business. I am grateful for the financial support and opportunities that I had through the JLS program.
-Max Starcevich, Judson Leadership Scholar ’20
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