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Learning to lead

Bonded by friendship, pair seek to build student ties

Graduating student body leaders Arthur Emma (Boston University) and Jesse Adams (Gordon College) helped create a council of their peers. Graduating student body leaders Arthur Emma (Boston University) and Jesse Adams (Gordon College) helped create a council of their peers. (Christian Brink)
By Christian Brink
Globe Correspondent / May 22, 2011

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WENHAM — While attending fifth grade in Lake Geneva, Wis., Jesse Adams and Arthur Emma were called to the principal’s office for selling fireworks in the school cafeteria. Years later when they left home to attend college in the Boston area, Adams at Gordon College and Emma at Boston University, the two decided to invest in something with a bigger bang: leadership.

Adams, 22, a business major, and Emma, 22, a business and philosophy major, spent the last year as student body presidents and are both graduating this weekend (Adams yesterday and Emma today). The childhood friends balanced demanding senior schedules, a social life beyond Facebook, and future careers to help lead their peers and other college leaders.

“There’s nobody who can really represent the voice of the students as well as student body-elected leaders,’’ said Emma.

Adams and Emma built relationships among other local universities as founders of the Boston Council of Undergraduate Student Presidents. Members have gathered throughout the school year to discuss how best to improve their respective institutions. In addition to Gordon and BU, Berklee, Brandeis, Emerson, Endicott, Harvard, Tufts, and Wellesley have representatives on the council.

Despite differences between Gordon and BU — Gordon is a Christian liberal arts college on the North Shore with 1,600 students, BU an urban university with 16,000 undergraduates — Adams and Emma helped each other’s election campaigns. After that, they wanted to apply their successful collaboration on a larger scale by inviting other student body presidents to join their fledgling group.

“It became clear we were all facing similar challenges with relationships and strategies, but with similar opportunities as well,’’ Adams said.

Both have come a long way since first entering college, when neither planned to run for office. Adams wanted a break from student government after his involvement in high school, and Emma was focused on 4:45 a.m. mornings as part of BU’s Division 1 rowing team.

But in the fall of 2009, while Adams was studying abroad at the University of Edinburgh, they began discussing the possibility of leadership at their respective schools and brainstormed creative campaign strategies for the spring 2010 elections.

Both were elected. Adams saw an opportunity to expand alumni networking in career services at Gordon, and spent much of his senior year implementing that plan.

“Jesse has great characteristics as a leader within his peer group, as well as influencing those within a variety of generations,’’ said Adrianne Cook, director of Gordon’s Alumni and Parent Relations. Adams attended alumni board meetings and organized new alumni-student networking events.

For Emma, his campaign was motivated by his love for BU and the learning opportunity the presidency offered.

“People don’t understand how much of a microcosm student government is to the real world,’’ he said. “Every political issue you deal with on a national level you deal with at schools.’’

John Battaglino, executive director of student activities and operations at BU, said of Emma, “Just by nature of our size, you’ve got to take on a bigger personality. He’s been able to rise to that challenge. He has a keen ability to make your issues, his issues.’’

David Lumsdaine of Gordon’s political science department recognized similar traits in Adams. “Jesse has said to me more than once that it doesn’t bother him when people have different political views than his,’’ he said. “What bothers him are people who are apathetic.’’

What’s next for the two friends? Adams will head to Washington, D.C., in hopes of working with a nonprofit organization that focuses on connecting and developing the next generation of young professionals. Emma will work in the Boston area for Teach For America, an organization that works to eliminate education inequalities in urban schools.

“Being a leader is the complete opposite of what I went into student government thinking,’’ said Emma. “A lot of the time being a leader is being in the background and allowing others to be leaders as well.’’

Adams agreed. “My dad always said you return something to someone better than you found it,’’ he said. “In short, that’s what we hope we accomplished this year.’’