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Learning to lead

For her, it’s all about knowing how things, and people, work

By Alyssa M. Baxter
Globe Correspondent / May 22, 2011

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SALEM — As students arrived on campus at Salem State University one day last October, Jessica Cousins, 23, set up a different kind of lesson for her peers: a simulator in the Commons Dining Hall on the distractions of texting and driving.

The hands-on presentation planned by Cousins, president of the Student Commuter Association and Salem State’s student government vice president, allowed students to get a concrete sense of the dangers posed by on-road texting.

“It went over really well,’’ Cousins said. “So many students saw just how dangerous texting and driving can be. Some were shocked to learn of the devastating effects.’’

Cousins has held several other leadership posts at the university. She served as a senator in the student government both junior and semior years, and also as vice president of a group that sends care packages to US military personnel overseas and visits veterans’ hospitals. She also has chaired the student government’s rules and judicial affairs committee, which regulates the constitutions of the campus groups and clubs.

“Leadership is being able to delegate to others, work with others, and have compassion and understanding for what you’re working on,’’ said Cousins, who was drawn to Salem State because of its location and its history faculty.

Cousins, who graduated yesterday with a degree in public history and a geography minor, commuted to Salem State from Beverly for five years. It wasn’t until 2009, when she assisted in the planning and fund-raising for a trip to Williamsburg, Va., for the school’s historical association, that she realized she could be a leader at her school. She became the vice president of that group, then became a student senator as a junior.

“Jessica is very dedicated and sincere in her efforts to improve the quality of life for students,’’ said Bruce Perry, the university’s campus center director for the last 18 years and faculty adviser to the student government.

Cousins has worked to improve the campus shuttle system; helped research, dispute, and prevent hikes in student fees; planned Halloween events at which local children could face-paint, play games, and enjoy other seasonal activities; and helped organize the annual October parade in downtown Salem.

“She worked very hard, devoting many hours to student issues,’’ said Perry.

“She planned a recognition dinner to thank student officers, helped survey students about issues on campus, and assisted in addressing student concerns to the appropriate individual/office.’’

Between juggling school, family, and social life, Cousins attended weekly meetings and office hours for the student government, and made herself available as a resource to some of the 50 or so groups and clubs on campus.

“By going out of her way, Jessica fills in the traits of being a good leader,’’ said Josue Flores, president of the university’s music society before graduating this year. “She’s respectful, selfless, has integrity, and puts other groups and [the student government] as one of her top priorities.’’

Cousins, who has worked since August at Brightview Danvers, a senior living community, said that the people skills she developed on campus helped her get the position there.

After graduation, she hopes to pursue a career as a museum curator.

“My leadership experiences have made me a more outgoing person,’’ she said. “They helped me have a better understanding of how people work, and have given me more compassion for different things.’’