Doerr Institute serves diverse group of Rice students, expands programming

As Rice students return to campus this week, they will have a leg up on their peers at other higher education institutions across the United States: an opportunity to participate in a state-of-the-art leadership coaching program. The university’s Doerr Institute for New Leaders is the country’s first professional leadership development program offered at no cost to all undergraduate and graduate students and is the only leadership institute that provides individualized guidance from credentialed coaches for college students.

Photo of Ruimin "Rachel" Wang

Ruimin “Rachel” Wang, a student in the Master of Global Affairs program, found the Doerr Institute’s emotional intelligence assessment exercise to be a valuable tool. Photos by Jeff Fitlow

The Doerr Institute was established with support from a gift by alumni Ann ’75 and John Doerr ’73 in the summer of 2015 with a mission to “elevate the leadership capacity of Rice students across the university.” Approximately 20 percent of Rice students have participated in Doerr Institute programming to date.

“Students never have to compete for Doerr Institute programs,” said Tom Kolditz, a leadership scholar and retired brigadier general who serves as founding director of the institute. “They’re there for all students who want to advance their capacity to lead, regardless of their baseline experience.”

The institute’s approach stands in contrast to prescriptive, one-size-fits-all leadership training programs. At Rice, undergraduates collaborate one-on-one with coaches on customized blueprints for their unique leadership development. These plans incorporate goals, passions and current commitments and take students on a three-phase journey from individual to group coaching to practice and refinement. The phases consist of specific programs and are called “activation,” “synthesis” and “catalyst.”

Graduate students, however, work in reverse. They start by working through leadership modules with teams of peers, then identifying and building skills through hands-on practice in interactive environments and zeroing in on leadership goals for future one-on-one coaching.

Kolditz said undergraduate and graduate tracks differ so that they more closely match the culture and lifestyles of students’ experiences. “We’ve chosen the sequences based on research we’ve done at Rice using psychologists and anthropologists who studied our students and their developmental interests and needs,” Kolditz said.

The institute is also a collaborative effort that exchanges techniques and ideas with other universities that engage in the development of students as new leaders. Providing a transformative undergraduate education that produces graduates who have the broad intellectual and international perspectives, critical-thinking capabilities and creative problem-solving skills to be leaders and contributors to the world is one of the goals of Rice’s Vision for the Second Century, Second Decade (V2C2).

“Being smart and learning a lot of material, that’s really important,” Rice President David Leebron said in a video the institute created this summer. “The question is, how do you translate that knowledge into having an impact on the world? We want them (students) to graduate not with the idea that they can spend the next five or 10 or 15 years becoming leaders. We want them to graduate prepared to be leaders at every stage of their career.”

Turning weaknesses into strengths

McMurtry College sophomore Jacob Grams, a safety on the Rice football team, participated in the Doerr Institute’s program during his freshman year.

Students who have participated in the institute’s programming represent a wide variety of backgrounds.

Alison Archabal, who graduated from Rice in May with a bachelor’s degree in civil and environmental engineering, first heard of the institute as a Baker College sophomore. Archabal’s participation and work with coach Sonya Ware that year gave her the self-awareness and tools to manage relationships with peers, whether as a supervisor in a research lab setting or as vice president of the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers at Rice.

“Something Sonya and I worked on together was … seeing how my perceived weaknesses could be turned into strengths, which was really useful,” Archabal said. “Naturally I’m an introvert, and I’m also very empathetic. She (Sonya) helped me turn those … into strengths. Because I’m observant, which can be helpful in group situations, and then I’m empathetic, so I’m caring. She also helped me make sure I didn’t lean on those weaknesses too much.”

Archabal, who now works as a hydraulic engineer for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in its Memphis, Tenn., district, said a follow-up session with Ware during her senior year illuminated her progress as a student and future leader.

“It was really nice just to see just how much I had grown and how far I had gone in just two years, and how I had gone from a sophomore who really didn’t know what she wanted or what she wanted to do to someone who had a really good plan,” Archabal said. “I got an incredible opportunity to work for the Army Corps, so it was really nice just to touch base with her and see how she had … led me in the right direction.”

Jacob Grams, a McMurtry College sophomore majoring in sport management and a safety on the Rice football team, said participating in the Doerr Institute’s coaching during his freshman year helped him overcome some of the challenges of adapting to a new environment and juggling a demanding academic and athletic schedule.

Alison Archabal, who graduated from Rice in May with a bachelor’s degree in civil and environmental engineering, said the institute was instrumental in helping her with identifying a career path.

“Each session really helped me identify who I was as a person and be more confident and assertive with everything I did,” said Grams, who worked with coach Kim Huseman. “I thought in order for myself to have success here that I would have to cut something out of my life. So when I met Kim for the first time, I really learned how to organize my priorities. It was really great that I didn’t have to cut out anything to do this coaching.”

‘You should start from a very small point’

As the Doerr Institute’s presence on campus has grown, graduate students have become a key group for the institute.

Ruimin “Rachel” Wang, a student in the Master of Global Affairs program, heard about the institute during international student orientation and was instantly intrigued. “I came from China, and … I feel like we didn’t have a lot of those (leadership) programs in Chinese universities,” Wang said. “At the beginning of last semester, I was so stressed because, all of sudden, this was a totally new environment. This was my first time to come to the U.S. My (Doerr) coach helped me a lot during the first semester.”

Wang found the institute’s emotional intelligence assessment exercise (EQ-I) to be a valuable tool. “I decided to work on how to proactively express my own ideas,” she said. “Leadership is very a big word, but actually you should start from a very small point. My coach encouraged me to speak in class (using) small steps. I remember very clearly one time in class: I decided that in this class I don’t care if what I say is right or wrong, whether it will be good or not, I just wanted to speak. One sentence! I just breathed and spoke up.”

This academic year, Wang will participate in the institute’s CoachRICE program for future leadership coaches, for which she received a full scholarship.

Joshua Hill, a Ph.D. student in applied physics studying atomic, molecular and optical physics in the research group led by Tom Killian, a Rice professor of physics and astronomy, underscored the helpfulness of the EQ-I. “Going through the EQ-I assessment allowed me to better connect with people who might not necessarily think the way that I do,” Hill said. “When I leave graduate school and then (am) interacting with an even broader swath of people, I think that’s going to be even more important.”

Hill stressed the competitive advantage the institute provides his peers at Rice. “With graduate students, because we leave with an advanced degree, we’re already more likely to be in a leadership role, and so coming up to speed with these leadership techniques is very important for us,” he said.

Outcomes and measurement are key

Ph.D. student Joshua Hill emphasized the competitive advantage the institute provides Rice graduate students.

Kolditz said individual students’ anecdotes and testimonials are scientifically borne out in the measurement efforts of the Doerr Institute.

“One of the most important principles that we have at the Doerr Institute is that we measure everything that we do because, for us, the mission is more important than the method,” said Ryan Brown, the institute’s managing director of measurement. “All too frequently, people mean well but don’t ever bother to ask the hard questions about whether they are really producing the effects that they intend to be producing.”

Brown said the institute’s efforts to measure coaching impacts have revealed substantial and significant increases in students’ leader identity development and that coaching also enhances well-being by promoting benefits such as increased sense of purpose and satisfaction with life and decreased psychological distress.

“We don’t want to do anything that doesn’t have a measurable benefit to it,” he said. “We want to be a place where students start to initiate development of their leadership abilities on their own so they come to see Rice as a place where they’re not just going to get a great education, but where they’re going be transformed — and then go out and change the world.”

For more information about the Doerr Institute for New Leaders and how to participate in its programming, go to For a video about Rice athletes and their experiences with the institute’s coaching, see

About Jeff Falk

Jeff Falk is director of national media relations in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.