Lessons on leadership

For Duluth Mayor Emily Larson, a lifelong commitment to public service first took root during her time as a St. Scholastica social work student.

Larson '95 visited her alma mater recently and spoke to an audience of students, faculty and staff members as part of the Leadership Speaker Series sponsored by the School of Business and Technology's Sandbulte Center for Ethical Leadership.

"Without St. Scholastica, without the Benedictine Scholarship here, I would not have been able to afford college," Larson said, "and I know I wouldn't be here as mayor-elect, or as a leader in Duluth." She noted that she feels a similar gratitude toward UMD, where she earned a master's degree.

A native of St. Paul, Larson jumped at the chance to move to Duluth for college after a childhood vacation made an impression. St. Scholastica's small classes and focus on student accountability made it the perfect choice for her.

"I had classes that were taught by these wonderful, tough-as-nails nuns. You could not skip a class, you couldn't skip a lab, and there was no way around getting your work done on time. I needed that, at that age. I needed a community to really challenge me, to push me, to make me think, to make me learn, and to integrate learning."

After graduating from St. Scholastica, Larson worked at Churches United in Ministry (CHUM) for several years before going back to school at UMD. A lifelong interest in politics and public service eventually pulled her into the local political scene, where she got her first experience as a city councilor before being elected to replace Mayor Don Ness. 

In her talk on campus, Larson described three key elements in her life that have shaped her leadership skills. She said that the way her parents worked through a divorce when she was 10 taught her a valuable lesson about how to handle conflict while maintaining relationships and finding common ground.

The second key element, strong listening skills, is something she honed during her years working with CHUM as a social worker.

Lastly, she said, she learned to take on her fears head-on instead of avoiding them.

"Every time I decided to embrace (fear), things got better, and I got stronger," Larson said.

She told the students that the education they're receiving has already set them on a path to becoming community leaders in their own right.

"What this place has taught me, what UMD taught me, is that you step up when there are opportunities, and you will find yourself in the path of leadership as an educated person," Larson said. "My path to leadership is not unlike the path that you all will be taking into your own leadership."

Larson said the real value of her St. Scholastica liberal arts education was the passion she gained for her field.

"That, you cannot find in a book. That gets opened up in places and communities and campuses where you can break through those moments of fear, where you can find your own leadership, and you can believe in yourself."

Larson will be the second Duluth mayor in a row to be a St. Scholastica alum.