When I first heard about the South Bend-Mishawaka Signature Leadership program, I wasn’t sure what the program could teach me, but I was interested.

I was interested in learning more about leadership, this larger than life word that packs such a powerful connotation, differing slightly from person to person. I was also deeply interested expanding my knowledge of the greater South Bend community. 

As a lifelong resident of St. Joseph County and a resident of South Bend for nearly a decade now, I was skeptical about what the program could offer me, at least as far as hometown insight goes. What could this program teach me about my community? A community I had watched flourish and mature from my bedroom window in suburban Granger? What could a local leadership class teach me that I hadn’t already learned from my four years at St. Mary’s College or that my three years as a market researcher in downtown South Bend hadn’t already exposed me to? How much more was there to know? 

After all, I had seen the homeless population in “tent city”, the many vacant storefronts downtown, and had lived out the oft-repeated refrain of, “there’s nothing to do here”. I thought I knew and understood most of the positive aspects, as well as the challenges, of our city and neighboring communities. 

What I did know was that the Signature Leadership program was an opportunity to excel my skills and would help better define my personal and professional path.

The Signature Leadership program offered me a deep dive into so many aspects of the South Bend-Mishawaka community that I otherwise would not have been exposed to. 

Beginning with the program’s weekend retreat at the Potawatomi Inn within Pokagon State Park, I knew right away that this program would be invaluable to my personal brand, a brand that continues to evolve with time, experiences (both good and bad), and exploration. During the retreat, my expectations were flipped on their head. During one group project, we feverishly competed against the other groups to reconstruct a Lego structure, only to feel slightly ashamed when told that our competitive mindset was not part of the instructions. As a competitive person myself, this notion was MINDBLOWING.

Why wouldn’t we help other groups finish their Lego structures? No one had said we couldn’t, and even if they did, should we not still step in if help is needed? Why was it so instinctual to compete against instead of support and collaborate with? It was experiences like these, and many more, that helped me begin to understand the purpose and power of what I would learn as a member of the Signature Leadership program. When we pause to look at a situation from an outside perspective, directions and intentions become a lot less important, and a team player mindset starts to set in. This one instance caused me to completely reevaluate my innate biases and motivators. 

I was thrilled to get to do a ride-along with the South Bend Police Department, inspired by the hard work of our public servants, heard from countless public figures in the nonprofit, public and private sectors, and was made privy to the area’s most valuable public venues and resources. I was gaining an insider’s perspective in the most well-rounded way possible, through these purposeful tours, private audiences with local change-makers, and through the many first-hand experiences afforded to us through this program. 

Culminating in an intensive community action group project, we built an outdoor recreation space that serves a local nonprofit organization that’s dedicated to making the lives of cancer patients and survivors a little more bearable.

I was very excited to receive my acceptance letter into the Class of 43 Signature Leadership program back in 2016 and cannot tout the strength of the program’s curriculum enough. I gained a new level of understanding about the area’s challenges and opportunities and truly came away with a reinvigorated respect and appreciation for the community I call home.

-Mary Willkom


Mary WIllkom is a Signature Class 43 alum.