Skip to content

A Leadership Experience Like No Other

The Coca-Cola Scholars Leadership Development Institute

By: Heather Weller, 2017 Coca-Cola Scholar


Heather is one of our 2017 Coca-Cola Scholars – 150 incredible high school seniors who were selected to receive a $20,000 college scholarship. These socially conscious and service-minded leaders came to Atlanta for Scholars Weekend in April, where they were celebrated at the 29th annual Scholars Banquet, participated in a group community service project, and experienced the Leadership Development Institute (LDI), a leadership exploration facilitated by 30 program alumni. What was it like? Heather shares below.


Coca-Cola Scholars Weekend was an incredible experience that will impact me far beyond the 4 days that we were in Atlanta, Georgia. One of my favorite things about Coca-Cola Scholars Weekend was most definitely the Leadership Development Institute (LDI).

I have been to many leadership conferences and trainings, but this one was different. I truly felt like I learned a lot and that I can apply it in so many ways.

LDI focused on 4 topics: Self-Awareness, Vision, Inspiration, and Empathy. Throughout the experience, we would participate with the whole group, in our units of 15, in our subunits of 5, or reflect individually. This strengthened our ability to comprehend what we were discussing and to find valuable ways to put it to action.


Our first LDI session took place on April 20 before the banquet and we focused on Self-Awareness. We discussed the importance of knowing who you are as an individual to be able to reach and impact others.

To explore this concept, we did various activities to explore who we are as leaders and people. All of us Scholars completed a “body scan” of ourselves – we were told to close our eyes, start at the top, and examine what you think of as you scan your whole self – this gave me a better picture of who I was as an individual. We also did a bit of improv with the people sitting near us by pretending to give each other gifts and coming up with a description of what it was on the spot.

Furthermore, we discussed getting outside of our comfort zones and taking risks. It is crucial to not take too big of risks and end up in the danger zone, but one should not stay in his or her comfort zone as this limits growth. A phrase that came up a lot over the weekend was to take a 25% risk.

We were challenged to do this by writing an intentional goal for later during the banquet. On a notecard, each Scholar put down something that would challenge them and that they would hold themselves to and complete during the banquet. This encouraged us to be intentional in stepping outside of our comfort zones.


Our next LDI session on April 21 combined the previous topic of Self-Awareness with that of Vision.

We all started by writing one fear about the future that we have on a notecard. Then our LDI facilitators collected them (theirs included), and they read them one by one without knowing whose was whose. As we were listening, it was evident that we all faced some of the same fears: not living up to the high expectations set for us, failing, not being able to make a change. . . It was an impactful experience as we found out that we are not alone.

The fears that were brought up may seem surprising to hear from a group of highly achieving students–and facilitators as well–with a passion for making a difference, but that’s why it was so impactful. It is important to recognize that we have these fears and instead of letting them hold us back, we need to go out there and use our fears as motivation, not as hindrances.

We developed a timeline of ourselves to include the peaks in our lives as well as the valleys or hardships. We shared these within our subunits so we could feel comfortable talking about who we are and open to hearing other’s stories. This led us into a conversation about our own story and identifying our core values. We developed a list of these values that we believed to be most evident in our lives.

After discussions about these values with our subunits, we had time to craft our own vision statement that took into consideration the values we had talked about and the self-awareness we had been discussing. This vision statement had to be something that was clear, compelling, concise, present, and involving others to enable us to apply it in our everyday lives and strive towards this ultimate vision. After these discussions and drafting of our vision statements, I really took away the importance of loving what you are doing, as this will spread to others and enable everyone to make a change in this world.


Our next LDI discussed inspiration after visiting the Center for Civil and Human Rights that day.

We split up into our subunits after walking through the center and discussed what had inspired all of the people in the museum and what inspires each and every one of us. It can be hard to determine where inspiration comes from, but we saw examples of people who pulled it from injustice, role models, and within themselves.

We shared stories of times when we had seen others around us do inspiring things and when we ourselves had done the same. I think that we all felt super inspired after visiting the center and being around our fellow Coke Scholars!


The last LDI took place on April 22 and focused on Empathy. This was my favorite part of the LDI as it brought everything together and gave us a chance to try out what we were learning.

We did an activity where we found a partner that we did not know and were told to tell them about a proud moment in our lives as well as a struggle or challenge. The partner was supposed to listen and respond however they felt appropriate. After we completed this activity, we went back to the large group and discussed the ways in which one should respond to others feelings and thoughts.

Oftentimes we don’t really listen to people; instead, we are focused on the response we can give to them. It is also common to diminish how other people are feeling and tell them that it isn’t too big of a deal and that things will get better or that everything happens for a reason. We often turn to giving them advice about fixing the situation or we make it about ourselves and give them an example of a similar situation instead of recognizing how they feel and really considering those emotions they are going through.

If an individual is expressing themselves, it must truly mean something to them, which means we should recognize that feeling, even if it doesn’t seem significant to us. Once we have done this, we can tell them that we understand and potentially share a story that would make them feel like they are not alone in their feelings.

Equipped with this knowledge, we found a new partner and shared the same stories, but this time things went a lot better. I noticed a real difference in how my partner responded and felt very comforted. I also felt better about my responses to my partner after I had learned the ways in which I should respond. It was neat to see the growth and it helped me to realize the importance of empathy in everything we do.

We put this knowledge into practice once more by splitting up into our subunits and playing a game called Top Cards. During this game, a player would grab the top card from a deck and it would have a question for you to share about. The topics ranged from things you would want to change about yourself, to challenging times, to the happiest memories. Once a player was done sharing about what was on his or her card, other players had the chance to respond empathetically. This gave everyone a more in-depth chance to practice the skills we had just learned. It felt great to be able to share and hear back from those around you, as well as being able to practice our empathy skills by speaking to those around us.

At the end, our units came together after having a bit more time to revise our mission statements. We shared these vision statements with one another so that we had a chance to share it out loud and to hold ourselves accountable.

Taking the Experience Home

Overall, the LDI was amazing and I am glad I had the experience.

I have been able to put what I learned into practice already in so many ways. I noticed myself being more empathetic and truly recognizing how others were feeling.

Before, there were times when I would just sort of push off someone’s feelings because they didn’t seem significant to me. Now I am able to recognize that even though it may not have been an issue for me, it is important to them and they need to know that they have somebody there to help support them. In addition, I have been able to share the ideas I learned during LDI with people around me, whether that by with my friends or at a place like 4-H!

Also, by attending Coke Scholar’s Weekend and LDI, I have been empowered to do even more in my community. I am in the process of developing an event or project to reach youth who need it the most. I want to be there for those who don’t have a support system to let them know that they are valued and needed in this world. I can’t wait to use all of my skills and to be able to pass them on to others!

From New YHeather Weller, 2017 Coke Scholarork Mills, Minnesota, 2017 Coca-Cola Scholar Heather Weller will be attending the University of Chicago and double majoring in Public Policy and International Relations.

As the Founder and Chief Operating Officer of her nonprofit, Thank a Veteran, she has collected over 55,000 messages of thanks for veterans, soldiers, and their families. She also makes quilts for Quilts of Valor, promotes Project New Hope, assembles care packages, and visits her local veteran’s home.

A 4th-year member of the MN Youth Council, Heather is helping to author a youth omnibus bill and is an 11-year 4-H member. She has always believed “you must be the change that you wish to see in the world,” and knows that the Coca-Cola Scholars Foundation will enable her to carry on this mission.


See more pictures of the Leadership Development Institute and the entire Coca-Cola Scholars Weekend on our Facebook page.