The Future for Student Leadership Development

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Christina Ferrari

June 25, 2019

At a time when the value of higher education is being questions, this is an opportunity for our field to examine our role in the academe. What are we, as Student Leadership Professionals, doing to prepare students to deal with the challenges of climate change, humanitarian refugee and immigration crises, the gun violence epidemic, and rights and freedoms being challenged in our democracy? Student Leadership Development is uniquely positioned to expose students to not only pressing issues but also to equip students with the tools and skills needed to be informed and address the most pressing needs of our world. 

One trend I have noticed with the students I work with at Columbia University is a desire for skills and practical application of activism and advocacy. I work primarily with public health students, whose focus is on advancing the health of all populations. Grounded in this work are concepts we discuss in leadership development circles.  Things like resiliency, collaboration, and critical reflection are important elements of our education as we prepare students to be the future of the public health profession.

In my role with Student Life, I ground everything I do through a public health lens. The future of student leadership development must advance to become a core part of students’ academic experiences. For example, this spring break I had an opportunity to partner with faculty, staff, and students to create a community-based research project focused on the after effects of Hurricane Maria for the Caño Martín Peña region of San Juan, Puerto Rico. This experience explored the interdisciplinary nature of community-based research, and it allowed opportunities for students from a variety of disciplines at the University to learn together. By collaborating and learning from ENLACE—a community organization that focuses on the communities of the Caño Martín Peña channel, students were able to see how research can be a form of advocacy. Currently, students are analyzing data collected from the trip and plan to present to community members the results of the project this summer. In true service-learning fashion, this co-curricular program uses concepts learned in the classroom to apply for real community-based projects.

Student Leadership Development is more than icebreakers, team-building retreats, and personality assessment results. Those of us who do this work understand that, and we know that the experiences we create, facilitate, and assess on our campuses lead to invaluable learning and student growth. It can be so tempting, however, to forget the opportunities that exist beyond our student centers and internal campus programs. When faced with what seems like endless challenges or issues in the world, students need more than the methods or theoretical frameworks we have relied on for decades. We need to innovate, collaborate, and accelerate possibilities for students to gain the knowledge and skills necessary to be the active citizens and social change agents we tell them they can and should be. In what ways is your campus educating students on how to discuss or debate with people they disagree with? In what ways have you used your programs to integrate curriculum from sociology, business and social entrepreneurship, or political science? How are you collaborating in mutually beneficial ways with communities around your campus? When the last time inclusion and social justice education was fully embedded into your leadership development classes or workshops? I invite you to share with our NASPA Student Leadership Programs KC the initiatives you are excited about that speak to this topic. I believe the centering of activism, social entrepreneurship, advocacy, and social justice is not only the future of student leadership development, but also the necessary charge for our present times.

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