• by Rosana G. Rodríguez, Ph.D., and Abelardo Villarreal, Ph.D. • IDRA Newsletter • May 2003

Dr. Abelardo VillarrealRosana RodriguezStudent leadership is an integral part of student success. It should consist of more than just a student representative sitting in a meeting where student voices hold a low priority and sometimes get lost in the “wisdom” of experience.


Student leadership is the ability of the student body to influence major decisions about its quality of education and learning environment. Influencing major decisions requires a “listening” and a “valuing” and the incorporation of the ideas that students propose.

This article provides a set of principles and ideas on how to incorporate the voices of students in the planning and decision-making processes of educational institutions.

Student Leadership Helps Students Succeed

Educators, families, and communities often focus on new efforts at mutual collaboration, engagement, and accountability but fail to include student perspectives in this dialogue. It is not surprising that students interpret the landscape within schools and colleges as void of opportunities for engaging them as key members of the planning process.

What is needed to complete our picture of engagement is recognition and commitment to support emerging student leadership in the process of improving school holding power and broadening access and success from K-12 through higher education.

Long-term research from the Harvard Assessment Project is revealing that building connections between school and community life contributes to more fulfilled college graduates (Light, 2001). This is a powerful message to people who run schools and colleges (deans, presidents, chancellors, academic vice presidents, principals and faculty) that students who find ways of connecting their curricular and extracurricular activities are the most satisfied.

Another important message is the need to create opportunities that encourage students to engage internally in dialogues about improving institutions and externally in activities within their communities. This can begin in elementary school and continue through high school and into higher education.

Youth and educational institutions must each do their part to ensure effective leadership development. Youth can be more effective in the planning and decision-making processes when they are informed and base their pro-activity on a clear vision of their role and their commitment to a more inclusive and humane world. Youth must exhibit a genuine desire to make a difference in this world. Youth must insist on a strong educational background that prepares them for a demanding and difficult world. Youth must acquire the skills to lead and be effective team players in a more interdependent world.

Educational institutions that are genuine in their desire for student input must make an investment to nurture and enhance the wisdom of their youth. They must provide opportunities for students to become leaders with the skills to advocate inclusiveness and equality that leads to a strong and united country.

Student Leadership Helps Schools Succeed

Emerging student leadership is an invaluable resource to our educational institutions and communities. We should ask ourselves whether we are opting to keep students invisible and quiet on campus or are we advocating their involvement in decision-making and supporting meaningful student leadership.

Students can help us keep the focus clear in our planning by asking the key question regarding any educational environment – is this relevant preparation for my future life?

Yet students are seldom asked to join in the discussion about improving schools and colleges. Students interviewed in some of the current research reported that they are seldom, if ever, consulted about issues, and that time with advisers is too short or non-existent.

Guiding Principles

While there are no cookie-cutter practices that ensure student leadership for all settings, there are some guiding principles that underlie a commitment on the part of educational institutions to support emerging youth leadership and youth engagement with community.

What can schools and campuses do? Below are seven guiding principles and some practices that can create educational environments that foster emerging student leadership and strengthen ties with families and communities.

Schools Must Acknowledge the Role of Family and the Extended Community

For many minority students, especially those who are the first in their families to attend formal schooling or college, the role of family and extended community is vital to student success and leadership development. It is an important source of motivation and achievement because many of these students recognize that their achievement reflects the extended family (Fries-Britt, 2002).

Many Hispanic students and Black students are vitally aware that they are underrepresented in many fields. This can naturally inspire them to do better and to be conscious of the need to be engaged with their communities.

Research shows that family and community involvement are critical for all students. To the extent that parents and families are encouraged to become familiar with and engaged in the activities of campus, they are able to be more effective in their support of leadership development from elementary school through college. Campuses can support and encourage student contacts with their families and extended communities. Likewise, they should encourage participation of family members and community in the activities on campus.

Schools Must Recognize and Value Students for their Contributions

Below are ways schools and colleges can recognize students.

  • Begin by establishing relationships with students, student-led campus groups, and youth organizations to invite and listen to student voices.
  • Involve students in identifying needs and assessing opportunities for leadership development.
  • Offer a diverse menu of opportunities to receive input from youth on a variety of educational issues.
  • Formalize the importance of student input through student representation on committees.
  • Encourage student participation during the school day as well as after school and on weekends.
  • Host meetings during flexible hours to allow for student schedules.
  • Publicize the work of students and their ideas as a regular part of school and college newsletters and bulletin boards.
  • Offer space to student organizations for performances, art shows, youth leadership symposia and other activities, create local funds to advocate student leadership activities, and invite multi-generational opportunities to talk about leadership from many perspectives that honor and incorporate local leadership, values, culture and diversity.

Schools Must Support Extracurricular Youth Activities in Communities

Young people working in their community, volunteering, or lobbying for support for their organizations learn political skills and valuable lessons about how to move through and with the “system.”

With their peers and with others, they learn to assess their products and their activities, youth come to understand that quality evolves, and they can learn leadership skills about the importance of revision, attention to detail, and pride of individual and group effort (McLaughlin, 2002).

Emerging student leaders learn about the joy of giving back and civic responsibility. Their unique perspectives can energize efforts and bring greater clarity and new dimensions of accountability to planning efforts. Campuses can increase opportunities for students to work with faculty and with other students in problem solving, policy review and planning.

Schools Must Collaborate with Effective Community-Based Organizations Supporting Youth

It is important to consider which community-based organizations or clubs are the most effective partners for schools and colleges in fostering youth leadership. In making your selection, consider that high quality youth organizations are youth-centered and respond to diverse skills, talents and interests of students. They build on strengths and choose appropriate materials and activities that reinforce a positive approach. They reach out to all youth and provide personal attention through focused activities.

Embedded within the organization’s programs are activities that build a range of life skills. The adults within effective youth organizations recognize the many kinds of knowledge and skills youth need to succeed in school and life, and they deliberately try to provide them. Effective community-based organizations focus on building relationships among youth, adults, and the broader community. They are sensitive in honoring the diversity of race, language and culture within the broader community.

Schools and Campuses Must Make Youth a Line Item in the Budget

In order to seek out and underwrite committed individuals and enable their work supporting student leadership, sufficient funds must be in place. Students quickly learn about the support and constraints of their schools and colleges. If this is a priority for a campus, financial support for leadership fostering activities and student groups must be evident in the budget.

Given the current climate of limited funding, students have ineffective voice and claim upon educational resources, and therefore organizations need to make this commitment evident.

Implicit is the erroneous assumption that youth leadership is the responsibility of families and communities rather than educational institutions. Effective campuses recognize that student leadership development is school and community development.

Schools Must Support Student-Led Campus Groups

Many student-led clubs, organizations, and campus groups provide a platform to support emerging student leadership as well as focus on engagement with community. An example is Movimiento Estudiantil Chicana/o de Aztlan (MEChA).

Recent research by Anthony Antonio (2001) and Daryl Smith et. al (1997) find in reviews of the literature that organizing and supporting student groups with attention to race and ethnicity can have educational benefits.

For example, student organizations that are specifically designed to support students of color appear to contribute to those students’ retention, adjustment, and attachment to their institutions. Schools and colleges can encourage students to use their social support groups as academic support groups and provide counseling and advisors to help foster and fund these activities.

Schools Must Create a Shared Vision of Student Engagement

In order to create an “intentional” environment that supports youth leadership, a shared vision and commitment to do so must first be in place. Leadership and passion often go hand in hand, therefore, the commitment and enthusiasm of everyone, especially key administrators involved, brings essential elements of stability and momentum necessary to sustain campus efforts.

Supporting student leadership needs to be seen as a shared mission to achieve and be held accountable for. To accomplish this, policies and practices need to be in place to support youth leadership. Ongoing assessment of progress toward that mission needs to occur, with adjustments toward that goal made regularly and progress reports to that end shared among all stakeholders, including students.

Thinking and Doing

In his book On Organizational Learning, Chris Argyris speaks to the dichotomy of thinking and doing as theories of beliefs versus action (1999). Basically, students would say that educational institutions need to “walk their talk” – they cannot purport to be about student success and not involve students in the dialogue.

In order to do this, the theories of beliefs can be helpful in closing the gaps between our talk and our action. If we can think out loud in a safe environment, we can begin to understand the scope of how things really work in our educational environments through the eyes and ears of students, and we can take appropriate and effective actions to move toward our desired results.

Through honest dialogue with students, we can know where we are and plan together with them where we want to go in supporting leadership. A positive approach usually follows this pattern:

  1. Be open and honest to promote healthy exploration of the topic at hand.
  2. Allow everyone to contribute their best thinking and respect their ideas.
  3. Continuously check-in to see what is working.
  4. Create a reward system that values student leadership and shared decision-making.
  5. Follow through with actions – only make promises you can keep.

As educators, community members and families, we must ask ourselves what support systems our students need to develop leadership for the future. The answer will require many perspectives coming together to move beyond our traditional approaches. Involving students now will help foster the kind of leadership for transformation that is needed, not only for our educational systems, but for our communities and for the world.

What do you think? We welcome feedback about our article and invite you to share your success stories about what your school or campus is doing to foster student leadership. Let us know through our Lazos technical assistance web page at www.idra.org/enlace.

Creating a Climate for Student Leadership – A Survey

Use this checklist to assess how your campus is supporting student leadership and for planning next steps. Involve students, administrators, faculty and families in the process.

Action What We Are Doing What Can Be Done
Acknowledging the role of family and extended community
Recognizing and valuing student contributions
Supporting extracurricular youth activities in communities
Collaborating with community-based organizations supporting youth
Supporting student leadership in the budget
Supporting student-led campus groups
Creating a shared vision of student engagement
IDRA invites you to visit our web site and learn about technical assistance opportunities and resources. There you will find information about technical assistance offered by IDRA, publications and resources for your school and campus and how to order them. Visit www.idra.org.
Source: Intercultural Development Research Association (IDRA)


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Argyris, C. On Organizational Learning (Cambridge, Mass.: Blackwell, 1999).

Chang, M. “Racial Dynamics on Campus – What Student Organizations Can Tell Us,” About Campus (March-April, 2002).

Fries-Britt, S. “High Achieving Black Collegians,” About Campus (July-August, 2002).

Isaacs, W. Dialogue: The Art of Thinking Together (New York, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1999).

Klein, K. “Dialogue – The Key to Moving Beyond Structural Conflict,” About Campus (March-April, 2002).

Light, R.J. Making the Most of College (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2001).

McLaughlin, M. Community Counts – How Youth Organizations Matter for Youth Development (Washington, D.C.: Public Education Network, spring 2000).

Rodriguez, R., and A. Villarreal. “Transformative Leadership in Latino Communities: A Critical Element in Successful and Sustainable Educational Change,” IDRA Newsletter (San Antonio, Texas: Intercultural Development Research Association, June-July 2001).

Rodriguez, R., and A. Villarreal. “Engaged Accountability: Practices and Policies to Open Doors to High Education,” IDRA Newsletter (San Antonio, Texas: Intercultural Development Research Association, January 2002).

Rodriguez, R., and Villarreal, A. “The Home as a Significant Source for Developing Language and Study Skills: Fifteen Tips for Families,” IDRA Newsletter (San Antonio, Texas: Intercultural Development Research Association, February 2003).

Schroeder, Charles. “Listening to Students,” About Campus (July-August, 2002).

Senge, P. The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization (New York, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1990).

Smith, D.G., et al. Diversity Works: The Emerging Picture of How Students Benefit (Washington, D.C.: Association of American Colleges and Universities, 1997).

Rosana G. Rodríguez, Ph.D., is the director of the IDRA Division of Community and Public Engagement. Abelardo Villarreal, Ph.D., is the director of the IDRA Division of Professional Development. Comments and questions may be directed to them via e-mail at feedback@idra.org.

[©2003, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the May 2003 IDRA Newsletter by the Intercultural Development Research Association. Permission to reproduce this article is granted provided the article is reprinted in its entirety and proper credit is given to IDRA and the author.]