Without truly understanding it, I began my journey with advising student organizations in 1994, when I co-lead two groups at my Washington University in St. Louis campus. One was a new Campus Y organization devoted to anti-racism work with students in public schools; the other organization, the Women’s Center, was well-known for student-lead initiatives that examined and confronted sexism, homophobia and violence present on our campus. My experiences as a student leader, taught me so much about myself and even more about what it meant to represent a cause, a resource, and a visible (often marginalized) identity on a college campus. As a student of color at a predominantly white institution (PWI), I engaged on campus based upon my interests, but also in the way I thought others perceived me—as a Black, socially and politically conscious woman. I did not run for student government, I didn’t become a Resident Advisor, I didn’t join a campus activities board or the student newspaper—I didn’t see these so-called “mainstream” activities as spaces where I belonged.
Years later when I became a Student Affairs professional, supporting student organizations whose mission was to create safe spaces and sense of belonging for underrepresented students at PWI’s, I intentionally reflected on my experiences as a college student, as I observed student leaders repeating the same behaviors me and my contemporaries did. My student advisees typically became involved with one organization (where strong social ties and campus resources were present), and often graduated from college feeling that they weren’t fully supported by campus leaders and students who did not identify with them racially, ethnically, or culturally. Some advisors of multicultural organizations describe this as the “diversity bubble”, where students feel a great sense of belonging and influence in designated spaces, but experience limited cross-cultural dialogue and interaction and develop limited interest or opportunities to assume leadership in “mainstream” organizations—such as student government, new student orientation, and residential life. This is not about preference, but a matter of emotional survival. On many campuses, the historical legacy of exclusion continues to shape the experiences of underrepresented students (Harper & Hurtado, 2007) and student interactions are profoundly and negatively impacted as a result. Feeling validated in social environments is critical to student involvement and leadership development—particularly among students of color at PWI’s.
Pursuant to the resonant question Beverly Tatum explored in her book, Why Are All The Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?, administrators often ask why so few students of color get involved with the more “traditional” leadership opportunities. Advisors who support student leaders in multicultural organizations and cultural centers must regularly educate colleagues about the “cultural incongruence” many students of color perceive with mainstream activities (Griffin, et al, 2008). However, there is an obligation we all have to mitigate this incongruence. With every new group of students, we have an opportunity to develop transformational leadership experiences within affinity-based spaces that foster intentional pathways to incorporate underrepresented students into mainstream leadership opportunities—where their voices and ideas are also essential.
Leadership learning and development occur through interactions within communities of shared identity, as well as across communities of difference (Dugan, et al., 2012). Described below are five approaches that are intended to help organization advisors of multicultural organizations develop and foster leadership identity at PWI’s.
- Design activities aimed at helping student organizational leaders better navigate the university system. There is a complexity to the college environment that very few students understand and optimize. Underrepresented student leaders especially require road maps to systems where they have been historically marginalized or excluded.
- Design leadership initiatives that develop mastery in highly transferable professional competencies, such as budgeting, event planning, marketing, program evaluation, grant writing, and fund-raising. Work with student leaders to created a “competency map” which presents “skills” they should practice and master by the time they complete their leadership role within their organization. Establishing confidence and proficiency in “transferable” skills validates students in a learning environment outside the classroom, and is more easily applied in other contexts.
- Establish opportunities that support students collaborating with other organizations. One essential way to increase cross-cultural engagement and increase diverse programming within more “mainstream” organizations is to encourage and incentivize collaboration among other student organizations. The benefits that emerge from this approach to organizational planning are numerous, and often lead to broader student involvement on campus.
- Develop the capacity to identify, resist and respond to racism and microaggressions. Often, culturally or affinity-based clubs and organizations have an unspoken “dual mission” of supporting underrepresented students and responding to racially-charged incidents on campus that intimidate and invalidate students of color. Research indicates that internalization of negative stereotypes affects academic performance, educational motivation, and social self-efficacy for students of color (Steele, 1997). Student leaders require tools to respond to racism and microagressions at PWI, and a safe space to practice those tools in a peer-led environment.
- Apply inclusive leadership models for training and student development, with an emphasis on students self-defining. The Social Change Model (SCM) of leadership development is a great example, as it promotes values of equity, inclusion, citizenship and service. This model highlights student empowerment and is intended to establish strategies for positive social change. This offers great value to students of color, offering meaningful ways to map their leadership journey in the context of addressing issues identified in their campus environment.
This post is part of our month-long series #OrgAdvising, an in-depth look at the different aspects of the student organization advisor role. This series hopes to bring front-and-center a role otherwise overlooked or forgotten in the discussion of “advisor.” For more information, see the intro post by Cindy Kane! Check out the other posts in this series too!