5 Steps Any University Can Take to Develop Student Leaders

Developing Student Leaders - Image of Four Students Facing a Sunset Together

Beyond a workshop, what does developing student leaders effectively look like? The president of Nichols College shares 5 quick steps any college can take – followed by advice on how to take student leadership development to the next level.

by Susan West Engelkemeyer, President, Nichols College

At many colleges and universities, student leadership development programming is limited or localized to an office in the student affairs division. Yet we know that leadership is one of the core capacities that employers (and society) require of our graduates in the 21st century. Leadership development should be integrated throughout the curriculum and co-curricular experience, for all students. We have been working on that integration systemically at Nichols College, but you don’t have to systemically re-imagine your general education curriculum in order to get started. Here are 5 things any university can do that supplement existing offerings and programs with meaningful leadership development:

1. Add a Module to Your First-Year Seminar

In a course already required for first-year students, include a several-weeks-long module or two that focus on leadership practices and issues. Or offer a dedicated seminar during intercession.

Having students work through case studies serves as useful format. The subjects can range from starting a new student organization on campus to dealing with sexual harassment in the workplace.

Students work together in groups of four or five.  With each case, students rotate through the position of small group leader and receive feedback from fellow group members, who begin to realize how they still are steering a joint enterprise with additional ideas and new solutions.  There are plenty of teachable moments here.

2. Provide Self-Assessment

Provide materials (well-known diagnostic exercises, for instance) that allow students to discover more about their individual personalities and leadership styles.

These self-assessments usually reveal, for instance, that their numbers are almost evenly split between extroverts and introverts.  Students begin to realize that leadership skills are not the sole province of the outgoing, more assertive members of the class.  In fact, many introverts become successful leaders.

At the same time, students learn to communicate better with peers different from themselves, and to lead and be led by them.  They also come to appreciate the importance of continued self-assessment.

3. Develop Leadership Development Activities Beyond Freshman Year

For example, throughout the student experience, invite outside speakers to campus who focus on the different ways of leading.  They serve as role models for coming up with new ideas and programs. They provide road maps of how they got there and led others along the way.  And they offer inspiration to audience members to take initiative themselves.

We’ve witnessed that phenomenon at our school.  After the founder of a national college food recycling network spoke several years ago, four students set up their own operation transporting kitchen leftovers from the Nichols to a local food pantry twice a week.

Hold informal gatherings with students where faculty and staff can share their own leadership experiences, successes, and dilemmas.

You can also retool work study positions on campus to include supervised opportunities to make more decisions and take more responsibility.

4. Create Leadership Development Seminars for Students with Particular Interests

Create seminars for students in particular areas of school life (student government, dormitory supervision, sports), with a focus on approaches such as “how to lead even if you are not the one in charge.”

At Nichols, a group of athletes nominated by their coaches and who are not team captains meet weekly with various coaches to talk about the leadership roles they can fill on their respective teams.  Not surprisingly, many go on to become captains.

5. Address the Challenges Faced by Female Students in Leadership

You can do this through an advising program, a speakers’ series, or a career services initiative. Also, carve out time for those students to spend informally with female leaders on campus, including administrators, department heads, and coaches.  Having lunch together, afternoon tea, or just a sit down provides a valuable resource.

Set up dinners with alumnae on campus or off.  Create opportunities to shadow such leaders.

Through career services, offer workshops in areas such as salary negotiation.

Taking the Next Steps

At Nichols College, we’ve integrated student leadership development into our strategic plan, starting with a required one-term freshman course, dubbed “Lead 101.” This multiplies the effects of the modules described above, creates many teachable moments, and gets across from the get-go our commitment to leadership as an integral part of undergraduate education.

We’ve also found professors from all departments (with some training) adept at teaching Lead 101, and their variety helps demonstrate that leadership skills are not confined to certain fields.  Project-based learning in an array of courses could also incorporate the leadership techniques described above.

After freshman year, a structured and optional leadership program could include seminars, outside speakers, community service, and a capstone designed around a student’s leadership experiences in college—all leading to a certificate in leadership.

Finally, through the joint efforts of academic and administrative departments, develop a substantial program—or even an office—devoted to women’s leadership and opportunities for students in that area.


Image credit: Photo above by Helena Lopes on Unsplash.


You might also enjoy these online trainings:


See Upcoming Events for Student Affairs Professionals