“Hell No, We Won’t Go: Student Activism as a Vehicle for Leadership Development” By: Dominique C. McShan, University of Louisville

Colleges and universities across the United States have experienced an upsurge in student activism within the last decade as more students address issues ranging from budget cuts to hostile racial climates on their campuses. While student activism is certainly not a new phenomenon, the recent increase in participation presents pressing challenges for student affairs professionals, especially if inadequately addressed. As more students continue to organize on campuses across the U.S., student affairs professionals must consider the potential for student leadership development , as well as increased political and civic engagement that activism may foster. It is imperative for student affairs professionals to understand the benefits and learning outcomes of student activism as they respond to student uprisings, support student activists, and implement programs and institutional policies that affect student organizing and “free speech.” Chambers and Phelps (1993) argued that, “Student activism has been, and will continue to be, an important part of students’ learning experiences, whether through participation or observation” (p. 27). Therefore, student affairs professionals must refrain from associating a stigma with student activism, and focus on creating campus environments that promote non-destructive student activism and recognize activists as contributors to the educational environment.

Overview of Activism in Higher Education

Since the beginning of higher education in the United States, there has been an unwavering expectation to develop students into citizen leaders who become lifelong contributors to society (as cited in Page, 2010, p. 1). Throughout the course of American history, issues such as war opposition, women’s rights, racism, discrimination, gun control, environmental safety, LGBTQ rights, and more have incited activism on college campuses. As issues inciting student activism have varied, so have student activists’ behavior and methods (Page, 2010, p. 1). While there are rare occasions in which student activists have employed violent and disruptive tactics, such as vandalism and physical violence, the most prevalent tactics are nonviolent actions, such as sit-ins, marches, boycotts, rallies and picketing (as cited in Broadhurst & Martin, 2014, p. 2).

Technology and social media have also provided innovative methods for students to, voice their concerns, engage with one another, and organize activities (Biddix, 2010). Popular social networking sites such as Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Instagram have created a new method of activism, known as social media activism. It is no surprise that millennial students are present and highly-engaged on these platforms. Consequently, more students are using social media to voice their outcries, which has led to the development of national social media movements that have incited activism on campuses across the U.S. Furthermore, the advancement of email and the creation of applications like GroupMe, a mobile group messaging application, make it even easier for students to effectively communicate and organize.

Regardless of the tactics used, student activists today are engaging civically within their communities more than ever—an action encouraged by institutions of higher learning. As these students organize and voice their concerns, they are developing leadership competence, relationship building skills, and a common purpose. Therefore, activist involvement must be supported just as much as activities like community service and service-learning programs that aim to develop students’ leadership skills, leadership competence and civic engagement.

In order to effectively utilize activism as a vehicle for student leadership development, institutional leaders and student affairs professionals must analyze student activism using leadership development theories, such as the Social Change Model and Leadership Identity Development (LID) Model. By understanding the theoretical impact and influence of student activism on student leadership development, higher education administrators will be better prepared to respond to the harmful repercussions that coincide with activism, while also being able to embrace the educational benefits that result from activism.

By analyzing student activism utilizing the Social Change Model of Leadership Development, it is evident that activism has the potential to positively influence the personal and interpersonal components of leadership development.

This affirms Astin’s argument that:

Although protest activities are often seen by some faculty, and especially campus administrators, as a nuisance or possibly even as detrimental to campus order and tranquility, engaging in such protests seems to be associated with generally positive outcomes for the individual student participant (cited in Page, 2010 p. 54).

Implications for Student Affairs

Higher education has always sought to develop students into active citizens and change catalysts. Although they may be stigmatized, students who participate in activism are prime examples of the civically engaged individuals that institutions seek to produce. According to Rosas (2010), research on activism suggests that college activists gain an understanding of social, cultural and political realities and how to incite change (p. 53).

Therefore, student affairs professionals must create campus environments that support the development of student activists, effectively educate students about leadership development and activism to provide the support needed for all types of citizenship to emerge, and ensure that policies do not inhibit the development of student activists.

In particular, functional area such as student involvement offices and offices of service-learning and civic engagement should lead the charge to support student activists. Offices of student involvement, service-learning and civic engagement alike can organize workshops and programs that educate students, faculty and staff about social justice, activism and leadership development. As student participation in activism continues to rise, it is imperative for faculty, staff and administrators to educate students so that they understand the impact of social change and do not view activism as mere acts of student unrest. Campuses that wish to foster student activism may also increase opportunities by developing courses related to social justice (as cited in Broadhurst & Martin, 2014, p. 84). For example, the University of Louisville offers an undergraduate certificate in Peace, Justice and Conflict Transformation that allows students to take specific courses that “enrich their education in a coherent manner than enhances their lives as global citizens.”

Furthermore, institutional policies and procedures should be reviewed to examine how they influence the emergence of student activism on campus. By aligning institutional policies and procedures to support student activism, student affairs professional and administrators can play an active role in using activist activities as learning opportunities for entire campus communities. For example, redeveloping policies that limit students’ “free speech” to specific areas of campus or require students to seek approval to protest.

Student activism is a complex phenomenon, but with increased research and dialogue pertaining to the support and development of student activists, higher education administrators, student affairs professionals and faculty alike can better impact the development of students as life-long contributors to society.

To view this full-length article visit bit.ly/activistleaders.



Biddix, J.P. (2010) Technology uses in campus activism from 2000 to 2008: Implications for civic learning. Journal of College Student Development, 51(6), 679-693.

Broadhurst, C. & Martin, G.L. (2014). Part of the “establishment”? Fostering positive campus climates for student activists. Journal of College and Character, 15 (2), 75-86.

Chambers, T., & Phelps, C.E. (1993). Student activism as a form of leadership and student development. NASPA Journal, 31 (1), 19-29.

Eagan, K., Stolzenberg, E. B., Bates, A. K., Aragon, M. C., Suchard, M. R., & Rios-Aguilar, (2015). The

American freshman: National norms fall 2015. Los Angeles: Higher Education Research Institute, UCLA.

Higher Education Research Institute (1996). A social change model of leadership development: Guidebook version III. College Park, MD: National Clearinghouse for Leadership Programs.

Komives, S.R., Longerbeam, S.D., Mainella, F.C., Osteen, L., Owen, J.E., & Wagner, W. (2009). Leadership identity development: Challenges in applying a developmental model. Journal of Leadership  Education8 (1), 11-47.

Dominique McShan currently serves as Program Coordinator for Multicultural Programming and Organizations at the University of Louisville, and is a Master of Education candidate in the University of Louisville Counseling and College Student Personnel program.


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