After examining the high-profile leadership positions at North Carolina State University (NCSU), most student leaders are predominately heterosexual, Caucasian males. High-profile leadership positions at NCSU are defined as leadership roles in community service organizations, student government, Greek organizations, and college councils. Most minority student populations do not participate in high-profile leadership positions at the university; instead the students choose to participate in organizations specifically for their particular religious or ethnic group. Minority student populations include ethnic minority, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender (LGBT) students, and non-Christian religious affiliated students.
Literature Review & Theoretical Frame
Literature reveals that low numbers of minority student populations, including ethnic minorities and LGBT students, participate in high-profile leadership roles at universities (Arminio, Carter, Jones, Kruger, Lucas, Washington, Young, & Scott, 2000). Most of the minority student populations participate in organizations that encase a concept of familiarity: those targeted toward their own race, sexual orientation, or religion. This study includes research about minority student leaders’ perceptions about their role within the university and their peers’ perceptions.
College environments provide a diversity of experiences for students that both trigger consideration of identity issues and suggest alternative resolutions for identity concerns (Waterman, 1983). Seniors in college have a stronger sense of personal identity compared to freshmen in college because they have successfully resolved their identity crises. Thus, it is during a student’s college years that the greatest gains in identity formation occur due to their involvement in organizations and the relationships they form with others.
Students have a need to build and maintain relationships during college, as well as to belong and be satisfied at their university. According to Astin’s (1984) student involvement theory, student involvement refers to the quantity and quality of the physical and psychological energy that students invest in college. Involvement can exist in many forms such as, participation in extracurricular activities and interactions with faculty and other institutional personnel. Extracurricular activities, like student government, allow students to be satisfied and to belong. Students are able to build friendships with other students and the organization encourages frequent interactions with peers. Regular connection with faculty and staff is also strongly related to student satisfaction with college. Students who interact frequently with the faculty or staff at their university are more likely to be satisfied with all aspects of their university experience. To increase student satisfaction, finding ways to encourage student involvement with the faculty and staff should be a priority at universities. Thus, the greater a student’s involvement in college correlates to the greater the amount of student learning and personal development.
In Dugan and Komives’ (2007) study about college students, research discovered that students who served in positional leadership roles at the university such as, an officer for a club or organization or the captain of an athletic team, developed their leadership skills. Students who were involved in campus clubs and organizations demonstrated significantly higher scores across all of the Social Change Model (SCM) values, which include consciousness of self, congruence, commitment, common purpose, collaboration, controversy with civility, citizenship and change. In their study they conclude that college students should serve in leadership positions and attend leadership programs to aid in the development process and to promote identity development.
Using phenomenological interviewing, a study was conducted by Arminio et al. (2000) to examine the experiences of ethnic minority student leaders at public universities. The study found that ethnic minority students view leadership at universities as a negative “label” which alienates them from their peers of the same ethnic minority group. The students felt that being considered a “leader” on a university campus meant being part of the “enemy,” no longer separated from the “oppressive system” and a part of the racial group. The ethnic minority students also felt serving in a leadership role included personal costs. The ethnic minority student leaders experienced losses in their privacy and interdependence as well as associations and collateral relationships. The study also reflected the difficulty many student leaders of color had in finding a role model on campus. Most of the ethnic minority students could not identify with faculty or on-campus staff as a role model; instead they alluded to a family member or friend of the same ethnic or racial group.
A study by Sutton and Kimbrough (2001) measured African American student involvement in organizations by using the Student Involvement and Leadership Scale. The surveys indicated that African American students perceived themselves as leaders, even if they had not held an elected position on campus. Thus, the majority of these African American students believed that leadership is demonstrated by providing service to others, not necessarily by holding an elected position at the university. The survey results also indicated that minority student organizations are the primary organizations for African American student involvement.
Researchers Jones, Castellanos, and Cole (2002) conducted four focus groups to study the student experience of ethnic minorities in a predominately Caucasian four-year research institution. Thirty-five African American, Asian Pacific American, Chicano/Latino, and Native American students were interviewed through the focus groups. The study found that students of ethnic minorities felt that segregation existed between their ethnic organization with both Caucasian students and other ethnic minority groups. Similar to the results of the Sutton and Kimbrough (2001) study, most of the students only participated in their ethnic group’s student organization. For instance, only a few African American students reported being involved in non-ethnic-specific organizations, such as student government. Conversely, Chicano/Latino students emphasized the importance of participating as student leaders in the greater university and felt it was important to be active on campus (Jones et al., 2002). The highly involved student leaders, however, felt they were expected to represent and voice the opinions of their ethnic minority to other students involved at the university.
Using grounded theory methodology, a study was conducted by Renn (2007) about LGBT student leaders. LGBT-identified student leaders were interviewed from three institutions in the Midwest about their leadership roles and their LGBT identity. The study found that LGBT students who joined or founded LGBT student organizations were likely to become leaders in the organization, which also increased the degree to which they were “out” or known to be LGB or T on campus (Renn, 2007). Serving in leadership roles in the LGBT organizations also led a few of the participants to serve in other leadership capacities at the university. The LGBT student leaders were encouraged through their peer network of other LGBT students and staff advisers to become leaders on campus.
Researchers Renn and Bilodeau (2005) used qualitative case study methods to research LGBT student leaders at a Midwestern research university. After interviewing seven LGBT student leaders, the researchers discovered that those students of ethnic minorities or international backgrounds had powerful experiences within their cultural communities of discovering what it meant to have a non-heterosexual identity. These powerful experiences also occurred through interactions with predominantly White and domestic student groups, like student government. The researchers also noted that LGBT students felt peer culture was important and they felt comfortable in established LGBT student organizations on campus. Participation as a student leader in an identity-based organization on campus connected the student to critical social supports and enabled the student to persist in their campus endeavors, including academics, work, and athletics. Thus, identity-based organizations are proposed to be critical in the identity formation and sources of resiliency for LGBT students.
Along with identity formation, people with strong perceived self-efficacy will set more challenging goals and stay committed to achieving those goals (Bandura & Jourden, 1991). In Bandura and Jourden’s study of graduate students in business programs, the researchers discovered that the perceived self-efficacy, quality of analytic thinking, personal goal setting, and affective self-reactions were significant factors in determining student performance attainments. Thus, if student leaders at the university level have strong levels of self-efficacy it can be assumed that they will set goals and stay committed to achieve these goals, similar to the business students with a high degree of perceived self-efficacy.
Using grounded theory methodology, a study was conducted by Komives, Owen, Longerbeam, Mainella, and Osteen (2005) about how leadership identity is developed in college students. As a result the Leadership Identity Model was created. Leadership identity is developed through six stages: awareness, exploration/engagement, leader identified, leadership differentiated, generativity, and integration/synthesis. The process within each stage engaged developing self with group influences, which changed the college students’ view of self with others from dependence to interdependence. The groups also shaped the college students’ view of leadership, broadening it from an external view of leadership to leadership as a process. The researchers were able to develop the Leadership Identity Model to demonstrate that developmental influences facilitate college student leaders’ identity development.
There is strong evidence that students develop their leadership skills and identity by participating in leadership roles at the college level. There is also strong evidence that college-level minority students identify strongly with their respective student organization. No studies, however, have particularly examined the differences and similarities in the perceptions, relationships, and leadership skills of minority student leaders versus the predominately Caucasian student leaders.
Purpose and Guiding Questions
The purpose of this qualitative study was to determine how college-level minority student leaders make meaning of leadership experiences at NC State University. The researchers wanted to determine the significance of role models to minority student leaders, as well as the significance of peers and administrations’ perceptions of the minority student leaders. Researchers also sought to explore the motivation of minority students to become leaders at NCSU and changes in their leadership skills during college.
Merriam (2009) tells us that probability sampling allows researchers to generalize results, which is not the goal of qualitative research. Non-probabilistic or purposive sampling is based on the assumption that the researcher wants to discover, understand, and gain insight about a particular sample. Purposeful sampling was used in this study because the investigator had to select a sample from which the most could be learned. In this case, the context being studied is current minority student leaders. The intention was to seek out individuals because of certain qualities including (a) representing a wide variety of minority student leaders, consisting of an ethnic minority background, lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT), or non-Christian religious affiliation, (b) were currently enrolled at NCSU, (c) were higher profile student leaders within their respective organizations or on campus, and (d) were willing to share their experiences as a student leader.
Qualitative research does not have a recommended, concrete sample size; thus, this study focused on 12 individuals currently serving as leaders at NCSU. Two of the minority student leaders were female identified and eight were male identified. Two of the 12 participants served as the triangulation group, consisting of one male and one female Caucasian student leaders. Their student leadership experiences ranged from two years to four years while attending NCSU. The student leaders served in a variety of leadership roles in organizations such as, Student Government, political organizations, religious organizations, Greek organizations, ethnic minority organizations, and media organizations like radio and newspapers. The age range of participants was from 19 to 22 years old. Ten of the student leaders were from minority populations, while two students served the purpose of triangulation. Out of the 10 student leaders from the minority populations the following populations were represented: four African American, one Asian, four LGBT, two Hispanic, one Jewish, and one Muslim.
The semi-structured interview method was employed to obtain qualitative information from participants regarding their student leadership experiences at NCSU. The protocol established for the interviews consisted of eight open-ended questions about student leadership experiences and five demographic questions administered consistently across the interviews by the lead author. Each interview was also coded to retain confidentiality. The codes are included in parentheses in the results section after a quotation is given by an interviewee. The codes are part of the audit trail and provide trustworthiness confirmability.
Data for this study was analyzed by using traditional methods of constant comparative analysis, described by Glaser and Strauss (1967) for use in naturalistic inquiry. Glaser and Strauss’ methodology begins with the unitization of data, categorization of units, merging categories, and journaling.
The interviewer and the interviewees both impact the process of data collection and analysis due to the qualitative nature of the study. Thus, credibility of the research was established through peer debriefing and member checking. Peer debriefing occurred three times throughout the data collection and analysis process. As another check of credibility, member checking was done with each interviewee. Credibility was also established through triangulation as a baseline to compare the minority student leaders. An audit trail and journaling were used to
establish dependability and confirmability. Transferability was established through a purposive sample and thick description (Merriam, 2009).
The researchers found that the leaders in the triangulation group refuted what the minority student leaders said and there is disconnect in their perceptions. Four themes emerged from the experiences of the student leaders: a development of identity, growth, motivation from within, and the importance of relationships. Results are presented by theme. The codes found in parenthesis correspond to the interviewee who made the statement, as well as the corresponding page number of the transcription.
Student leaders were able to develop an identity after serving in leadership positions in their organization.
Segregation is part of identity because the minority student leaders recognized that they only identify with their particular organization and do not frequently interact with other organizations. The student leaders identified the need for student organizations to include diverse groups of people, not just one particular minority group of students. Six of the student leaders identified that there is disconnect amongst the student groups, and that segregation exists (I1, I4, I5, I6, I7, I8, I9, I11).
- I have worked with programs that collaborate with other minorities, but it is not as frequent as it should be (I4.F.H.3).
- College still has a lot of cliques like in high school. However, there are events on campus that do bring different groups together …There is no conflict, but you can still see cliques. Minorities definitely are cliques (I7.M.LGBT.H.3).
- My ideal organization would be one that brings everything together and makes NCSU a whole (I8.F.C.6).
When asked to explain an ideal organization most of the interviewees stated the organization would be accepting and a diverse group of students would be involved.
- It would be a volunteer organization comprised of people from the different colleges, of different ethnicities, sexual orientations, class years, just a ton of diversity (I4.F.H.6).
- I would make sure that people feel included. If people provide others with an atmosphere where they feel comfortable and accepted it allows you to work a lot more with others (I1.M.AA&LGBT.5).
A place of disconnect existed between the minority student leaders and the triangulation group, the sentiment of a diverse, ideal organization was not shared by all of the “mainstream” student leaders.
- I would have a group only consisting of white males, like a fraternity (112.M.C.5).
The student leaders with role models felt their role model helped them cope with an identity crisis or discover their leadership ability. The four LGBT student leaders identified a role model (I1, I2, I6, I7).
- We have big brothers and big sisters in cheerleading. My big brother was there and he really helped me out a lot. Not just with cheerleading, but accepting who I was. The way he looked at life made me feel that it was ok for me to be who I was (I1.M.AA&LGBT.2).
- I did the whole coming out process last semester with my family and [my Student Government advisor] has a family member who is gay, so she has experience with that…She also had plenty of connection on campus that she was able to get me involved with during my coming out process (I2.M.LGBT.2).
The two student leaders in the triangulation group also identified a role model (I8, I12). This was a principle shared by the “mainstream” student leaders.
- One of the past Student Body Presidents encouraged me to run for Student Body President and to get involved with my fraternity. He definitely taught me that I should lead by example (I12.M.C.4).
Students were thankful for NC State University because they were able to grow personally and professionally from their leadership role(s). The students identify with NC State and desire to give back to NCSU and their organizations currently and after graduation. Most of the student leaders identified the importance of giving back to the university and to their organizations after graduation (I1, I2, I3, I4, I7, I8, I9, I10, I11, I12).
- I definitely want to give back to NCSU since I have gotten so much out of my time here (I4.F.H .5).
- I had an interview with the Hispanic Symposium and I got a position helping incoming freshman…I want to give back to the organization by giving freshman advice because I can relate to the Hispanic freshman (I7.M.LGBT.H.1).
Student leaders discussed the significance of their peers’ and administrations’ perceptions, as well as their family’s impact in their leadership roles.
Students identified with the peers in their respective organizations, which allowed for the development of relationships. All of the student leaders identified that their respective peer organizations become their “family” during their college experience.
- When I came to campus I thought I was going to be one of the only Latino students on campus, I wasn’t expecting there to be an organization already set up. It was a great feeling; a sense of community, that you belong and found people that were like you…It is like a family (14.F.H.1).
- It gave me a home base, a family, a group that I could feel a part of, go to and hang out with (I9.M.AA.2).
- [GROUP] gives you a sense of family because you have people that you have something in common with. You might not be best friends with them but you have something that bonds you together…You can talk to all of these people about [RELIGION] (I5.M.J.1).
The student leaders recognized that they have both personal and professional relationships with their peers involved in their respective organization (I1, I2, I4, I6, I7, I8, I9, I11, I12).
- My personal leadership style is having a relationship with people. You need to be friends with people and have more than just a working relationship. You should get your business accomplished and then be friends and ask those personal questions (I6.M.LGBT.4).
- I am always joking around with people, but when it gets down to business we do know when to be personal versus professional…We get to work when we need to and are friendly outside of [GROUP] (I7.M.LGBT.H. 4).
Student leaders either did or did not identify with the administration at NCSU. The interviewees elaborated on the significance of their relationships with the administration with regard to their leadership abilities. Some student leaders feel they interact well with the administration (I1, I2, I7, I8, I9, I11).
- The current chancellor, I really love him! I feel like we are friends and he really does want to come out and support students. He goes to a lot of student organizations and makes himself known. He really connects to student and isn’t just sitting behind a desk (I8.F.C.4).
Some student leaders feel they do not interact with the administration well or at all (I3, I4, I5, I10, I12).
- I don’t think there is as much interaction as there needs to be. The administration is high up and normal students can’t always talk to them. It’s hard to change this (I6.M.LGBT).
Some of the minority student leaders (I2 , I7, I9) and the triangulation group (I8, I12) feel the administration views them differently, either positively or negatively, due to their background.
- So far I have had nothing but acceptance and reassurance from faculty who were well informed of the coming out process that I was going through. They continued to guide me and support me, and were always there for anything I would need. I think I have been very lucky, where in some settings these perceptions could have been much worse, and could have ended up with me dropping out or failing out (I2.M.LGBT.6).
- When dealing with the administration, being Caucasian definitely gives you more legitimacy, because that’s historically how it goes. Being of a minority population causes the administration to give those people whatever the hell they want and allows them to get by with a lot more (I12.M.C.2).
Student leaders elaborated on their relationship with their families and how they played a role in their college career. Many of the student leaders felt their family members were encouraging throughout their college experience (I3, I4, I5, I6, I8, I9, I11, I12).
- My mom, dad, sister, and family in general are happy about me pursuing what I want to do, regardless of what it is. I could choose to be anything, they don’t care. As long as I love it that’s what matters to my family (I3.M.AA.4).
- [My family] always has given me encouragement to be a student leader, especially my freshman year (I5.M.J.2).
Student leaders discussed the significance of leadership roles in their personal and professional development.
Student leaders identified that their communication skills allowed them to grow personally and professionally. All of the student leaders noted growth in their communication skills since their freshman year of college. Most of the leaders emphasized that their communication skills became more direct.
- I am direct with people about what needs to get done in an organizational setting… [Effective communication is] being direct with people (I4.F.H.4).
- I am able to be more direct and get to the point with people instead of beating around the bush (I2.M.LGBT.4).
Student leaders identified professional growth because their leadership roles allowed them to gain time management skills. All student leaders noted that their leadership roles are time consuming which has, in turn, taught them time management skills.
- I really enjoy being president because it has taught me a lot. Especially about time management….I have learned to stay organized and to make sure stuff gets done on time (I5.M.J.1).
- My advice for a future student leader is to really think about the time commitment and if you are mentally prepared. I have learned to manage my time and put in the time to organizations. Don’t do it if you don’t have the time (I11.F.AA.6).
Student leaders identified personal growth because their leadership roles allowed them to gain confidence in themselves. All student leaders noted a positive change in their confidence level compared to their freshman year.
- I became more confident in who I am and what I believe (14.F.H.5).
- I think my [leadership] roles have made me more confident. I am able to talk and meet new people. I now introduce myself instead of waiting for someone to introduce me (I5.M.J.4).
Student leaders identified that their leadership roles allowed them to grow professionally by changing their career path. The majority of the minority student leaders attributed their leadership roles to changing their career path (I1, I2, I3, I4, I6, I7, I8, I10).
- In the past six months I have reaffirmed that I love working with student organizations and seeing the passion that student have for their university. I would love to continue it on by getting a degree in higher education with a concentration in student affairs (I2.M.LGBT.5).
- My leadership roles are great because it will be a big part of my resume and will show employers that I can plan large events….My leadership positions definitely have led me to wanting a job in marketing (I3.M.AA.3).
Student leaders identified professional growth because their leadership roles allowed them to gain skills about how to manage people. All of the student leaders attributed their leadership roles to impacting how they manage people.
- I’ve never been a part of an organization on campus that I haven’t been President of. In that sense I am in charge of people (I12.M.C.3).
- You need to be firm when you ask people to do something, especially with those in leadership roles…Sometimes you have to remind them and give them a little nudge (I5.M.J.3).
Motivation From Within
Student leaders discussed that they are motivated personally and professionally to be involved in leadership roles and organizations.
Student leaders are motivated from within both personally and professionally by taking the initiative to become involved at the university level. The majority of the student leaders identified their peers are apathetic and that a core group of students are involved at NC State (I2, I3, I4, I5, I6, I7, I8, I9, I10, I11, I12). The interviewees take initiative to be involved in organizations during their college experience and believe they are the “core group” of students that are involved at NCSU.
- I really just take initiative to be involved on campus…I think there is only a small percentage of students who are really involved, and the other students have an attitude of “whatever.” Some students don’t care and just want to have fun. Then there are some students that are always involved and engrossed in this campus and really care about NC State (I3.M.AA.1- 2).
- [I was] never really pushed to be a student leader, I just have had the initiative (I5.M.J.2).
Student leaders discussed that they are motivated from within to be a leader because they have passion for their organization and desire to serve in a leadership role. All of the student leaders identified that they are passionate about their leadership role.
- You have to find what you’re passionate about and then get involved (I5.M.J.2).
- You have to be passionate about something to put yourself out there and be a leader (I4.F.H.3).
Student leaders claim they have an internal motivation to be happy, which contributes to their leadership in organizations. Many minority student leaders identified that they desire to be happy (I1, I2, I4, I6, I9, I11).
- Aside from academics, recently one of my goals is to be happy…I have been trying to do things that make me happy. I just finished a musical theater production at Meredith College, which was a lot of fun (I6.M.LGBT.4).
Student leaders are motivated from within to serve in leadership positions because they believe they are able to make changes to NCSU, thus, they have high levels of self-efficacy. All of the student leaders portray high levels of self-efficacy due to their leadership positions.
- It feels great because I know that I made a positive change for the university (I6.M.LGBT.2).
- Through my leadership positions I believe I have become a better leader, a better organizer and a better communicator. I can get the job done (I12.M.C.4).
Conclusions and Discussions
The study discussed here examined the experiences of NCSU minority student leaders. College environments provide a wide range of experiences for students that allow for identity development (Waterman, 1983). Jones et al. (2002) found that students of ethnic minorities felt that segregation existed between their ethnic organization with both Caucasian students and other ethnic minority groups. The student leaders interviewed in this study also identified that segregation exists amongst student groups at the university. Minority organizations stick together and do not have many interactions with other organizations. The religious minority student leaders recognized that religious organizations also stick together. However, the religious organizations were more likely to host inter-faith events, allowing the religious organizations to interact and hold discussions. Thus, it may be concluded from the findings that minority student leaders solidify a sense of identity via participation in and with organizations unique to their own populations. Although minority students have engaged as leaders in their respective organizations, segregation is present at the university level. Thus, the student leaders have developed an identity with their organizations and want to continue to show their appreciation after they graduate from the university. Most of the minority student leaders desire to give back to NC State University and to their organizations in which they held leadership positions because they greatly appreciate the opportunities that both have given them.
Every interviewee mentioned the concept of passion in their interview. The student leaders feel that the majority of students at NCSU are apathetic. The participants believe there is a core group of students on campus that “run” the university and are the leaders. They identified themselves as part of the core group of students. It can be concluded that minority student leaders have a high degree of internal motivation. Each student leader is motivated from within because they have passion for the university and for their organization. They are also motivated from within to be happy. The majority of the student leaders stated that one of their biggest goals during college is to be happy. Students with strong perceived self-efficacy will set more challenging goals and stay committed to achieving those goals (Bandura & Jourden, 1991). Thus, the student leaders have a high degree of self-efficacy because they are motivated from within by setting goals and are committed to improving their university.
Minority student leaders develop through participation in leadership experiences. Student leaders experienced growth due to their leadership roles at the university. Compared to their first semester of college, each student leader feels that they are more confident. They are now able to communicate directly with people involved in their organizations, with their peers, and with the administration. Each student leader also noted an improvement in their communication skills compared to their freshman year of college.
Lastly, minority student leaders are influenced by relationships with peers, family, and the university community. According to Renn (2007), LGBT student leaders are encouraged through their peer network of other LGBT students and staff advisers to become leaders on campus. In this research study, the LGBT student leaders were able to identify a particular role model at NCSU. The LGBT student leaders identify with someone who is either gay or understands the gay community. However, the other minority student leaders did not identify a role model.
Frequent interaction with faculty is strongly related to student satisfaction with college (Astin, 1984). Role models were found to be particularly significant for the LGBT student leaders who were able to find a role model at North Carolina State University to confide in for guidance and encouragement. Perhaps the LGBT students found role models on campus because they were unable or unwilling to go to their family for encouragement. More research should be conducted about family relationships and their impact on leadership development in minority student populations, especially LGBT students. Research should also be conducted about the role models that are identified by the LGBT student to discover why these role models are significant to the student leader and what sets these role models apart from other faculty at NCSU.
A majority of minority student leaders also have a desire to give back to their corresponding organization and to NCSU in general. More research should be conducted to assess the impact of leadership experiences on minority student populations and their desire to continue their involvement after graduation.
From the results of this study, other universities should be encouraged to examine their minority student leaders to discover if they are as passionate as students at NCSU to give back to the university after graduation. The minority student leaders desire to keep serving in any capacity upon graduation, they just need the appropriate opportunities. For instance, past minority student leaders can conduct campus visits or speak at organizational meetings to discuss the importance of college involvement.
Recommendations for practice include focusing more efforts on minority student populations during new student orientation and the elimination of symposiums. By targeting minority students during new student orientation, these students will become aware of campus organizations with which they can become involved. The more students that get involved results in an increase in the number of students giving back to their organizations through leadership roles and to the university after graduation. Also, symposiums targeting the attendance of a single ethnic group should be discouraged. Ethnic minorities should work with other ethnic minority groups to host a large symposium to eliminate segregation at NC State University.
The need for minority organizations working together also exists. Currently, organizations at NCSU have infrequent interactions, although the minority student leaders desire an increase in these interactions, as well as in the diversity of people involved in their organizations. All universities should encourage organizations to host events and workshops to eliminate segregation and allow all students to work together. For instance, religious organizations could work together to host an event promoting an opportunity for all students on campus to learn about different religions.
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