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Leadership Experiences: Educating for Diverse Citizenship

Equity, Inclusion and Social Justice
December 22, 2018


The United States is becoming significantly more racially and ethnically diverse: Recent projections suggest that by 2055, the United States will no longer have a single racial or ethnic majority (Lopez, Passell, & Rohal, 2015). Population projections to 2065 also suggest that 17.5% of all Americans will be immigrants who are born outside of the United States (Lopez et al., 2015). Currently, nearly one in five cohabiting adults have a live-in partner of a different race or ethnicity (Livingston, 2017a), and one in seven infants born in the United States are multiracial or multiethnic (Livingston, 2017b). More women are serving as the sole or primary earners in 40% of all households with children, and there are more women in the workforce than in prior decades (Cohn & Caumont, 2016). Additionally, the United States is experiencing changes with regard to socioeconomic diversity, with the share of U.S. adults living in middle-income households declining, the percentage of lower-income households increasing, and the financial gaps between middle- and upper-incomes widening (Cohn & Caumont, 2016). The increases in diversity compel higher education institutions to develop college students who can work effectively to promote inclusion, possess the efficacy and desire to make a positive difference in their communities, understand the importance of perspective-taking, and appreciate the value of diversity (Soria, Johnson, & Mitchell, 2016; Soria, Snyder, & Reinhard, 2015). In short, colleges and universities must actively work to bolster students’ diverse citizenship, which Schreiner (2010) defined as “an openness and valuing of difference in others and active involvement with others to make the world a better place” (p. 8).

While few would dispute the inherent value of encouraging students’ growth and development of diverse citizenship, scholars suggest that the majority of college students are graduating without such perspectives or desires to affect positive social change (Soria & Mitchell, 2016). Between their first year and senior year, college students are only 10% more likely to increase their sense of social agency, which measures the importance students place upon keeping abreast of political affairs, participating in a community action program, influencing social values, becoming a community leader, helping others in difficulty, and helping to promote racial understanding. Specifically, 31% of respondents scored high in social agency when they began college compared to 41% when they completed college (Hurtado, Pryor, Palucki Blake, Eagan, & Case, 2013). Sax (2000) found similar patterns, but also discovered that the potential effects of college on students’ social agency diminish substantially five years after graduation.

Furthermore, only slightly more than one-third of college students believed that helping to promote racial understanding was “very important” or “essential” to them, both when they started college (33.7%) and in their senior year (36.2%), representing a mere 2.5% more students who valued promoting racial under- standing after four years in college (Soria, Mitchell, Lauer, & Scali, 2017). These findings are striking when contrasted with the prevalence of discrimination still present on college campuses: More than half (54%) of over 30,000 college students at 30 different institutions reported witnessing discrimination at their colleges or universities in 2016 (Ramirez & Zimmerman, 2016). Additionally, one-third to two-fifths of Students of Color perceive that their campuses have considerable racial tension, and less than one-third of students frequently challenged others on issues of discrimination (Ramirez & Zimmerman, 2016). The persistent problems of discrimination on college campuses outweighs the number of students who are working to dismantle them, suggesting there is more work that campus practitioners can do to fuel students’ desire to promote multi- cultural awareness, eliminate discrimination, and embrace diverse citizenship.

Researchers have discovered several cocurricular or extracurricular programmatic practices that can encourage students’ development of diverse citizenship. For instance, Zúñiga, Williams, and Berger (2005) discovered diversity-related residence hall activities, and diversity courses were positively associated with students’ motivation to promote inclusion and social justice. Furthermore, diversity courses and ethnic cultural activities were positively associated with students’ motivation to reduce their own prejudices. Participation in other activities such as community service is positively associated with students’ racial understanding (Astin & Sax, 1998), social action engagement (Hurtado, Engberg, & Ponjuan, 2003), ability to relate to people of different races/ethnicities or cultures (Astin & Sax, 1998), ability to collaborate with individuals from diverse backgrounds (Soria, Nobbe, & Fink, 2013), and diversity attitudes and interests in relating to culturally different people (Kirk & Grohs, 2016). Other high-impact educational practices, including common book reading programs, living–learning residence hall communities, and learning communities, are also associated with students’ multicultural awareness and openness to diversity (Pike, 2002; Soria, 2015; Soria & Mitchell, 2015). Yet, amid all of those studies, researchers have yet to explore whether students’ participation in leadership experiences is associated with diverse citizenship outcomes.

The purpose of this study is to examine whether students’ participation in campus leadership is associated with their diverse citizenship. In particular, this study is guided by the following research question: “Does first-year students’ participation in leadership opportunities have an impact upon their sense of diverse citizenship?” In other words, does participation in leadership have an effect upon the extent to which first-year college students are open to diversity, value diversity, and engage in efforts to improve their communities? The majority of scholars focused on leadership outcomes often neglect to take students’ self-selection into leadership experiences into consideration. Such self-selection biases may contribute to systematic differences in the characteristics of students who participate in leadership opportunities; therefore, we considered these systematic differences when estimating the effects of leadership experiences on students’ outcomes (Austin, 2011). We utilized quasi-experimental procedures (propensity score matching techniques) to construct control groups (non-leadership participants) and treatment groups (leadership participants) similar to those found in randomized experiments. We utilized these analytical steps to reduce the potential bias within students’ self-selection into leadership experiences on campus.

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