Diversity and Democracy

Fostering Social Change Leadership among Asian American Undergraduates

University of California, Los Angeles
University of California, Los Angeles

Colleges and universities can contribute substantially to the task of teaching future leaders, especially if they acknowledge their capacity to function as important sites for transformative leadership development. Focusing on Asian Americans and a unique type of leadership development that encourages students to become more socially responsible citizens, I conducted a quantitative study on higher education's role in shaping leaders for a diverse and democratic society (see Lin 2010). My findings offer important lessons about how higher education can cultivate future leadership not only among Asian Americans, who are currently underrepresented in leadership roles throughout US society, but also among the student population at large.

Social Change Leadership

Many contemporary leadership scholars agree that students who learn and practice a collaborative, process-oriented approach to leadership will be most fully prepared for post-college leadership commitments (see, for example, Astin and Astin 2000). To confront emerging national and worldwide trends, we will need leaders who understand themselves well, can partner with others, and are broad-minded enough to work for the greater good.

The social change model of leadership development takes such qualities into account (Higher Education Research Institute 1996). The model defines leadership as a process geared toward initiating positive change in social conditions. It also proposes that leadership development happens at an individual level through heightened self-knowledge, at the group level through one's enhanced leadership competence, and at the societal level through one's facilitation of positive social change. Accordingly, individuals—by themselves and collectively—serve as change agents, making anyone a potential leader.

Social change leadership and its underlying principles set the stage for progressive change that may counter the struggles many Asian Americans face due to enduring racial stereotyping, prejudice, and discrimination. Advocating this kind of leadership not only benefits Asian Americans, but also provides gains to other groups by advancing larger democratic goals, such as improved racial dynamics in the United States.

Leadership Development

As colleges and universities aim to teach students to become the change agents society needs, they must make all students' leadership development a priority. But with little information presently available about the leadership development needs of Asian American students in particular, several questions arise. Are higher education institutions creating social change leaders among Asian Americans? If not, what might be preventing such leadership development? If so, how can educators, practitioners, and administrators further improve leadership development among these students?

My study's primary purpose was to identify the college experiences that affect socially responsible leadership development among Asian Americans. I measured overall social change leadership and its three defining dimensions: (1) self-knowledge (including levels of self-confidence), (2) collaborative leadership competence (emphasizing a collaborative method of working with others), and (3) active citizenship (centering on a commitment to positive social change).

Data came from students who completed two surveys of the Cooperative Institutional Research Program administered by the Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA: the 2003 Freshman Survey and 2007 College Senior Survey. The sample included 727 Asian American undergraduates (61 percent women) representing sixty-five institutions. My analytic approach involved generating, testing, and modifying a proposed model of social change leadership development.

Findings indicated that several college experiences significantly affected social change leadership outcomes for Asian Americans. Faculty mentoring, positive cross-racial peer interactions, and formal leadership training all contributed to Asian American students' growth in overall social change leadership. Additionally, community service facilitated students' development of the active citizenship dimension specifically. Together, the findings highlight the importance of establishing supportive environments where students can build relationships, collaborate across groups, purposefully expand and practice their leadership skills, and engage in service to foster a transformative leadership style. But taking a closer look at the impact of community service on Asian Americans' levels of active citizenship can help us better understand their development of a leadership orientation that is democratically motivated.

Linking Service and Citizenship

Asian American students who reported greater frequency of community service (i.e., volunteer work and/or enrollment in service-learning courses) were more likely to aspire toward leadership roles that consider the common good (as measured by higher self-rated importance of becoming a community leader, influencing social values, and influencing the political structure). Why might this be?

Compared to Asian American student cohorts over the last thirty years, Asian Americans today have spent considerably more time volunteering before they enter college. They are more inclined to state intentions to continue service involvement in college, and larger proportions of them believe that becoming a community leader should be a top priority (Chang et al. 2007). If many entering Asian American undergraduates hold this outlook, it seems these students are primed for civic engagement experiences during college that would further add to their sense of active citizenship. Given the chance to become meaningfully involved in campus life and beyond, Asian Americans may improve not just their social change leadership development, but their capacity for future leadership engagement as well.

Community service might help students develop both social activist tendencies and positive racial identities. During the undergraduate years, students may be negotiating tensions between internal factors (e.g., cultural values) and external forces (e.g., racism) affecting their racial identity (Kodama et al. 2002). A common strategy to resolve such identity issues is to engage in community activism or ethnically based cocurricular activities. Studies have shown that through such involvement, Asian American students may form positive racial identities in addition to critical racial consciousness and stronger commitments to social change activism (see, for example, Inkelas 2004). Thus, service experiences during college may spark developmental changes that generate personal goals of making a difference in the world.

Higher Education's Role

Based on this study's findings, what might campuses do to strengthen existing student development practices that teach social change leadership to Asian Americans and others?

Faculty mentoring had the strongest positive effect on Asian Americans' overall social change leadership. Faculty should maximize opportunities to influence students—inside the classroom with course content or pedagogy, and outside of class with service-learning components, for example.

Student affairs practitioners can focus on offering a variety of cocurricular opportunities to enhance social change leadership, such as peer mentoring, community service outreach, or leadership training programs.

Campus administrators should provide support and resources to clarify an institution's commitment to students' leadership development. Administrators might implement policies and practices that reward faculty for their leadership teaching or that credit practitioners for devising innovative student leadership programs.

More work is needed to ensure that Asian Americans have appropriate leadership development opportunities during college and see clear pathways to leadership roles beyond college. By inspiring students to consider the greater good and become more civically engaged, campuses can make progress toward positive changes not only for Asian Americans, but for all groups.


Astin, Alexander W., and Helen S. Astin. 2000. Leadership Reconsidered: Engaging Higher Education in Social Change. Battle Creek, MI: Kellogg Foundation.

Chang, Mitchell J., Julie J. Park, Monica H. Lin, Oiyan A. Poon, and Don T. Nakanishi. 2007.Beyond Myths: The Growth and Diversity of Asian American College Freshmen, 1971–2005. Los Angeles: Higher Education Research Institute, UCLA.

Higher Education Research Institute. 1996. A Social Change Model of Leadership Development, Guidebook Version III. Los Angeles: Higher Education Research Institute, UCLA.

Inkelas, Karen K. 2004. "Does Participation in Ethnic Cocurricular Activities Facilitate a Sense of Ethnic Awareness and Understanding? A Study of Asian Pacific American Undergraduates."Journal of College Student Development 45 (3): 285–302.

Kodama, Corinne M., Marylu K. McEwen, Christopher T. H. Liang, and Sunny Lee. 2002. "An Asian American Perspective on Psychosocial Student Development Theory." New Directions for Student Services 2002 (97): 45–59.

Lin, Monica H. 2010. "Growing Leaders: How College Experiences Affect Asian Americans' Social Change Leadership Development." PhD diss., University of California, Los Angeles.

Previous Issues