By: Ruby Maddox
These days many colleges and universities struggle with developing students into self-directed leaders that are equipped to deal with uncertainty in their environment while being adept at problem solving, creativity, and successfully navigating professional relationships.
In Jeffrey J. Selingo’s book, “There is Life After College: What Parents and Students Should Know About Navigating School to Prepare for the Jobs of Tomorrow”, he points out that many recent college graduates have trouble making independent decisions and too often “wait to be told what to do” out of fear of making a mistake. (2016)
The answer may lie in creating less heavily structured programs and cultivating more opportunities for students to engage in self-directed learning and leadership. This requires viewing incoming students, not as blank slates, but with latent or undeveloped skills and potential that require experience to sharpen.
My own circumstances dictated the need for me to figure out many things on my own. As someone who was naturally a planner, I constantly collected examples of what I thought I might like to do with my life. This included of aspirational job postings, newspaper clippings, and magazine articles. However, I still had no idea how I was supposed to get there.
Thankfully, the institutions I attended created an environment for my success; allowing me to balance my agency as a student with the support, I desperately needed to figure it all out.
Here are just a few things colleges and universities can do to develop self-directed leaders.
Cultivate Spaces for Autonomy
When I attended undergrad at Holyoke Community College(HCC) there was a sense that I was in control of my own journey. I tried out a major in business, then in hospitality. I even considered a degree and law. I changed my major at least 3 times. Each time I changed or wanted to explore something outside my major, I was so able to do so with ease. The process was easy to understand and not heavily bureaucratic or cumbersome. This made me feel like the architect of my educational experience.
Provide Adequate Resources / Make them Accessible (It’s not as expensive as you think)
There weren’t a ton of resources at HCC. But what they lacked in resources they made up for it in the opportunities they provided. I received the opportunity to participate in community service-learning opportunities, design course projects, and connect to alumni. The school provided space for me to hold events as well as a platform for me to promote my ideas.
For schools that have the resources, funding student-initiated experiences can be an excellent way to provide students with the financial means needed, to pursue quality projects and experiences. See Smith College’s Praxis program, Mount Holyoke College’s Lynk program, and Clark University’s LEEP Projects program.
“Higher education must teach students how to make thoughtful decisions about the trajectory of their lives and empower them with the resources to do just that.” Says Angel B. Perez in recent Washington Post Article on helping students find their passions.
Cultivate Learning Communities Among Majors
One of the most rewarding experiences I received in undergrad was the opportunity to cultivate relationships with other students within my major. This was the nature of the theater department. We were a learning community that took part in producing several productions together, with various roles and responsibilities. This often meant we spent large amounts of time together; sharing information both related and unrelated to theater arts. I could derive my learning from the faculty who taught in the department as well as my classmates; who also shared information about opportunities out of campus.
Create Opportunities to Sharpen Professional Communication Skills
The first time a student interacts with professionals in their field, should not be at the time of internship and job applications. At Bay Path University, we were constantly given assignments that involved contacting practitioners in our industry. I was having coffee with executive directors and interviewing employees of nonprofits I admired. Without the high-pressure scenario of the job or internship application process, I learned to how to effectively (and politely) request, arrange, and follow-up with professional contacts.
Validate Past Experiences / Make Sense of New Ones
UMass/Amherst offered courses that allowed to students to frame their learning, articulate their experiences, and demonstrate their skills and knowledge for course credit. It was during this time that I began to notice themes emerging from those experiences and the courses I was taking, which allowed me to gain further clarity on my aspirations.
[I used to write content primarily aimed at students. While I don't write that kind of content anymore, there are a few gems still left here on my blog page that still ring true today. - (6/12/22)]
Ruby Maddox is the Chief Purpose Director, at Direct Your Purpose. She is a college career consultant, speaker, and workshop facilitator with more than 12 years in the field of higher education and experiential learning. Ruby works with secondary and post-secondary institutions who want to motivate their students to be proactive, purpose-driven, and resilient leaders and take the first steps in their leadership journey.