How Student Leadership is Morphing for Generation Z

I see leadership differently than my parent’s generation does.”

Those are the words of Brandon, a college sophomore, who ended his semester at home when the entire student body at Vanderbilt University left due to COVID-19. The coronavirus is changing us, and Brandon believes it is only accelerating a change that was taking place already.

These days, I hosted a virtual meeting with students, ages 17 to 22, the ones I now call a “parenthetical population.” Just as they were making major decisions about their futures, their proms, their graduation speeches, and their careers, everything was put on hold. In times like these, people tend to reflect more about life, about people, and about what they believe. Here is a summary of their responses when we began talking about being a leader today.

1. How do you see leadership differently than older generations?

I think my parents’ and grandparents’ generations see leadership as a position to fill and a responsibility to fulfill. I see it as activism. Even Millennials colored within the lines when they were students on campus. We feel leadership is about making changes to corruption, waste, misspending, and the mistreatment of marginalized people.

2. Is your activism like the past activism of the 1960s?

There are some similarities. Fifty plus years ago, people marched and demonstrated for equal rights and against corruption. Some call us “neo-activists,” and we are taking on those and other issues, like student-loan debt and immigration reform. One difference may be that neo-activists today pay homage to the past but are more intersectional in perspective. (Over half of the students today who identify as an activist are involved in seven or more causes.) We believe many issues intersect and reinforce each other. We see how #BlackLivesMatter and #MeToo overlap. There’s greater solidarity.

3. So, do you not believe in serving in a formal leadership position?

No, it’s not that. It’s just that too often we see that position as merely a figurehead or that the system is corrupt. It doesn’t offer us a voice. So, we often would rather influence in more of a grassroots way. I’d rather influence my residence hall without being an R.A.

4. How are conservative activists different from progressive ones?

It’s funny. Very often, both want the same thing but differ on how they think they can achieve the goal. Villanova Professor Jerusha O. Conner says that conservative activists tend to focus on changing individual hearts and minds as a key accomplishment, while neo-activist progressives focus more on changing institutional policy. I think she’s spot on.

5. Doesn’t student leadership and activism hinder your academic experience?

I’m sure some teachers and parents are scared we are distracted from classes or are wasting our time. But our group chats seem to tell us there is no negative impact from our sit-ins or marches or organized protests. In fact, those of us who are active are actually doing better in class because we are connecting theory to practice. It’s helping us become stronger students and critical thinkers.

6. What do you wish educators would do to support your leadership?

We think most administrators view us as annoying. We’re a painful disruption to the schedules they hold sacred. But we just want to be heard. We know we represent a risk to how they appear to stakeholders in the community. It doesn’t have to be that way. Maybe they could start by attending a club meeting or a gathering to listen to us. Another start could be more counselors and bigger counseling centers.

7. When a college makes a change in response to activists, do you feel you’ve succeeded?

Yes, in a sense, we do. Probably the most classic example was when the University of Missouri mounted a huge protest to a racist campus culture. It began with 11 students and grew into thousands. It was called Concerned Student 1950. It resulted in the resignation of the university president and chancellor. We don’t want violence. We don’t want a “we/they” culture. We want things to get better, and we feel letting the status quo remain will allow nothing to change. Many of our administrators were once college students who felt the gap between them and those in power. Now that they’re in power, they seem to not want change and to instead hold on to the power.

8. How do you think most from Generation Z choose to influence?

Two things come to mind. First, we know we are customers. Schools want our money (or our parent’s money), so we take advantage of the fact that we can display that the customer isn’t happy. Second, we have a smartphone and know we can use smart technology to spread our message as fast as anyone else through social media. Maybe faster. We will use this as long as it gives the average person influence. 

9. Is this the wave of the future?

I don’t know. One day we’ll grow older, and who knows what new technology will appear. I do think we’ll always need good leaders, whether or not they hold a position. I think generational change comes before social change. When we’re older, I’ll be curious to see if we carry these values with us into adulthood. I hope we do, and I hope it draws us all closer. 

Is there anything you can learn from this interaction as you develop young influencers?

How Student Leadership is Morphing for Generation Z