From the excitement about making new friends to anxiety about the academic challenge, there’s a lot to think about when preparing for college. Here’s one to add to the list: student leadership.

Why? Because among those immediate concerns every new student has, they also have to consider the long-term plan. You’re no longer just dreaming about your future. You start to wonder, “How am I going to get there?”

One way is by taking advantage of the right collegiate student leadership opportunity.

What Is Student Leadership?

While it might be self-explanatory, there are many aspects of student leadership that you may not immediately think about when you hear the term.

Student Government

This is often the first idea that comes to mind when we talk about student leadership. Often starting as early as elementary school, students have opportunities to formally lead classmates.

At the collegiate level, student governments (also called Student Assembly) usually carry more weight than they do in grade school. Student body representatives are influential partners with the administration.

Student representatives become the voice of the student body, working to preserve or expand students’ rights – to health, safety, security, minority representation, etc. – and influence the way the budget is spent.

Student-Led Organizations

Outside of government, student leadership can mean holding an authoritative position in an on-campus organization. Some groups serve students, others the community, or both.

Academic and special interest clubs are generally formed to serve the students who participate. Student leadership in these clubs could mean planning events and gatherings, deciding how money is spent, directing outreach or member recruitment, etc.

These might include clubs formed around interests in (to name just a few):

  • Art
  • Finance
  • Nature/Outdoor Sports
  • Politics
  • Psychology
  • Technology

Community service groups might emphasize that their purpose is to recruit volunteers to fulfill needs on- or off-campus, and they do. But for college students, service can (and should) always have the added purpose of providing you with valuable experience and community connections.

These organizations may include (again, to name just a few):

  • Religious Groups
  • Fraternities
  • Sororities
  • Entertainment Committees
  • Veteran Advocacy
  • Disability Advocacy

Athletics

One of the most popular opportunities for students to lead is in team sports. The intensity of a competitive environment – when careful planning, vision and a willingness to change the plan at a moment’s notice – is a rich environment to demonstrate student leadership.

While the buck stops with the coach, no collegiate team is successful without strong student leadership. Opportunities that come out of athletics may include:

  • Team Manager
  • Team Captain
  • Assistant Coach
  • Coach (for JV/youth athletics)

Student Work & Internships

One of the best ways to practice student leadership is as a student worker. Some of these opportunities may be part of your financial aid plan, while others (internships) are part of your academic studies.

Looking for work through the Federal Work-Study program, or by inquiring with the office of Career Services and Student Employment is a good place to start.

The program provides part-time jobs for undergraduate (and graduate) students with financial need. While not all these jobs start in a leadership role, some level of management is often within reach.

Work-study opportunities may include:

  • Dining Services
  • Resident Assistant
  • Office Assistant
  • Librarian’s Assistant
  • Lab Assistant
  • Social Media Management
  • Student Employment Coordinator

Internships offer many more opportunities to take on leadership roles.

The old stereotype of an “intern” being an unpaid student whose only job is to fetch coffee for the employer may have once had some truth to it, but this is not what good internships look like today!

A good internship should be an exciting challenge directly related to your field of study, an opportunity to demonstrate real leadership, and should (usually) be paid.

Informal Leadership

Thinking more broadly, student leadership can refer to any experience where you exhibit leadership qualities to help others or solve a problem.

There are lots of opportunities to do this in the classroom. Collaborative projects require leaders to initiate discussion, keep meetings organized and encourage team members to stay on task.

You can make your own opportunities, too. College students often organize informal gatherings like book studies, hobby clubs, bike tours, and other activities without considering the leadership qualities required to make it happen.

Of course, you’ll get the most benefit out of student leadership when you take steps to formalize your role. More on that below.

How Does Student Leadership Benefit You?

Engaging in some type of student leadership is so beneficial to you as a college student, it’s every bit as important as academic success.

Students discuss the social skills you can hone for student leadership.

To put it another way: academic study might be your vehicle, but leadership experience is the fuel. Leadership requires the development of new skill sets that are especially important to potential employers, like:

Some of those qualities include:

1. Confidence

To step into a student leadership role, you have to believe in your ability to do it. That’s true of anything you want to accomplish in life. If you had the confidence to take on a student leadership experience once, you can do it again – with a better idea of what to expect.

2. Communication

As a leader, you get lots of practice with communication. Your tasks are to clearly express your ideas and expectations, listen carefully, ask questions, thoughtfully and clearly respond – and do it all by email, phone, video conference, in-person, etc. – so your group can move forward.

3. Empathy

Successful leaders seek to understand where those they lead and serve are coming from. As a student leader, you’ll learn how far you get when you put your opinions aside long enough to deeply consider the point of view of others – and how little progress you make when you don’t.

4. Self-Awareness

Nothing brings your strengths and weaknesses into focus like taking on a student leadership role. When you pay attention to this, you get better at being more hands-on where you’re strong (owning tasks) and letting others handle the areas where you’re weak (delegating tasks).

5. Goal Focus

The more time you spend as a student leader, the better you will understand how easily organizations can lose focus and how important it is to have a respected leader who keeps it on track. You will learn from experience how to earn that respect and make progress toward goals.

6. Humility

You will make mistakes as a student leader. What you need to prove to yourself and future employers is not that you’re perfect, but that you can be humble enough to admit failures, apologize and move on. Confidence and humility are two sides of the same coin.

7. Realistic Optimism

Pessimism (assuming the worst will come) doesn’t encourage anyone to action. Extreme optimism (always assuming the best will come) makes people suspicious that you don’t know what you’re doing. You will learn that setting realistic expectations is part of effective leadership.

8. Inclusivity

Experience will teach you that getting too comfortable with your group can be dangerous for leaders. You’ll learn the importance of including new people and different ideas. It may be uncomfortable, but both are eventually required if your group is going to last and grow.

9. Dedication

Leadership can be fun, but it can also be tough at times. Sticking with it out of dedication to your people, your interests, or your goals, is a character-building exercise that will help you grow as a person. (You’ll also learn to step away and take time for yourself now and then.)

10. Self-Control

It’s natural to get mentally and emotionally invested in something you’re leading. It can be easy to go too far – to get so excited that it’s off-putting, or exhaust yourself putting in too much time, micro-managing, etc. You’ll get better at setting healthy boundaries for yourself the more you lead.

Student Leadership Opportunities at Davis & Elkins College

Our administrators, faculty, staff and students here at Davis & Elkins understand how important student leadership is. That’s why we offer more opportunities for students to take on leadership roles than most colleges our size (around 800 students).

Because they have so many ways to become student leaders, our students graduate with lots of leadership experience that leads to a high job placement rate.

Student leadership is not only beneficial for students. We believe it is vital for the health of our campus community that students own their experience here. From student government to academics, Division II athletics, student life and community outreach, students are leading the way every day at D&E.

Looking for opportunities to step into student leadership? Learn more about Davis & Elkins today.

Covid-19 update

D&E’s primary goal in our response to COVID-19 is the health of that community as we continue this institution’s mission of high standards of education, and to prepare and inspire students for success and thoughtful engagement in the world. Read more in our Guide for Returning to Campus.

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