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Notes from the Field - Your Brain on Leadership: The Causes and Consequences of Over-Involved Studen

*Notes from the Field are a special series of blog posts that will be published during the summer of 2018 from friends of the Diverse Democracy and Higher Education Project. Authors are current professionals working in a range of education related fields. They were simply asked to reflect on pressing issues that they have engaged with over the last year. The hope of the series is to provide fresh perspectives from those most proximate to the topics of relevance to this project! - Demetri


If you’ve worked on a college campus, particularly if you call a division of student affairs your professional home, there’s a good chance you’re familiar with awards season—the time toward the end of the spring semester in which outstanding student leaders are honored through a slew of celebrations, ceremonies, and banquets. And if you’re like me, your relationship with awards season goes one step further because you’ve either headed or participated in any number of selection committees tasked with determining which of the nominees are most deserving.

Participating in the selection process instills in me a sense of excitement and institutional pride. It’s both personally and professionally rewarding to see honorees commemorated via framed photos and plaques. proudly displayed in highly visible campus locations, while promotional materials bearing their faces and stories are distributed with the hopes of attracting top-tier prospective students. The efforts of those honored provide tremendous benefits to the campus community and beyond. Their achievements serve as a testament to the invaluable experience modern higher education can provide—something I value deeply as a student affairs professional.

Although the positive outcomes of the typical student awards process are manifold, a closer examination raises some concerns. In theory, selection committees are designed to thoroughly comb through the stacks of résumés and letters of recommendation, considering the full range of nominees. But in practice, the process often boils down to simpler criteria in which the same type of student rises to the top. Quantity more so than quality attracts the lion’s share of attention, as those who can list the highest number of positions held, awards and scholarships received, and projects completed tend to receive the plaudits.

Susan Cain, author of the book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, observes a similar dynamic in her New York Times op-ed written on the politics of the college admission process. Cain asserts that college applications packed to the brim with a never-ending list of leadership experiences are frequently favored over students who’ve sought depth rather than breadth, or those whose accomplishments are less-quantifiable. And while there is nothing wrong with a prodigious résumé, per se, when admissions offices, or in our case student awards selection committees, prioritize multiplicity, many meaningful student efforts are unfortunately not given their due.

At this point it might be worth reiterating that I am pro-student involvement. Its benefits have been demonstrated again and again. However, what also must be stated is that what qualifies as worthwhile involvement has been defined too narrowly. Those of us who frequently participate in student awards selection committees must make a concerted effort to ensure that a diversity of student experiences are valued and promoted. Otherwise, the message is sent that anything less than pursuing as many top leadership positions as possible is unacceptable. Such a prevailing attitude could result in students negatively self-selecting out of award opportunities: “Why bother? I’m only an officer in one club on campus.” This carries extra significance when considering that for many underrepresented students, extracurricular involvement of any kind is often a significant accomplishment in and of itself given the litany of challenges many of them face.

Perhaps more concerning than the lack of formal recognition, though, is the potential impact the awards selection status quo could have on a student’s development. Broadly speaking, development designates a process by which one positively expands their capacity to achieve, think critically, and make meaning of oneself and others. As student affairs professionals, we are charged with intentionally promoting the development of college students in all things we do. But as a field, our attention to that responsibility is quickly called into question when viewed through the lens of the student awards procedure.

In fact, as things stand, the student awards system in place may instead be hindering a student’s ability to learn and grow. Writing in the Harvard Business Review, Hougaard, Carter, & Afton (2018) put forth a premise that should haunt any of us who’ve been members of a selection committee. The authors state: “When we are busy, our brains default to pattern recognition. It wants simplicity. And when others talk to you, your brain will automatically look for what it has heard before and eliminate what is new.” When students scramble to acquire a multitude of leadership roles, an ostensibly constructive effort, science tells us they may be actually decreasing their ability to gain or hone the important skills extracurricular involvement is supposed to provide to begin with. But who can blame them? The type of behavior Hougaard, Carter, and Afton caution against is what’s most frequently rewarded.

To understand this fully, we must explore the difference between development and change. As mentioned above, development denotes significant, lasting transformation. Change, however, simply implies a new state of being. And even though change can be positive in nature, it doesn’t always stimulate the same sort of deeper, positive adjustments contained within the development process (Patton, Renn, Guido, & Quaye, 2016). So while I don’t doubt selection committees believe they are acting as positive influences in students’ lives, there’s a compelling case to be made that the opposite may be true. This is not to say excellence and achievement cannot be valued—they should be—but as members of selection committees we must seek to cultivate a campus environment in which students are incentivized to pursue more measured forms of student involvement.

Regrettably, many selection committees’ habits are deeply ingrained, originating from systemic issues found within many student affairs divisions in which more is frequently the expectation. This reality has further implications, too, considering that highly-involved student leaders are often encouraged to pursue a career in student affairs (Hunter, 1992). The same pattern of behavior that drives undergraduate students to pursue résumé padding could, in turn, rear its ugly head at the graduate preparation and professional levels, suggesting a possible through line contributing to the high rate of attrition among young student affairs professionals (Silver and Jakeman, 2014).

Despite the current literature on student development and leadership that places value upon a diverse array of extracurricular involvements and student experiences, not simply positional roles, I worry that in functional terms, the systems of recognition currently in place do not properly align with the texts meant to guide our practice. In this way, unless student affairs professionals are willing to address their proclivity for more, more, more, the field will continue to provide students with the a lower quality of service than so many of its members believe to be delivering.


Graham’s nascent student affairs career began in 2016 upon his graduation from the University of Vermont’s Higher Education and Student Affairs Administration masters program. He currently serves as the Assistant Director of the Student Activities and Leadership Center at the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology in Rapid City. Follow him on Twitter @graham_davis14 where he can be found tweeting about his favorite topic, the intersection of sports and politics.

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