Giving Back and Developing Connections: Supports for Self-Determination and Initiative In a College Leadership Group



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The developmental period of adolescence typically refers to the years between 13 and 19, and is associated with developmental tasks that help youth become young adults. The transition to adulthood is typically recognized by common adulthood benchmarks such as leaving home, finishing school, marriage, financial independence and having children. However, many young men and women attending college remain financially and emotionally dependent on their parents, as they have not entered the professional work ranks and are faced with the challenges of college. Increasingly, colleges and universities are becoming places to help teach young people to become prepared for the professional ranks and engaged with the world that surrounds them. However, very little research in higher education is focused on the developmental benefits associated with the college experience. The purpose of this study was to examine the presence of developmental supports for self-determination and initiative in a student leadership program. Throughout the youth development literature, self-determination and initiative are recognized as important internal capacities that aid young people as they transition to adulthood. These concepts provide the theoretical lens for a qualitative case study of a college leadership group. Data were gathered through in-depth semi-structured interviews, observations, a year end focus group, and supplemented by a review of the organizational instruments and tools they develop. Findings from this study confirm past studies of youth development organizations and extend this work by applying it to the developmental period of emerging adulthood. For the leadership group under investigation, initiative and self-determination were supported primarily through the actions of peers within the group. The experience of student leaders often shaped how the group was led, and these leaders became an important source of support for the basic needs of relatedness, competence, and autonomy within the group. The study covers a three-year period, and contrasts how peer leadership changed and impacted group functioning and performance over time. Practical implications of the study relate to the important role of faculty and graduate student advisors in training and monitoring student leaders before these individuals take a formal leadership role for these groups.