3 Ways to Foster the Unconventional Student Leader

Our work in student affairs must be inclusive of all kinds of people. The programs and resources we provide should be accessible to anyone and everyone.

The student leadership roles on our campuses should be no different. Many students feel deterred from stepping up into prominent roles because of lack of confidence and guidance caused by a lack of mentors, not seeing people like them in leadership positions.

My growth in becoming a leader changed my life. It’s one where someone nudged and mentored me through my growth and development into a campus student leader. At the time, I was an uninvolved undergraduate student who was not fully confident in himself. One day I helped out with a program on a whim my Resident Assistant (RA) was planning around the video game Rock Band (dating myself here).

Immediately after helping my RA out, I was recommended to apply for the upcoming RA hiring process, and again, I applied on a whim and wasn’t expecting much would come of it. To my surprise, I received an offer in the residential complex I wanted (and accepted), and the next two years I found myself in a role that helped me grow so much. I felt supported to continue nurturing my unique introverted leadership by reading books and utilizing my skills to help our team. Someone saw value in me and because of that I took a leap that I would not have otherwise taken.

I am not considered your typical leader. We need to understand that ‘unconventional’ holds value and continues to bring a unique and new perspective to the table. I’m not the most outgoing person; I’m at times too relative, I can be too emotional, too logical, and I’m not super assertive. On the flip side, I’m passionate, creative, focused, dedicated, and very optimistic. In higher ed, we’ll continually need different people working together with varying personalities, strengths and weaknesses to achieve the best results. At times it can feel uncomfortable or create conflict, but it helps us in more ways than we may fully understand in the moment.


If we want to attract unconventional student leaders we must recruit them in unconventional ways.

This can include giving a personal recommendation to encourage various students to apply. Personally for me, it meant a lot to me to know someone thought I’d make a good RA. I wouldn’t have applied otherwise. Also, allowing and encouraging current student leaders to refer people they know can help bring in people who might otherwise not be considered.

During the interview process, we can also foster more access for unconventional (and differently abled) leaders to give questions via email ahead of time and/or provide them printed on the table when you’re interviewing the student. This allows those who may need more time to think, or need other assistance the ability to showcase their best selves right alongside everyone else.

We need to challenge our own biases about what leadership looks like. In recruitment, we tend to hire people who think and look like us and we need to understand how to combat biases during interviewing/recruiting.


Once a new student or staff member is hired, we need to offer training as part of the on-boarding process to familiarize them with the team, procedures and processes.

To foster unconventional leadership, you should train in unconventional ways as well. This could mean providing training online (a great option for universal access), or through role playing, or perhaps going over things personally, in a pair-share, or with a large group. While the content will vary by institution and office, the delivery methods need to be adapted for various learning styles among leaders.

It is also important to give students the option of “challenge by choice”. While growth is said to happen outside of your comfort zone, there is little that will drive someone away faster than being completely embarrassed or overwhelmed by some situation they’re forced to participate in.


After student leaders are trained, they’re ready to get to work!

It is important to provide ongoing support to your unconventional leaders, as they may be challenged by new roles and responsibilities. Coaching students throughout the year helps reinforce the importance of being confident in who they are as a leader, tapping into their own strengths (have them take StrengthsFinder if they haven’t already!), and validating their unique ideas. It is a very powerful thing to validate someone’s feelings that may not be considered a popular viewpoint.

There are many great videos, books, blogs, and professionals out in the world that can help develop your unconventional student leaders as they make their way and build their leadership style. Make sure to utilize all the resources that are at your disposal!

Here are four books I recommend as we plan to continue supporting unconventional leaders:

The Introverted Leader: Build Your Quiet Strength by Jennifer B. Kahnweiler

Self-Promotion for Introverts: The Quiet Guide in Getting Ahead by Nancy Ancowitz

The Introvert Advantage: How Quiet People Can Thrive in an Extrovert World by Marti Olsen Laney

Light It Up: Engaging the Introverted Student Leader by Amma Marfo

Encouraging ‘Unconventional’

The problems our campuses (and world) face are numerous and complex. The value is immense of having as many different people coming together to unify and utilize all their knowledge to try to create positive change. Student affairs professionals need to work to make sure their leadership roles are as open, available, and accessible as possible.

We’ll all benefit from unconventional; students and institutions alike.

How do you mentor and guide your unconventional student leaders?

Share your thoughts with us @HelloPresence & @HigherEd_Geek. We’d love to hear from you.


Dustin Ramsdell

About the author: Dustin Ramsdell (he/him) is a graduate of the Rutgers University College Student Affairs Ed.M Program. He is a proud nerd and self-affirmed "Higher Ed Geek" who is excited to connect with folks who share his love of deep conversations. Learn how we can help get your students involved.