Inspiring Cultural Leadership in College Students

Assistant Professor, Author, Speaker

Apr   2013



College is undoubtedly about much more than grades, degrees, and jobs. Another important outcome of college participation is personal growth, development, and maturity. Most college educators agree that we are not simply in the business of manufacturing college graduates but, more importantly, developing conscious citizens. And inspiring this complex understanding of the world and what role you have to play in making an impact is ultimately about leadership.

In my many years working with all types of college students, I have come to appreciate culture as a leadership tool. We all have it. We all need it. But too often, we aren’t provided opportunities to understand how our culture—our families and life experiences influence our leadership proxy—directs the way that we lead. Exploring culturally influenced leadership means exploring the full spectrum of a leader’s life experience. For Ally, one of my students, this meant taking time to learn the rich Italian heritage from which she comes. For Nick, it was about hearing the famous story of how his great-great grandmother escaped the Armenian Genocide. For Kirin, it involved hearing the prideful stories of the multiple generations that were able to attend college in her family during years when education wasn’t a real possibility for most African Americans.

Leadership is about much more than influencing and persuading others, managing an organization, or holding a large title. Leadership is about impact and meaning. What are you doing with your life? What is your purpose in the world? Who are you really? It is important for college students to develop the skills to lead organizations, the understanding of community issues to make a real impact, a sense of who they are and what they value, and the ways in which our careers, our personal lives, our community service, and our cultural past times don’t have to be separate in our lives. We can truly blend them all to create a truly rewarding life. I offer below how I have come to define cultural leadership based on my work with college students.

An understanding of the cultural self

Cultural leaders are constantly exploring and deepening their understanding of their cultural values, beliefs, and ideologies. Cultural leaders are reflective, wise, and holistic leaders who understand that the collective of their life experiences—in the classroom or on the block, in college or in church, through professional networks or through dysfunctional family trees—has made them who they are.

A use of culture as a leadership tool

Cultural leadership draws on things like the cultural arts, family and community fellowship, spirituality, and other creative forms of expression to create social change. Cultural leadership values the potential of culture to serve as a community education tool to teach politics of survival and to create a space for dialogue, discussion, action, and change.

A value for serving

Like the family, community, or village that grooms culture, cultural leadership is a selfless act. Cultural leaders understand that leadership is not about hierarchy, position, or top-down structures.

A sense of community love and rootedness

Cultural leaders are rooted in the community (to both the people and the land) in such a way that they do not feel like outsiders even if they are. Ultimately, this deep connection, commitment, and loyalty to a community is rooted in love. Cultural leaders are driven by an ethic of love—a love for people, a love for justice, and the hope for all people to experience not only equality (equality allows for basic needs to be accessed and met) but also, more importantly, a life filled with joy and love (which is a higher state of being).

A critical lens

Navigating the world when you are a part of an underrepresented cultural group often causes you to view that world a bit differently. The lived experience of underrepresented ethnic groups has taught us that important change is made when we turn a critical eye toward social norms, laws, values, and behaviors. We must embrace the art of questioning. Cultural leadership compels us to voice and act on our criticisms in an effort to make our world more inclusive, democratic, and free.

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About Dr. Toby S. Jenkins

Dr. Toby Jenkins is an Assistant Professor of Integrative Studies and Higher Education at George Mason University. She received her master's in College Student Personnel Services from the University of Maryland, College Park and completed her doctoral studies in Educational Theory and Policy at Penn State University. She has built a career providing key cultural programs and community initiatives to underrepresented ethnic markets and has developed a long list of creative and meaningful community programs (

My Culture, My Color, My Self: Heritage, Resilience, and Community in the Lives of Young Adults is available at,, and through all major booksellers.