Fourth Wave Student Development: Constructing Student Affairs-Driven Spaces that Deliver Knowledge and Tools for Effecting Social Change

About the Study 

The following study explored the concept of fourth wave student development spaces within student affairs. Modeled after Susan Jones and Dafina-Lazarus Stewart’s proposed three waves of student development, this study argues that the evolution of student development theory, in conjunction with emerging leadership theories rooted in democratic principles, presents a new strategy for student development-centered programming. Here proposed, fourth wave student development spaces provide cocurricular educational opportunities that: 

  1. Convey the importance of equity and social justice; 
  2. Model what equitable, socially-just spaces look like; 
  3. Provide opportunities for students to build their own tools related to equity and social justice. 

Student affairs’ growing emphasis on programs that promote equity and social justice, matched with its organizational separation from hierarchical power structures typical of academic affairs, uniquely positions it to construct these types of spaces. In turn, student affairs can better disrupt historical patterns of discrimination that continue to pervade colleges and universities in ways that reinforce social inequities. The University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee is used here as a case for understanding this scenario, though results from the program also indicate promising opportunities for student affairs-driven fourth wave programming across various institutional dimensions. 

Theoretical Foundations 

In the Evolution of Student Development Theory, Jones and Stewart build from feminist theorists’ conceptualizations of waves of feminism, to conceptualize waves of student development. With foundational origins in the first wave, increasingly diverse perspectives in the second wave, and post-structural critical approaches in the third wave, Jones and Stewart convey the breadth of scholarship circulating within student affairs—specifically emphasizing problematic foundations and promising opportunities. 

They argue that the third wave of student development theory turns to unpacking critical and post-structural approaches. Generally speaking, these are: 

“Perspectives that critique, challenge, and seek to dismantle inequitable power structures … We understand such perspectives to be critical in that they are informed by an explicit acknowledgment and foregrounding of hegemonic norms (that is, those norms and values that reflect dominant groups in the United States) through analyses of the impacts of structural and systemic oppression and privilege on individuals and their learning and development … Such perspectives challenge tacit assumptions about the nature of identity and social relations by situating social identities as products of inequitable power structures instead of inherent and natural.” 

Ultimately, these approaches seek social justice, which Teaching for Diversity and Social Justice defines as: 

“Both a process and a goal. The goal of social justice is full and equitable participation of people from all social identity groups in a society that is mutually shaped to meet their needs. The process of attaining the goal of social justice should also be democratic and participatory, respectful of human diversity and group differences, and inclusive and affirming of human agency and capacity for working collaboratively with others to create change.” 

When combined with Peggy McIntosh’s foundational characterization of white privilege, Allan Johnson’s understanding of oppression, and Kimberlé Crenshaw’s conceptualization of intersectionality, there are clear third wave student development priorities that present an opportunity to understand social justice in university spaces—particularly within student affairs.   

But what comes next? How do we go beyond providing critical frameworks for understanding and build social infrastructure for action? If we are to disrupt the continuous reproduction of privilege and power in our institutions and communities, we need to consider capacity for engagement in student development. That is, we need to do a better job threading students’ understanding of their own diverse and intersecting identities with their ability to take that understanding, graduate, and engage with the world in a way that advances equity and social justice across disciplines. When combined with theoretical elements of the three student development waves, leadership theories rooted in democratic principles present an opportunity to do this.   

The Fourth Wave of Student Development Theory 

In their book “Learning as a Way of Leading: Lessons from the Struggle of Social Justice,” Stephen Preskill and Stephen D. Brookfield understand democracy as: 

“A struggle against ideologies that exclude disenfranchised groups from full and equal participation in social life—ideologies of white supremacy, class superiority, patriarchy, homophobia, ableism, and so on. Learning democracy can happen only in the doing of democracy. The first step in this process is for leaders to make a public commitment to working democratically as communicators, learners, and collaborators.” 

Two theories of leadership present an opportunity to support development of democratic educational spaces. First is Alexander W. Astin and Helen S. Astin’s Social Change Model of Leadership, which is designed to increase self-knowledge and leadership competence of students and lead to positive social change through seven Cs: consciousness of self, congruence, commitment, collaboration, common purpose, controversy with civility, and citizenship. Second is Susan R. Komives, Nance Lucas, and Timothy R. McMahon’s conceptualization of the Relational Model of Leadership, which defines leadership as, “A relational and ethical process of people together attempting to accomplish positive change.”  

Table 1, Fourth Wave Student DevelopmentAstin and Astin’s social change model and the relational model presented in the book “Exploring Leadership: For College Students Who Want to Make a Difference,” both represent frameworks that intersect well with theoretical priorities of student development in student affairs. Combined, these theoretical foundations provide an extensive foundation for building democratically principled leadership opportunities that reflect the guiding values of student affairs and help to disrupt institutional reproductions of social inequities. When combined with key elements of student development theory’s three waves, we arrive at a new frontier for our understanding of student development. 

Extrapolating from Jones and Stewart’s work, one can enter a fourth wave of student development theory that layers the best elements of the three previous waves with leadership theories rooted in democratic principles. This arrives at an approach to student development that prepares students to not only identify oppressive structures and engage with them based on an understanding of individual identities, but also to utilize engagement techniques that dismantle those oppressive structures. The fourth wave is the next level—a logical next step to an understanding of successful student development. It provides students with a degree of agency uncharacteristic of the first three waves. A social justice leadership development program at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee (UWM) is a model for developing fourth wave programming. 


Lead the Change: A Social Justice Leadership Program 

UWM was certainly not the first institution of higher education interested in building a social justice leadership development program. Not wanting to reinvent the wheel and knowing universities across the United States had put in the hard work to develop their own social justice leadership programming, the creation of a social justice leadership development program at UWM began with external benchmarking. Through phone, email, and survey communication with 14 different institutions across the country, the UWM Student Involvement-Sociocultural Programming team (SI-SCP) investigated where and how programs were structured, how curriculum was developed, who facilitates activities, key partners outside of the institution, working definitions of social justice, theoretical frameworks informing programming, primary learning outcomes, methods for measuring outcomes, and advice for implementation.     

Rooted in theoretical frameworks from preliminary research and external benchmarking (e.g., the relational model and social change model of leadership) the team developed six broad learning outcomes rooted in fourth wave spaces: 

  • Recognize unique identities. Participants will understand and own the many ways that their race, gender, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, age, ability, spiritual/religious background, and life experiences all overlap and intersect to create unique patterns of privilege and oppression that shape their lived experiences and approaches to social justice. 
  • Make better mistakes. Participants will develop comfort in not having all the answers, and an openness to learning from others based on their unique identities. 
  • Engage resistant peers. Participants will feel confident in their ability to address inappropriate comments or behavior coming from their friends, classmates, and coworkers. 
  • Use government. Participants will understand the work involved in democracy, and the steps they can take to hold elected representatives accountable for producing socially just legislation. 
  • Tell stories. Participants will understand the importance of storytelling in building the people power needed to effect change. From this, participants will think about their own story and be able to connect it to their social
    justice leadership. 
  • Build inclusive communities. Participants will understand what is at stake when we do not create inclusive communities. In turn, participants will understand first steps toward creating those communities.  

Based on these outcomes, the team looked to Benjamin Bloom’s taxonomy of measurable verbs to develop specific competencies that address different levels of learning in each outcome. They then developed specific competencies for each learning outcome using Corey Seemiller’s “The Student Leadership Competencies Guidebook: Designing Intentional Leadership Learning and Development.” Seemiler defines competencies as “knowledge, values, abilities, and behaviors that help an individual contribute to or successfully engage in a role or task.” She emphasizes that leadership demands competency-based emphases on social justice, inclusion, social responsibility, and self-awareness. With competencies characteristic of these categories and our learning outcomes in mind, the team ultimately landed on the 27 competencies highlighted in Table 1 based on their corresponding outcome and level of learning.  

Workshop Competencies Based on Learning Outcomes and Corresponding Learning Level 

From these competencies and data collected from external benchmarking, UWM developed a seven-week, cohort-based social justice leadership program that would begin with establishing a common language for participation and dive increasingly deeper into content. After revising the program after the first semester based on assessment, SI-SCP ultimately structured the program as the following six-week, cohort-based program:

Workshop 1 

Allies, Advocates, and Activists: Unpacking Your Privilege and Carving
Out Your Place in the Movement for Social Justice  

How do you hope to engage with issues of social justice? From listening to and affirming the experience of marginalized peers, to speaking out against injustice, to actively fighting for social change, come to this workshop and learn about the first steps of getting involved.  

Workshop 2 

Intent versus Impact: Engaging in Critical Conversations About Language  

This workshop focused on microaggressions—a term used to describe offensive/hurtful actions and comments that perpetuate stereotypes of marginalized groups of people. Participants were able to identify microaggressions and develop strategies for discussing them.  

Workshop 3 

Responding to Resistance: Confronting Those Who Refuse to Challenge the Status Quo  

Have you ever encouraged someone to reconsider the way they talk about something, only to be asked, “Are you calling me a sexist?” or, “Why do you always make this about race?” This workshop broke down these responses and provide tools for addressing similar conversations in class, work, family, and friend groups.  

Workshop 4 

We the People: Holding Elected Officials Accountable Through Our Democracy  

We pay our elected officials to represents our interests and have a right to ensure they do. In this workshop, participants practiced strategies for putting pressure on their representatives at all levels of government—from City Hall to Capitol Hill.  

Workshop 5 

Organizing for Action: Coalition Building to Restore Power to the People  

If we want to effect change, we need to work together. This workshop focuses on strategies for building strong, values-based relationships with people similarly invested in promoting social justice. Content centered around articulating a story of the values and life experiences that shape your commitment to the movement.  

Workshop 6 

Everyday Inclusion: Centering Folks of Marginalized Identities in Your Classroom, Workplace, and Friend Group  

In a classroom and workplace, who is heard and who isn’t? Whose perspective is encouraged, and whose is inappropriately silenced? Everyone benefits when a diverse array of voices are represented at the table and in the conversation. This workshop focused on techniques for creating inclusive spaces in everyday life. At the end of the workshop, participants also celebrated completion of the series and award certificates! 

Assessment Methods 

Formal assessment of Lead the Change was built to inform future iterations of the program. All participants in the formal fall 2017 evaluation of the workshop series were UWM students who self-selected to participate in the program. UWM executed a marketing campaign to raise awareness of the program, interested students voluntarily signed up through an online registration system, and workshops were held in medium-sized classroom-style spaces in the UWM Union. 

Twenty-seven students voluntarily participated in the formal evaluation of the workshop series. Of the participants who responded to demographic-based questions in the first workshop, a majority were 18 to 21 years of age (N = 18, 81.82%), female (N = 17, 77.27%), and straight/heterosexual (N = 14, 66.67%). Participants were from a diverse range of disciplines, race/ethnicities, and spiritual/religious backgrounds.  

Self-perception pre-assessments and self-perception post-assessments were created for each of the six workshops. On the pre- and post-assessments, participants were invited to respond to Likert Scale competency-based statements ranging from 1 (disagree) to 4 (agree). Each assessment also included short answer questions. Post-assessments also promoted participants to indicate their level of growth regarding the competencies. Finally, each post-assessment included a demographics section. 

Matched with results from the qualitative components of workshop assessments and full-series evaluation, results mostly indicate success in addressing knowledge, comprehension, and application-centered competency-based outcomes. In turn, this indicates success in addressing the six major learning outcomes for Lead the Change. 

Still, there are many improvements to make, and many ways to increase depth of learning in the workshop series. For example, future iterations of the workshop series could consider implementing a specific, cohort-based social change project that the group could carry out together. Additionally, self-perception is not necessarily the best measure of whether learning occurred. To emphasize growth through the program and not make participants feel like they needed to pass a test to succeed in the program, assessment relied on self-perception. However, future analyses of the program would benefit from some concrete, proficiency-based assessment components. 

Overall, these results contribute to the largely successful creation of a fourth-wave space. Earlier defined, fourth-wave spaces layer the best elements of the first three waves of student development theory with leadership theories rooted in democratic principles—arriving at an approach to student development that prepares students to not only identify oppressive structures and engage with them based on an understanding of individual identities, but also to utilize engagement techniques that help dismantle those oppressive structures. Lead the Change went beyond analyses of individual identities (first wave) and dove into discussions focused on how those identities shape unique patterns of privilege and oppression (second and third waves). These discussions were then paired with strategies for recognizing unique identities, making better mistakes, engaging resistant peers, using government, telling stories, and building inclusive communities —all practiced within a largely democratic space (fourth wave).  

Thinking About Fourth-Wave Spaces at Other Institutions of Higher Education 

In Teaching Community: A Pedagogy of Hope, bell hooks argued, “The purpose of education is not to dominate, or prepare [students] to be dominators, but rather to create the conditions for freedom.” While this may be the purpose, it is not the current outcome. Dorian McCoy and Dirk J. Rodricks suggest we are currently in a place where, “The U.S. university campus unites without interruption, the systemic oppression and individual interactions between social identities contributing to reproduction in larger society.” So how do we move away from their diagnosis, and toward hooks’ vision? How do we build an academy that reflects the democratic principles and equitable opportunity we say we value? 

Fourth wave student development opportunities like Lead the Change are a place to start. Through the program, the UWM Union supported conditions for freedom through facilitation styles rooted in democratic principles. In the end, while it is difficult to create a truly democratic space with workshop elements like a pre-arranged curriculum and attendance tracking, workshop feedback indicated the space created through the opportunity of student affairs was distinct from the traditional classroom.  

Programs like Lead the Change cannot be treated like packaged curriculum—suitable for delivery to any random group of participants. Content needs to be adapted by expectations surrounding who is in the room: What are some of the identities of participants, what do they already know about social justice, what are they looking to learn? This is why Lead the Change was built as a cohort, and not a series of one-off workshops. By asking identity-based and open-ended questions, facilitators adapted curriculum up until the beginning of the program. 

These questions included: 

  • What is a specific social issue you’re interested in, or a general skill you’d like to develop related to social justice leadership? 
  • Which of your life experiences have led you to want to be an agent of change? 
  • Do you have any concerns about participating in the workshop series? 
  • Can you list any accommodations you need/want to be able to fully participate in the Lead the Change workshop series? 

Without these data, it would be impossible to know how to develop a team of facilitators who model the diverse identities of participants (prepared and willing to challenge and support workshop participants differently based on their own privileged and oppressed identities), whether there were certain topics to stay away from, specific adjustments to make to the space or activities to ensure everyone could equally participate, or whether content would be too basic or advanced for workshop participants. Collecting this information, processing it, and adjusting it to meet the needs of every specific group is a lot of work. To build capacity for programs like Lead the Change and fourth wave spaces in general, individuals developing the space need to buy into the method.  

Though it is a lot of work, the adaptability and opportunity of the fourth-wave model is an asset to the development of similar programs at other institutions of higher education—even when the institution is in no way like UWM, a large, public, and urban campus. Regardless of whether an institution of higher education is big or small, public or private, urban or rural, predominantly students of color or predominantly white—every institution has the opportunity and responsibility to construct fourth-wave spaces to support students and confront systemic inequities.  

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