Intentionally Using Environments in Student Leadership Developments

Intentionally Using Environments in Student Leadership Developments

Alex C. Lange
University of Georgia
J. Matthew Garrett
University of Georgia

There are several leadership development frameworks and theories that student affairs practitioners use on their campuses, such as the Social Change Model of Leadership and the Leadership Identity Development theory (Higher Education Research Institute, 1996; Komives, Longerbeam, Owen, Mainella, & Osteen, 2006; Komives, Wagner, & Associates, 2009; Kouzes & Posner, 2008; Komives, Lucas, & McMahon, 2013).  As more literature emerges, practitioners must realize that leadership development does not occur in isolation from other life processes (Dugan & Komives, 2010; Jones & Abes, 2013; Renn, 2003).  As practitioners design programs to develop college students’ leadership capacity, they must keep another variable in mind: the environment.  How can practitioners who utilize the Social Change Model develop socially responsible leaders (i.e., leaders who feel an obligation to benefit society at-large) in campus environments that support or hinder social responsibility?  How can practitioners create environments that support students’ ability to learn and grow from leadership education?  How do current social forces impact the environments where leaders develop?  Essentially, students make meaning of their college experience across offices and campus departments; thus, it is important to consider how we structure environments to support student development, and more specifically, their leadership capacity (Renn, 2003).  While one may think of an environment as the immediate space or place where the leadership lesson, conference, or education takes place, environments are multifaceted and need to be thought of more critically.

Bronfenbrenner’s (1979) Process-Person-Context-Time (PPCT) model provides a way for practitioners to analyze and create intentional learning environments for their students around leadership development (Dugan & Komives, 2010).  While there are other considerations for environmental frameworks, such as the Four Frames of Strange and Banning (2001) or Astin’s (1993) Inputs-Environments-Output (I-E-O) Model, the PPCT model looks more critically at different layers of environments that extend beyond the confines of a college campus and provides a guiding framework to analyze environments.  In this article, we discuss the PPCT model and heavily focus on the context component.  Implications of the model are discussed to help practitioners structure student leadership development opportunities beyond classroom lessons or program sessions.


As leadership educators ourselves, we personally and professionally believe that higher education is an opportunity for students to develop and learn more about themselves and the world around them.  We believe leadership is where students’ purposes and passions meet.  Students with a strong commitment to a given cause (e.g., social justice, AIDS education and prevention, climate change, etc.) can augment their classroom experiences into out-of-class experiences such as leading a weekly service trip or a student organization dedicated to a collaborative cause.  As partners in the learning process, we believe leadership development is work that all parts of campus life should help promote in students and that we should not see leadership development as housed within one office or division (Keeling, 2004).  Thus, we present Bronfenbrenner’s (1979) ecological model to help practitioners conceptualize how we develop student leaders with our current practice.

The PPCT Model

Bronfenbrenner (1979) built his environmental theory on two premises: first, human development is an evolving function of person-environment interaction; and second, this interaction must take place in the immediate setting in which the person exists (i.e., the immediacy requirement).  However, when Bronfenbrenner developed his model, technology and social media were over 20 years away from creation.  With mediums such as Facebook and Twitter widely used by college students, Bronfenbrenner’s immediacy requirement may no longer be applicable and often many of the interactions he described can be easily translated to a virtual series of interactions, such as a conversation over Skype, a series of comments on a Facebook quote, or the use of a Twitter hashtag to further a conversation about a trending topic.  While his original premises may need to be conceptualized differently, Bronfenbrenner’s framework still gives practitioners a strong model to structure developmentally supportive environments for students.

Bronfenbrenner (1979) proposed a model that allowed researchers to evaluate how development occurred “inside the interactions between individuals and their environments [and] see how and why outcomes may occur as they do” (Evans, Forney, Guido, Patton, & Renn, 2010).  All four levels of the Person-Process-Context-Time model are useful in broadly examining the processes and contexts of student development.  First, Person is considered to be the individual and the personal experiences and characteristics the individual brings to a given setting.  In Figure 1, the “student” in the center represents the person.  Second, the Process encompasses particular forms of ongoing, complex interaction between person and environment, as well as their reciprocal influences on one another (Bronfenbrenner & Morris, 2006).  Process is the component that accounts for the interactions one has with the levels of context.  For instance, how does one engage with one’s classroom environment versus the student activities office?  There are differences between how one may interact within these various environments.

Figure 1. Adaptation of Renn and Arnold’s (2003) PPCT

Next, Context refers to the layers of surroundings in the ecological model – the microsystem, the mesosystem, the exosystem, and the macrosystem.  Each level of environmental analysis allows leadership educators to examine the messages students receive around leadership “developmental forces and challenges, and resources or supports for addressing those challenges” (Renn, 2003, p. 388).  An illustration of the Context dimension is located in Figure 1, adapted for college students by Renn and Arnold (2003).

Microsystems and mesosystems are easier to identify on college campuses.  The microsystem is a pattern of activities, roles, and interpersonal relationship experiences by individuals in their immediate environment (Bronfenbrenner, 1979).  Microsystems for college students can include classrooms, residence halls, friendship groups, or student organizations (Renn, 2003).  Mesosystems occur when two or more microsystems interact.  It is important to examine mesosystems because the messages a student receives about leadership in one microsystem may be “supported or challenged” by messages in another microsystem (Renn, 2003, p. 389).  For example, a student may receive different messages about how leadership is viewed at home versus in a leadership education program.  Peer cultures are created within mesosystems and have a huge effect on college student development outcomes as they send powerful messages about the “desirability and acceptability of certain identities, attitudes, and behaviors” (Renn, 2004, p. 38).

Exosystems and macrosystems are levels of context that may be more invisible on college campuses.  Exosystems are environmental influences that have a direct impact on the student but do not necessarily have the student in that environment.  Renn (2003) cited faculty decisions about curriculum and federal financial aid policies as factors that influence the environment of a college student.  Decisions about these issues impact the student’s overall development, but the student is not present in those environments when these issues move forward and are decided upon.  These factors are unaccounted for in college student development research but are important in understanding the diversity of student experiences (Evans et al., 2010).  While exosystems do not contain the person, macrosystems encompass all people in any given environment.  Macrosystems are the most abstract levels of context, consisting of historical events and trends, social forces, and cultural expectations of the time (Bronfenbrenner, 1979).  For instance, the election of President Barack Obama and the Supreme Court’s decision on the Defense of Marriage Act did not happen on our campuses but may impact how our campuses operate or how our students experience their campus environments.

Finally, Time, the final component of the PPCT model, addresses “the cumulative effects of development before college, the course of events during college, and the larger effects of sociohistorical influences” on development (Renn, 2003, p. 392).  The PPCT model explicitly accounts for the time a person goes through a given process (i.e., time in college) while also accounting for the socio-historical forces of the time (i.e. elections, social trends while one is in college).  Time is represented as the thick gray outside ring of Figure 1.  Considering all aspects of the PPCT model, especially the Context dimension, it is important for practitioners to create intentionally supportive environments for college students’ leadership development.

Applying the PPCT Model

The Context dimension of Bronfenbrenner’s (1979) model for leadership educators provides practical applications for student affairs practitioners.  Practitioners have the most influence over microsystems through the intentional design of welcoming office spaces, the use of Twitter to engage students in conversations about leadership, or the design of programs that both challenge and support students around ideas of leadership (e.g., Who owns leadership?  Who gets to be a leader?  Is leadership positional?).  While practitioners cannot determine if campus offices and departments will become components of a student’s microsystem, practitioners can work to intentionally structure what is within their grasp.  The microsystems of an institution, which include the various departments inside and outside of student affairs, should all espouse and enact the same leadership framework throughout the institution. If institutions do not have a consistent framework, messages about leadership will clash with one another.  For instance, if an institution uses the Social Change Model of Leadership (Dugan & Komives, 2010) as a guiding framework, how is the physical space of an office on campus arranged to encourage collaboration amongst individuals?  Are there tables for individuals to come together and discuss different matters?  If an institution used the Leadership Identity Development model (Komives, et al., 2006) as a guiding framework for leadership development, how is leadership training offered?  Are trainings only opened to positional leaders?  Are there trainings and programs for students who may be new or beginning their respective leadership journey?  How are these programs communicated to students when they come into our offices or approach us on social media?  How do those trainings or programs challenge students’ current notions of leadership while introducing them to new ones?  Who is considered a leader in that office?  These questions are important to consider in terms of microsystems because they allow practitioners to understand how their immediate environments are set up and give a glimpse into how students make meaning of those environments.

Mesosystems provide great opportunities for practitioners to create consistent messages about leadership across campus offices and use a consistent framework to guide all offices and the division of student affairs at a particular institution (Garrett, 2012).  For example, a participant in Garrett and Cooper’s (2013) study indicated strong cognitive dissonance in the different messages a male student received about values from his religious community and his sociology class.  There was a lack of common ground that aligned the two values.  If campus offices and departments were more aligned, this student may have made more explicit connections within the mesosystem comprised of his classroom and religious community microsystems.

In practice, an optimal mesosystem at an institution seeks to have all students reach certain intended outcomes that the institution intends for students to achieve.  However, each microsystem can achieve these shared outcomes through different programs and services.  By using the mesosystem as a guiding framework, the individual experiences of students are honored while each office or department strives to set and achieve common leadership milestones.  When considering structuring micro- and mesosystems, consider the following questions: How do leadership educators help students make meaning from one leadership experience to another?  How are the skills learned as a Resident Assistant transferrable to their leadership experiences implementing a personal vision for positive change on campus?  Practitioners must have interdepartmental conversations about leadership development to help students make more connections and meaning out of their college experiences.

Exosystems are an area of context where practitioners can also make great strides in student leadership development.  Practitioners can help dismantle students’ exosystems and shift them to their microsystems.  Recall that exosystems exist “where there is a setting not containing the individual that nevertheless exerts influence on his or her developmental possibilities” (Renn & Arnold, 2003, pp. 271-272).  Leadership education curriculum is an example of an exosystem that students experience, yet they may not be a part of the curriculum development process.  The curriculum developed by a leadership curriculum committee has broad effects on the student who goes through that designed experience.

Another example of exosystems is students’ family environments.  Depending on the level of reliance, if any, to parents and family, students’ home environments can influence their development at post-secondary institutions.  A student’s ability to remain in college may be impacted by a parent’s income or workplace (Renn & Arnold, 2003).  While this is not an environment in which the student is present, it still affects the student’s development and ability to succeed.  An on-campus example of an exosystem is free speech zones and the policies surrounding free speech on campus.  How are students affected by these policies and how do they know what these policies are?  This exosystem could be dismantled by having students serve on the committee that makes policy decisions and/or providing them with a clear protocol to submit policy grievances.

While practitioners may have less control over exosystems, it is important for them to identify students’ exosystems and dismantle them.  For instance, when developing free speech policy or leadership curriculum, whenever possible, try to include students’ input and ideas.  By putting students on committees and/or giving them more voice in committee decisions through feedback and open meetings, we dismantle their exosystems and help them make meaning in a more immediate environment.

Finally, macrosystems are often out of the control of practitioners. As legislation, such as the Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act moves through Congress, practitioners can use these macrosystems to create dialogue about leadership and positive social change (Dugan, Bohle, Gebhardy, Hofert, Wilk, & Cooney, 2012). Conversations can take place in specific leadership programs or through social media, such as Twitter or Facebook.  Twitter provides practitioners the ability to understand the social and historical trends affecting students’ development in real time.  When students observe and comment on these social forces (e.g., the DREAM Act, the overturning of the Defense of Marriage Act, etc.), this is a prime opportunity for practitioners to engage students in discussion on how these social forces may relate back to the Social Change Model of Leadership or challenge a student’s notion of leadership.  Macrosystems may be out practitioners’ control, but using them in discussions with our students can help further the way they make meaning about these social forces.

Bronfenbrenner’s (1979) PPCT requires a great deal of intention in practice.  Institutional buy-in and adequate time are both important considerations in utilizing this framework to promote student leadership development.  It is also important that an institution has a defined model of leadership development that is accessible to students, faculty, and staff to learn about and utilize in services and programs.  Using the model, practitioners can support students (the Persons) as they navigate, learn, and make meaning of their college experience (Process) over time through intentional design and use of environments (layers of Context).  While the model can help practitioners more intentionally structure their daily practice as student affairs professionals, we believe the model is well suited for student leadership development across the institution.

Discussion Questions

  1. How can you deconstruct students’ exosystems and make them into students’ microsystems?  For instance, where can we place students in decision-making processes so they help make decisions about their experiences (e.g., free speech policies, leadership curriculum committees, etc.)?
  2. Does your office share an idea about leadership with other offices in your division?  If so, how is that idea of leadership shared with students?  If not, how can you begin to move to a common leadership framework?


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About the Authors:

Alex C. Lange, M.Ed., recently received his degree in College Student Affairs Administration from the University of Georgia.  He will begin work at Michigan State University this summer as the Assistant Director for their LBGT Resource Center.  Alex’s research interests include environmental theories of student development and using critical theory in identity development research. Alex hopes to continue as a scholar-practitioner in the field of student affairs.

Please e-mail inquiries to Alex C. Lange.

J. Matthew Garrett, Ph.D. is the Director of the Office of Student Leadership and Service and Associate Dean for Campus Life at Emory University.  Matt received his Ph.D. in Counseling and Student Personnel Services from the University of Georgia.  Matt also serves as the Vice-Chair for Research for the American College Personnel Association Commission for Student Involvement.  Matt’s research interests include socially responsible leadership and integrity development of college students. 

Please e-mail inquiries to J. Matthew Garrett.


The ideas expressed in this article are not necessarily those of the Developments editorial board or those of ACPA members or the ACPA Governing Board, Leadership, or International Office Staff.

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