A student leadership program empowering international students

International students in the United States as a whole face various barriers: language proficiency, lack of knowledge about the local academic culture and social conventions, lack of confidence (particularly for those who come from cultures that discourage talking about one’s own strengths), and visa and immigration regulations that really hinder professional development opportunities. However, this group of students who bring both diversity and revenues to the American Higher Education system, are ironically under-served.

As a former international student and a graduate of an International Education program, my career goal and passion is to provide quality student services to international students and help them successfully complete their degree programs. Thus, I am honored and thrilled to work with international students enrolled in the International Student Success Program (ISSP) at University of Massachusetts (previously known as Navitas at UMass Boston), a program that can provide me with a platform and resources to help students to transition.

Revamping the student leadership program

When I was first assigned to revamping our student leadership program, my biggest concern was how to create a program that is tailored to our students. I’ve seen many models for student leadership programs in American colleges, but I’ve noticed how rare it is for international students to be selected for them in practice because they could not really relate or benefit from participation. After assessing the needs of Navitas and its students, I initiated the LEADer program that centers on three major components of student life through Navitas activities: student activity, student communication and orientation.

Our model

The LEADers program stands for Leadership, Empowerment, Advocacy & Development, and its aims are to:

  • Expand members’ knowledge of student services programming and develop practical skills by assigning hands-on tasks in the fields of student activity planning and program development.
  • Enhance members’ professional portfolios through hard-skill training workshops on topics such as resume writing, cover letter building, interview skills and networking tips.
  • Gain effective communication and presentation skills as a leader and teammate.
  • Acquire knowledge of diverse cultures and cross-cultural communication.
  • Cultivate a sense of self-awareness through self-assessment and evaluation.

The program involves three student committees and professional development offerings for the leaders of each committee. This model creates real responsibilities for students, as the committees are tasked with playing various roles for the wider student community. The three committees are:

  1. Student Activity Committee – plans and carries out events and activities.
  2. Communication Committee – responsible for promoting and advertising events and activities via class visits and social media to yield higher participation rates.
  3. Orientation Committee – in charge of orientation planning and implementation.  

These committees receive close support and advice, with our staff helping to develop plans and track the progress of different tasks. The student leaders give weekly briefings to staff where they can talk through any ideas or issues arising in their committee. Leaders also receive monthly professional development workshops.

What do students get out of it?

  • Deep friendships among LEADers and strong community ties to Navitas.
  • Hands-on work that allows LEADers to practice their leadership skills.
  • Social celebration and recognition of their work, e.g. bowling events and ‘thank you’ dinners.
  • Professional development workshops tailored to members. These cover resume writing, interview skills, confidence building, networking, multiculturalism, leadership theories and communication skills.
  • Certificates and references for future employers. Clear and detailed commendations are awarded that specify the impressive skills and outcomes the student leaders achieve.

How did we make this program a reality?

Planning Stage:

Our culture at ISSP is all about students; if it’s good for students, the team makes it a reality. Thanks to supportive colleagues, it didn’t take long to launch this new program. After intensive research, I was able to put my thoughts into a proposal within two days. After that, I drafted job descriptions for the student leader roles and put together an application online using a Google Form. Emails, flyers, Facebook posts and Wechat posts were used as our communication channels to get the word out. The turnout was quite significant. We received 30+ applications after two weeks  (which equated to nearly 10% of our student population at that moment in time) for the first iteration of the program.

Implementation Stage:

Even though we only needed 11 students to form our first generation of LEADers, we decided to give all 30+ applicants a chance to interview with us. We set up half-hour interviews with each candidate and interviewed them all in a week. After careful consideration and evaluation, we picked our top 11 candidates and announced the good news to them. When we were ready to roll out the program, I provided specific expectations for each LEADer and ensured they knew their responsibilities and roles. I spent a fair amount of time putting together a ‘LEADers syllabus’ and outlined the program objectives, expectations, learning outcomes, position descriptions, participation rewards, and the training schedule with topics. I handed it out to LEADers during our first meeting.

Like every newly launched project, my main job at the time was to ensure that all LEADers were aware of what to do and were engaged. To achieve this, I required each committee to meet once per week and all committee leaders to meet with me once per week. On top of that, all LEADers needed to meet twice a month and update each other on what they were working on so they could all feel connected. A Facebook group was created as our main internal communication method to post announcements and updates. Our Communication Committee also created a Facebook Page and Instagram account (leaders.umb) to stay connected with our students by posting event flyers and photos.


After the LEADers program was established, we witnessed a salient growth of student participation at events we hosted. Since March 2017, we have had more than 40 students at every event, which has doubled the amount of students that were at events previously. Our LEADers are doing an extraordinary job at planning activities that students are interested in and engaging in campus life as a whole.  

Our June 2017 Event: Dragon Boat Race on Charles River

Professional Development Training for LEADers

Thanks to a recent restructuring of roles at each business unit in North America, my previous role was divided into two and my colleague Morgan Orlandi, the Student Experience Specialist, helps me with training material and presentations. The trainings we’ve carried out over the summer included the following topics: Identify Your Leadership Style; Confidence Building as an International Student; Understand Your Industry and Resume Writing; and Interview Skills. More training workshops will be conducted over the Fall semester. Stay tuned!

A staff and student partnership

My commitment to our LEADers not only includes daily availability for follow-ups and conversations, weekly debriefs about committee activities and monthly professional development training workshops, but also includes building trust and emotional support whenever LEADers need me. Trust is a core value of my work philosophy. In general, students should know me as their advisor and a friend who cares about them outside of school. Interestingly, I am finding that I turn to these student leaders for help as often as they turn to me! LEADers have become my go-to people when a student approaches me with a desire to make social connections, get involved in college life or to practice English. Our LEADers continually prove themselves invaluable to the wider community, communicating and connecting with the wider student community as only a peer can. I feel so proud and blessed to have them as my first class of LEADers.

LEADers Thank You Night, June 2017