The Power of National Leadership Experiences

As National Student Leadership Week approaches, students from across the country likely will be having discussions focused on campus involvement, while advisers and fellow faculty members will likely be having discussions about student engagement, student needs, and methods for best practices in supporting students as they embark on their individual extracurricular journeys.

My journey as a student leader began in college. Now, as an administrator, I often reflect on the myriad activities I was not encouraged to participate in at the secondary level. Opportunities for student involvement and engagement at middle or high school campuses are standard practice; however, opportunities for involvement in national leadership programs, conferences, and summits are just as valuable and prolific, but can often be overlooked. The impact that student conferences and summits make in the lives of participating students can be invaluable, as these programmatic opportunities increase student knowledge, skills and efficacy, and ultimately empower students to remain engaged and involved in their communities and to engage with the larger national and global community.

For the purposes of this piece, I will use the National Association of Secondary School Principals’ (NASSP) national programming as an example that demonstrates the importance of national conferences and summit-style programs as alter­natives and/or additions to a student’s cocurricular schedule.

“Out of the Classroom” Leadership

The moment I was asked by NASSP to assist in the design, facilitation, and curriculum development for NHS and NJHS State Summits and the LEAD Conferences, I jumped at the chance to be included in what can be described as some of the most unique cocurricular student experiences nationally. Having been an adviser and student affairs practitioner at a postsecondary institution for many years, I often wondered what the “outside of the classroom” leadership experience would look like in this context.

As middle level and high school campuses continue to encourage practices and curriculum conducive to academic and personal achievement, student engagement, diversity, and life skills, it’s clear that leadership events can only add to a student’s school experiences. Opportunities for students to engage in national leadership work become increasingly salient and serve as valuable experiences for any student wanting to acquire new skills, in a new setting, among new peer groups and experienced leaders.

Participation in NHS, NJHS, NASC, and LEAD Conferences traditionally occurs in a chapter/in-house style structure, which often includes development opportunities for engagement with peers and advisers alike. More recently, and as an added feature, these organizations have taken to the national conference/summit circuit in an effort to increase student outcomes and engagement in the area of leadership development. More importantly, these conference experiences provide an opportunity for students to engage in a hands-on, well-rounded, impactful curriculum. Conference-style leadership experiences aim to:

  • Provide new information in the areas of student leadership and academic and personal success. Students from various middle level schools and high schools who are involved in student leadership programs likely have had exposure to discussions around college access, academic achievement, and personal achievement. Conference opportunities provide additional space for these discussions and bring together individual professionals in areas like college admissions, academic achievement, personal achievement and life skills, and diversity. NASSP student leadership conferences, for example, are intentional in their design and content and are committed to empowering students.
  • Create and present unique content and curriculum in the area of leadership to harness students’ strengths. Content and curriculum presented at student summits and conferences are often cutting edge and crafted with student engagement at the crux of their purpose. Conferences and summits are constructed by a team of content professionals who work to create an intentional curriculum with special attention to the needs of students at both the middle and high school levels. Facilitators offer various workshops and seminars in an effort to diversify both learning spaces and learning opportunities for students. This also provides students with the opportunity to network with various professionals, faculty, and staff from across different platforms.
  • Include practices conducive to creating a culture of inquiry. Many student conference and summit programs create learning and thinking spaces where students are encouraged to think critically, ask questions, and analyze and interpret information—they’re essentially tasked with leading. This is a critical component in creating a culture of inquiry and an element that makes many student national conferences and summits unique from other ways of learning..
  • Include practices that support constructivism and a constructivist teaching lens. Many of these conference and summit programs create an intentional “think tank”-style space, which utilizes the staff as “guides on the side” as opposed to “sages on the stage.” Students are given direction by the facilitating staff but are engaged in active and meaningful discussion, allowing themselves and their peers the latitude to deduce their own meaning, points, and reflections. Instead of directly guiding students, the facilitator sets a learning atmosphere with maximum opportunity for the students themselves to visualize, articulate, express, explain, interpret, and apply new knowledge. This provides a different learning experience outside of a teen’s everyday classroom and encourages student participation. (Keep in mind: Students want to share what they know.) Additionally, many national conferences include opportunities for students to engage in seminars, activities, or presentations of their choice, which encourages them to pursue their personal interests. Allowing space for student agency—and the opportunity to create their own schedule—leads to an increase in student buy-in and engagement.

Why Conferences Matter

So, why are student conferences and summits so important? Well, they work. Conferences are a shift from a student’s everyday, on-campus experiences. Student leadership conferences and summits bring together students from various schools, school districts, and even various states. The opportunity to bring together talent and young leaders and visionaries across these demographics and mediums is invaluable. Large group events provide a cutting-edge way to address ideas and problems with students from different spaces. Additionally, many student conferences and summits include a travel component, which allows students to experience varying viewpoints, individuals from different cultures, and other nuances related to travel and personal development.

Conferences also meet a direct and palpable need and provide an excellent service in the area of leadership competency training. The objectives of these conference-style events are simple: to provide students with a unique space for learning outside of their respective schools while concurrently developing their skills in various personal, academic, and additional competency areas. Ultimately, students will leave national conferences empowered, knowledgeable, and with new skill sets to take back to their respective communities. Hopefully, they also leave with a new friend from a different school, city, or state. I encourage all advisers, faculty, and administrators working with student groups to take the plunge. There is a world of opportunity for your students at a national conference or summit. I hope to see you at one soon!


Andrea “Drea” Elzy, MEd, is a doctoral candidate at the Rossier School of Education at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles.