Developing social justice leaders

What can happen when 4,300 emerging social justice leaders are given an international higher education opportunity that enables them to transcend social, economic and political barriers?

This article is part of a series on Transformative Leadership published by University World News in partnership with Mastercard Foundation. University World News is solely responsible for the editorial content.

It turns out that they can impact the lives of an estimated 9.5 million individuals globally. This is one among the key findings of Social Justice and Sustainable Change: The impacts of higher education, a new report by the Institute of International Education that is the first milestone in a 10-year impact study of the alumni of the Ford Foundation International Fellowships Program, or IFP, and that follows 4,300 individuals across 22 countries.

Grounded in the principles of access and equity, IFP hypothesised that if talented and emerging leaders from the most marginalised communities of the developing world were given the right opportunities for advanced studies, they would eventually go on to be critical change agents for their communities, their societies and the world.

Our study shows that this original goal has been realised and that IFP alumni are at the forefront of social justice issues, occupying positions of leadership in the non-profit sector, in academia, in the political sphere and in domestic and international policy-making.

Almost 87% of responding alumni report that IFP helped improve their leadership skills, with 80% holding senior leadership roles, including as founders of grassroots organisations and as strategic leaders in national governments and international organisations.

One example of this type of transformational leadership is Wariyatun, an Indonesian alumnus of the 2010 cohort who used her fellowship to obtain a masters in applied anthropology with a focus on gender and development from Australian National University.

Having escaped a life of poverty and teen marriage, Wariyatun first worked with Sahabat Perempuan ('Friends of Women') as a women’s rights advocate. She returned after her IFP fellowship to become the chairperson and now leads their efforts to end gender-based violence in Central Java.

The transformational impact of IFP goes beyond the individual, inspiring change in the home community of alumni. As social justice leaders, IFP alumni have brought their fellowship knowledge and skills to their communities – engaging in advocacy work and participating in government meetings, creating grassroots organisations and local campaigns.

Some 77% of alumni respondents feel they are a role model to their community and 63% indicate that others in their community look to them when advocating for social justice.

Multiplier effect

Our study shows that one of the most significant contributions of IFP alumni as social justice leaders is their creation of new organisations and programmes designed to address social justice and development issues. Alumni surveyed indicate that the multiplier effect of these new entities reaches far beyond the individual beneficiaries of the programme, reaching a communal, national and global scale.

Respondents estimate that these new programmes and organisations have an impact on approximately 9.5 million adults and children in the IFP home countries and 860,000 individuals in other countries.

Despite these overwhelmingly positive findings, the extent to which IFP alumni have access to leadership roles and are able to fully leverage their leadership potential varies significantly by their current location, region and gender.

Not surprisingly, those who had returned to their home country reported higher levels of leadership (82%) than did those who were outside their home country (63%). Alumni in Africa and the Middle East reported the most leadership advancement directly related to IFP, as compared with those from either Asia and Russia or Latin America.

Similarly, although large proportions of male and female alumni reported being in positions of leadership, women were slightly less likely to do so than men.

Institutional factors

Our new report is also an occasion to look back and examine some enabling factors at the institutional level that contributed to the success of IFP and the role of the 615 universities in 49 countries that hosted IFP fellows.

Past work by T Bigalke and M Zurbuchen, authors of the 2014 book Leadership for Social Justice in Higher Education, has shown that institutions that were especially well-qualified to partner with IFP had four elements in common: a desire and willingness to diversify their international student population; flexible admissions processes; strong academic mentoring and support systems; and responsive international student services.

A key assumption of the IFP model was that an appropriate fit between the host institution and the fellow was critical to success, and hence the selection of host institutions was guided by these four features rather than external criteria such as rankings.

The host institutions worked closely with IFP to develop 'bridging' programmes that enabled fellows to strengthen their English and their academic writing. In this way, IFP has also had a significant and lasting impact on host institutions around the world by encouraging them to re-think traditional admissions practices and by making higher education systems more accessible to diverse populations of international students.

Our study of the longitudinal impact of IFP will continue until 2023 and during this time we hope to document the growth and success of social justice leaders globally. The development of leaders is an explicit or implicit goal of many international scholarship programmes today and our study provides useful lessons for how the multiplier effects of leaders can be studied over time.

Rajika Bhandari is deputy vice president of research and evaluation at the Institute of International Education.