Students leading students: a qualitative study exploring a student-led model for engagement with the sustainable development goals

University of Calgary

Publication Release Date: Aug. 19, 2022
Date Posted: April 13, 2023
Submitted by: Tyler Warnock
Sustainability Topic: Campus Engagement
Content Type: Publications
Publisher: Emerald Publishing
Periodical Name: International Journal of Sustainability in Higher Education
Type: Journal Article


Purpose Higher education institutions (HEI) play a critical role in developing student leaders equipped with the skills and knowledge needed to mobilize societal changes that the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) call for. To broaden this understanding, this study aimed to engage with student leaders of a grassroots, student-led initiative at the University of Calgary, the Sustainable Development Goals Alliance (SDGA), to better understand the experience of students who took on leadership roles in organizing SDG engagement activities.

Design/methodology/approach A qualitative thematic analysis was used to understand the experiences of 12 student leaders involved in SDG programming. Semi-structured interviews asked participants to reflect on their key learnings, skills development and overall student’s experiences of leaders involved in SDG programming. Thematic analysis was applied to determine emerging themes.

Findings Analyses showed that taking a leadership role in the SDGA empowered students to deepen their engagement with the SDGs and overcome barriers such as lack of knowledge and feelings of powerlessness. Secondary findings showed that community-building, flexibility and a sense of ownership were key strengths of the program and contributed toward student leaders’ feelings of hopefulness, self-confidence and inspiration.

Originality/value This work offers a window into the experiences of student leaders who have worked to advance SDG engagement within their institution. Our findings suggest that student-led initiatives represent untapped potential for HEIs to prioritize and support to help deliver on their SDG implementation and engagement efforts. As HEIs offer a vital space for innovation, policy and capacity building towards implementation of the SDGs, this work demonstrates how student leadership can yield grassroots influence on HEI commitments and responses to the needs of students.


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