Understanding First Year Students’ Motivations for Social Justice Engagement

Social Justice Educators are often seeking new and innovative means to engage students in social justice dialogue and action on their campuses. Educators try a range of activities aimed at reaching different learning styles, vary event venues and explore co-sponsorships with student organizations, and plan events in collaboration with students knowing that the power of peer facilitation speaks volumes. Despite our efforts to find new faces, reach new minds, and gather new viewpoints, we continually experience the same challenge – finding only familiar faces in the audience time and time again. Certainly practitioners can, and should, celebrate these participants who are invested in social justice work, yet there is a missed opportunity when the circle is limited to this core group of students. Another missed opportunity presents itself when unfamiliar, ‘less likely’ students participate in a workshop, but do not stay engaged in subsequent programs.

Here we provide room for practitioners to consider how better understanding students’ motivations for social justice engagement can inform why this cycle exists and what can be done to break it. While this article focuses on the traditional first-year student experience, motivation theory can prove useful for engaging all students, and even staff and faculty in social justice conversations.

Motivation Theory

Motivation theory, honed by scholars offers a conceptual framework from which to draw (Edwards 2006, Ryan & Deci 2000). Edwards (2006), in “Aspiring social justice ally development: a conceptual model”, maps out three motivations for allyhood. We believe these can also be applied to motivations for broader social justice engagement. They are:
  1. Self-Interest – The motivation to care because the issues directly impact the individual or people close to them and they seek to create justice for these specific individuals.
  2. Altruism – The motivation to care fueled by a desire to ‘help’ others (e.g., social groups they are not a part of) and create justice for them.
  3. Social Justice – The motivation to care because they understand the interconnectedness of social issues and how working together creates justice for everyone. 
Another way to explore motivation is by understanding the difference between intrinsic and extrinsic motivations. In this model, intrinsic motivation pertains to an action one completes because it is personally interesting or enjoyable, while extrinsic motivation pertains to actions completed to attain a separable outcome rooted in external factors/people (Ryan & Deci 2000). The motivations as defined in Edwards’ model reflect a set of self-motivated (intrinsic) reasons for engagement. Conceivably, there are other reasons for motivation that are extrinsic in nature, including but not limited to – 1) resume building, 2) peer pressure/guilt, 3) family pressures, and 4) requirement for a class. In the mind of an educator, these motivators are often viewed as less valuable; there may even be a reluctance to considering these as respectable motivations to participate in social justice programming. While not ideal reasons for motivation, educators need to consider these extrinsic factors when trying to improve their reach.

Student Development Theory

In our experience planning and attending various social justice engagement opportunities, the great majority of curriculum/marketing has been developed to reach individuals who are intrinsically motivated through their interest in social justice. When striving to interest first-year students, practitioners should consider the non-intrinsic motivations that students may bring. We believe that not considering these motivations is a primary reason these conversations can be insular and have limited impact and reach.

Obviously not all first-year students are the same, and it is not our intention to suggest that they are. With this in mind, there are some trends that exist across the larger population of first-year traditionally-aged college students across the country (Howard 2011, Wyatt 2007). It is also important to parallel the first-year student experience to the stages of group development (Tuckman, 1965).The first year student is beginning to acclimate to the university environment, building trust, cohesion, and a sense of community with those around them. Committing to social justice work requires that one takes risks and challenges their worldview, practices that often rely on an existing foundation of trust. For these reasons, first year students may find active participation in these settings to be challenging.

Because of their stage of cognitive development, they may exhibit dualistic thinking believing that issues have one right and one wrong answer, and may only respect the perspectives of authorities as credible and legitimate (King & Baxter Magolda 2005). Social justice engagement heavily relies on both reflection and dialogue, two pedagogies that recognize multiple truths and students as generators of knowledge. Intrapersonally, King and Baxter Magolda suggest that these students may have an undeveloped understanding of identities, values and cultures different from their own. This lack of information may lead them to assume that others share their beliefs and/or view these differences as threats. The third dimension of development is interpersonal; one characteristic of initial development in this area is that students develop relationships with people who share their identities and worldview, and therefore lack exposure to other viewpoints and experiences. First-year students, generally, have less exposure to issues of injustice except the ones that impact them or people close to them directly. Because social justice education often relies on intergroup discussion, students who haven’t had significant exposure to these mixed settings may feel unprepared and nervous.

Applying Theories to Engage First Year Students in Social Justice Programming

Although not all first-year students are in this initial stage of development, many are. To reach these students, a multitude of strategies can be introduced. Hosting single- issue forums and targeting program marketing to students who already are impacted by these issues (directly or indirectly) may draw new faces. It can also be valuable to capitalize on the faculty/staff partnership, working cohesively to market these events, knowing that faculty draw respected authority. Once you have an interested group of participants, the goal becomes inspiring them to care for alternative reasons (beyond “Self-Interest” or “Altruism”). There are many ways to do this, including highlighting the interconnectedness of social issues, and involving storytelling methodology that allows intersectional stories to be shared. By facilitating the conversation in a manner that helps students make this transition, their interest in attending other conversations related to issues they feel less connected to will increase.

There are many challenges to consider when applying Motivation Theory. Some of the challenges occur within the practitioner’s own perspective, while others occur within and between participants:

Staff who are trying to engage students who are not already intrinsically motivated (according to Edwards’ (2006) concept of Social Justice) need to internally recognize that other motivations are also valid. Comments from these types of participants understandably will be less developed and maybe even offensive. Staff must be equipped with facilitation techniques that challenge participants in constructive and supportive ways. This can require significant empathy and patience from a facilitator.

If one is successful in attracting a group with a range of different motivations, there may be increased conflict and disagreement between participants. Careful consideration into curriculum development will assist with this. Small group discussions may be especially useful. In this format, participants can share their honest thoughts with less apprehension of embarrassing themselves or others. Beginning of a session by establishing guidelines about the environment you wish to establish can prevent unhealthy conflict. In this environment, participants can challenge what is being said, speak honestly from personal experience, and trust that everyone is doing the best that they can.

By engaging students in their introductory year, they can become change agents: eager to challenge their own assumptions, improve the climate through informed action, and apply their learning to their endeavors post- graduation. Utilizing motivation theory in the design of curriculum, marketing and overall program development can increase the number of first-year students and range of diverse perspectives present in these conversations. These improvements can yield greater breadth and depth of change on campus, both interpersonally and institutionally, to the benefit of all.


Edwards, K. E. (2006). Aspiring social justice ally identity development. NASPA Journal 43(3), 39-60.
Howard, A. (2011). Privileged pursuits of social justice: Exploring privileged college students’ motivation for engaging in social justice. NASPA Journal 12 (2), 1-14.
Ryan, R.M. & Deci, E.L. (2000). Intrinsic and extrinsic motivations: Classic definitions and new directions. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 25, 54-67.
Tuckman, B.W. (1965). Development sequence in small groups. Psychological Bulletin, 63, 384-399.
Wyatt, S.K. (2007). Difficult dialogues, privilege and social justice: Uses of the privileged identity exploration (PIE) model in student affairs practice.The College Student Affairs Journal 26(2), 114-125.