LEA - Francesca Lo

Engaging Critical Perspectives in Leadership Education

By Francesca Lo

Francesca Lo Fran Lo, Ed.D., serves as the Executive Director of Leadership Education at the University of Washington where she oversees community engaged learning, leadership education, preK-12 student success, and place-based initiatives in their Undergraduate Academic Affairs unit. Her scholarship exploring Asian American and Pacific Islander college student leadership development has influenced her work by engaging critical perspectives as a student and academic affairs higher education professional.


This year, the ILA will offer the Leadership Education Academy (LEA) for the fourth time. The academy will be facilitated by 10 professionals from a variety of different sectors and functional areas. 

I am thrilled and honored to serve as a new LEA facilitator this year. As someone passionate about facilitating students’ leadership development in their journeys to become effective, caring, and socially just citizens in their communities, I was immediately drawn to the concept of a cohort-based, immersive learning community focused on developing the capacity of leadership educators.

My 20 years of professional experience have centered around developing and implementing leadership programs and curriculum for youth and college students. My early career focused on leadership development programs for K-12 youth in community-based organizations through environmental service-learning experiences. For the last 17 years, I have focused my leadership education work with college students in higher education institutions, including Brown University and the University of Washington. At both institutions, I have held inaugural positions established to develop, coordinate, and create leadership education efforts. Throughout my professional career, I have honed my leadership education philosophy — I aim to create interactive, inclusive, and reflective spaces for students to: deepen their self-awareness of their values, strengths, and challenges; learn and practice interpersonal and group development skills; integrate research from evidence-based leadership theories; and understand their broader social context so they can best apply their knowledge and passion for the greater good.

In my role with the Husky Leadership Initiative (HLI) at the University of Washington (UW), I oversaw the strategic direction and implementation of a cross-campus effort to coordinate and advance a wide array of curricular and co-curricular student leadership education efforts. Guided by the belief that there is no ‘one size fits all’ when it comes to leadership education, we believed a variety of methods were important in order to reach a diverse student population. Therefore, HLI’s co-curricular programming ranged from large scale speaker events to smaller dialogues with a diverse range of community leaders and from day-long leadership conference with interactive workshops to a weekend cohort-based retreat. Curricular programming included engaging a cohort of faculty to make leadership competencies more explicit in their first-year seminars, offering a large lecture course focused on authentic leadership theory with small break-out leadership labs, and creating a Leadership Institute in Beijing, China that brought domestic and international students together to develop their cross-cultural leadership skills. Recognizing that reflection is a critical and often overlooked aspect of high quality leadership education, we designed the Husky Leadership Certificate program to support students’ reflection on their leadership development and learning with the support of a mentor, a structured reflection course, and the creation of a leadership e-portfolio. As we work to institutionalize leadership education at the UW, our next effort will center around developing a new interdisciplinary Minor in Leadership.

As a leadership educator, I have been greatly influenced by my doctoral studies dissertation research that explored the leadership perspectives and experiences of Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) college students, specifically, the influential spaces that promote their leadership development as well as the impact of their racial and ethnic identities. As I listened to students speak about how they negotiated their campus environment as they sought efficacy and empowerment to be leaders, I heard students say things like, “I cringe at the word ‘leader’ because it’s been appropriated by people who are in the limelight and overlooks the mass of people working behind the scenes doing the hard work,” and “I feel like I’ve had to actually step away from my culture whenever I practice leadership because how my parents and culture has taught me isn’t effective here” and “when people think leadership, they just don’t automatically think first to AAPI folks.” I was learning about students’ association of the concept of leadership to dominant notions and their resultant disconnect. Engaging a critical theory perspective highlighted for me how our dominant leadership discourse may serve as a form of institutionalized racism that not only perpetuates the stereotype that AAPIs lack leadership skills, but also silences and overlooks many AAPI students who do not internalize the dominant assumptions of leadership, thus fueling a negative self-concept as a leader.

My scholarship led me to ground my work as a practitioner around engaging critical perspectives as I aim to elevate the voices of marginalized communities in the field of leadership education and help higher education practitioners implement ways to support diverse students in their leadership development. I believe that we, as higher education practitioners, need to challenge and expand the current leadership discourse on our campuses. We need to engage in critical inquiry to deconstruct and reconstruct the concept of leadership so that it is not left undefined and thus relegated to the oppressive and exclusive, traditional notion based on position and the norms of the dominant culture. This reconstruction needs to adopt emerging leadership models that are culturally relevant and expansive in their acknowledgement of what constitutes as leadership engagement.

In addition to my interest in bringing critical perspectives to the dialogue, I also bring my passion and experience in community-engaged learning to the leadership education conversation. As a practitioner in both leadership education and community engagement programs, I have witnessed the correlation between undergraduate students’ community engagement and their development of socially responsible leadership, something also demonstrated in the research (Dugan & Komives, 2010; Soria et al, 2013). In my current role, I oversee a new realignment and coalescing of our unit’s community engagement and leadership education programs. This realignment signals that the kind of leadership we aim to cultivate is grounded in our values of service as a public university where students think about issues that matter in our community in serious ways, understand these issues with depth, and use their knowledge and skills to lead meaningful lives. While the alignment of these two pillars of an undergraduate education are promising, tensions also exist in the integration of these fields (Wagner & Pigza, 2016). Critical perspectives guide my approach to this work as we work to responsibly integrate socially responsible leadership development with community engaged learning.

I was very excited to learn that LEA is committed to exploring critical perspectives and its influence on leadership education theory and praxis. I will be the voice that pushes us to engage in institutional, programmatic, and personal reflection and critical inquiry around questions such as: What kind of leader does our program want to develop? Do we intend to promote a certain kind of leadership? Are our institutions/programs/staff biased towards certain leadership perspectives? Are we intentional and explicit about this? Whose voices are prominent in our work? Whose voices are we excluding? When we recruit and select participants for our programs, do we seek out and appreciate broad ways of knowing and being? Have we considered multiple ways of thinking about leadership? How can we change our practices to better serve those whose voices are not typically heard? How can we better align our actions with our principled intentions?

I look forward to our time together in LEA to deepen our work as we aim to support all students in their journeys to develop the skills, knowledge, and attitudes needed to make their positive contribution in the world.

Hope to see you this year at LEA!

Fran Lo


Dugan, J. P., & Komives, S. R. (2010). Influences on College Students’ Capacities for Socially Responsible Leadership. Journal of College Student Development, 51 (5), 525-549.

Soria, K., Nobbe, J. & Fink, A. (2013). Examining the Intersections Between Undergraduates’ Engagement in Community Service and Development of Socially Responsible Leadership. Journal of Leadership Education, 12 (1), 117-139.

Wagner, W. & Pigza, J.M. (2016). The Intersectionality of Leadership and Service-Learning: A 21st Century Perspective. New Directions for Student Leadership, 2016(150), https://doi.org/10.1002/yd.20167.