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How Latin American universities can be drivers of change

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By Alicia Cantón

Latin America, a mosaic of history, culture and natural wonders comprising 19 countries, is also a region facing important challenges – slow-growing economies, poverty, inequality, the need for quality education, institutions that must be strengthened and rising crime rates are just a few of them.

The Argentinian political scientist Guillermo O’Donnell identifies poverty, inequality and democracy as a triangle of forces that Latin American societies need to balance in order to achieve growth and development.

Latin American countries have rather young democratic systems. In true democratic societies goals are articulated for the greater good and the people have a voice in defining the needs, policies and programmes needed to achieve common objectives and interests as well as their priorities.

Participatory democracies demand citizens organise and engage to create a shift in current conditions and solve these and other problems. Transformation is the result of citizens engaging to promote change through participation, collaboration, observation and holding authorities and institutions accountable to ensure that goals are met.

How do citizens learn to engage? How can citizens develop social responsibility, agency and leadership skills? Academics such as Warren Bennis and James MacGregor Burns have studied leadership for decades. Today we understand that leadership exists in the context of a situation that drives a person to initiate actions and to work with others to solve a particular problem.

Transformative leadership is the result of a relational process; it implies ethical decisions for the greater good and often promotes change not only regarding the problem or challenge but also in the actors as well (both leader and followers).

Educating transformative leaders

Transformative leaders can be intentionally developed and higher education institutions play a key role in this process.

From a grounded theory research study conducted in 2011 with students from private and public universities in Mexico, I developed a model that explains the factors that contribute to enhancing the undergraduate student’s civic engagement and the strategic actions and programmes that universities can design to foster engaged civic leaders.

These programmes are:

  • Curriculum-based activities where students can connect knowledge to actual problems in the community;
  • Student life and experiential learning experiences such as student groups and organisations that prepare them to plan, organise and negotiate while achieving goals and creating different kinds of events and activities;
  • Community service experiences that are well designed and planned.


Here are some universities in Latin America that are developing this kind of leadership and their initiatives.

Universities’ leadership initiatives

Universidad de Monterrey (UDEM): This private, Catholic-inspired university located in the north-eastern part of Mexico embraces the challenge of educating transformative leaders in tandem with its mission to develop students holistically in an intercultural environment of academic excellence to find transcendence in the service of others.

A strategic plan to educate transformational leaders began in 2002. Through its formative model UDEM and the Lánzate Center, a 1,487-metre squared laboratory for the practice of leadership, are developing six competences and 14 values in all undergraduate students.

Results from the Multi-Institutional Study of Leadership in 2015 show UDEM’s students scoring above the national benchmark on all the values of the Social Change Model of the Higher Education Research Institute.

UDEM is an Ashoka Changemaker campus. It offers multiple programmes that foster social innovation and entrepreneurship in the campus ecosystem, including the PISYE (Programme for Social and Educational Inclusion) for young adults with a learning disability, and help to develop personal skills and an ability to work and engage in the community.

Universidad Anáhuac: At the heart of its mission, this private university in Mexico, inspired by the values of Christian humanism, seeks to educate students through a comprehensive instruction process to raise their social awareness and become positive action leaders who can contribute to the development of human beings and society.

Universidad Anáhuac defines 10 leadership dimensions or characteristics of the leaders they educate and has nine different leadership programmes including: Vértice for high potential leaders who can transform society with their service, Acción for students who excel in varsity and competitive sports and Sinergiawhich aims to educate future civic and political leaders.

Tecnológico de Monterrey: Founded in 1943, this private university has a multi-campus system across Mexico. In their 2020 vision they aim to educate leaders with three characteristics: an entrepreneurial spirit, humanity and international competitiveness.

Tec de Monterrey is an Ashoka Changemaker campus and seeks to develop change agents through Central de Cambio, a centre for social innovation where students discover how to be social entrepreneurs. The honours programme brings social entrepreneurs together to solve community problems. The programme Líderes del Mañana educates talented students from impoverished communities who have social awareness, leadership vision and the potential to transform Mexico.

Universidad Popular Autónoma del Estado de Puebla(UPAEP): This is a private Mexican institution that seeks to create currents of thought and truth which help leaders to transform society through integrating faith, science and life. UPAEP is also an Ashoka Changemaker campus and therefore fosters social innovation.

Una Apuesta de Futuro is a programme at UPAEP that promotes community development through the projects of student leaders in collaboration with local organisations in rural areas. UPAEP offers scholarships to students who demonstrate leadership capacity and commitment to the community through programmes such as FILSE, where holistic formation, leadership and social service combine to develop the student’s well-being and vocational interests.

Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile has a model of leadership education that encourages the student to learn through experience while actively participating in finding a solution to problems. Some of the competences they develop include collaborative work, entrepreneurship, negotiation, communication and global citizenship.

Duoc UC: This private Catholic university in Chile educates professionals through an ethical model inspired by Christian values and a commitment to the community. Their programme, ideapaísdevelops student leaders so they understand politics and enhances skills such as communication, debate, project management and strategic planning, among others. It includes experiential learning experiences that connect students with Chile’s congress and courts.