Volume 81 | Issue 4
July 2013

Student Development Theory Series: Identity Development Theory and Practice

Leslie Jo Shelton

In recent years, higher education and student affairs dialogue has shifted to be more inclusive of diverse student populations, with the goal of practitioners being more effective in serving all students. These populations have been present to varying degrees in higher education in the past, but many of these students were largely invisible on campus and in research. More recently, research in student affairs, along with some of the field’s foundations such as sociology, psychology, and counseling, has given attention to previouslyTheoryCC excluded diverse identities and their related impact on student development. Although student affairs is a relatively new field, there have already been significant shifts in the discourse educators use in learning about the students higher education serves. The culture of student affairs values the holistic student while also acknowledging diverse facets of students’ identities such as students with disabilities, students from various racial and ethnic backgrounds, and gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender students.

In examining the identity development of these student populations, it is helpful to revisit commonly shared understandings of key terminology used in student affairs literature. In their 2009 Journal of College Student Development article, researchers Vasti Torres, Susan Jones, and Kris Renn explain: “Within the student affairs literature, identity is commonly understood as one’s personally held beliefs about the self in relation to social groups (e.g., race, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation) and the ways one expresses that relationship.” The authors highlight that identity is also socially constructed, meaning “one’s sense of self and beliefs about one’s own social group as well as others are constructed through interactions with the broader social context in which dominant values dictate norms and expectations.” The second edition of Student Development in College defines social identity development as “the process by which people come to understand their social identities (ethnicity, race, gender, sexual orientation, and others) and how these identities affect other aspects of their lives.” To avoid over generalizing, it is important to remember these are theories about groups of people that may share commonalities but are comprised of unique individuals.


One population that has traditionally been excluded in student identity development literature informing practice is students with disabilities. Although students with disabilities have been enrolled in higher education throughout time, the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act increased awareness about the need to better serve this population, and related scholarly work has also increased. “Ableism” has emerged as a term referring to discrimination and exclusion that oppresses people with disabilities, including physical barriers and negative attitudes of able-bodied people. Leading psychologist and researcher Jennifer Gibson’s disability identity development model explores a shift in a medical model to a minority model in considering the experiences of students with disabilities. In addressing people with disabilities’ possible perceptions and struggles, the model consists of three stages: Passive Awareness, Realization, and Acceptance.

According to Gibson, people with disabilities move through stages characterized at first by Passive Awareness, marked by denying the social aspects of disability. The Realization stage follows, in which people with disabilities often experience self-hate and anger. Next, Acceptance, occurs in adulthood when individuals embrace themselves, including connecting to others with disabilities, getting involved with disability advocacy and activism, and integrating into the majority able-bodied world. These stages are fluid and will not apply to every student with a disability, but they are starting points for understanding what some students with disabilities might experience as they navigate college. Overall, instead of viewing disability as a shameful problem to hide or fix, current attitudes reinforce the need for individuals with disabilities to feel empowered and not pitied. Campuses, including union spaces, can be supportive through avenues such as providing accessible buildings and sharing information in formats that accommodate visually or hearing impaired students, while overall acknowledging there is not just one normative way to navigate campus as a student.

Race and Ethnicity

Acknowledging that various student populations experience college differently also extends to scholarly dialogue surrounding students from diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds. Educators have attempted to clarify the distinctions of race and ethnicity and the implications for student identity development in these areas. In student affairs literature, race is not considered a biological premise, although it has tangible implications with shifting social and political meanings. The book Black and White Racial Identity: Theory, Research, and Practice defines racial identity as “a sense of group or collective identity based on one’s perception that he or she shares a common racial heritage with a particular racial group.” Although often confounded with race, ethnicity refers to shared characteristics, often among family, such as culture, language, religion, geography, and history that are classified into behaviors and cognitive dimensions. Previously, there was a black/white binary in student affairs research, but more recent scholarly work has emphasized the importance of learning about the experiences of other historically underrepresented racial and ethnic groups such as Native American, Asian American, Latino/a, and biracial and multiracial students.

Native American Students
In New Directions for Student Services: Serving Native American Students, Perry Horse writes about the multifaceted nature of Native American identity. Native Americans, or American Indians, are citizens of America’s indigenous nations and have an evolving culture with an identity influenced by choices of ethnic nomenclature, encounters with racial attitudes of white privilege, and their unique sovereign legal and political statuses. Although American Indians have a consciousness extending back to the original peoples of the United States, many live modern lives including attending universities ranging from tribal colleges to predominantly white institutions. Horse explains that American Indian identity is highly personal and has five main influences on one’s consciousness including levels of connection to culture and language, validity of American Indian genealogy, the extent of holding a related spiritual worldview, one’s self-concept as an American Indian, and enrollment status in a tribe. Within all of these influences, he emphasizes that in a racially stratified, white-dominated society, American Indian people must struggle to maintain identity while facing racism.

Also, it is important to note that American Indians do not share just one ethnic identity. Instead, there is broad diversity within this community that has faced attempts at forced acculturation by dominant culture. As educators, awareness of these racial dynamics and the multiplicity of influences and diversity of American Indians is important in serving this student population.

Asian American Students
Another student population that has recently received increased attention in scholarly literature is Asian American students. Asian American students are often considered a “model minority.” This perception of Asian American students as high achievers from successful backgrounds can be harmful to those who feel pressure to excel without seeking assistance. One struggle in learning about Asian American student identity development stems from the fact that ethnic identity of Asians in the United States is quite varied. Asian Americans are among the most ethnically diverse groups, but are commonly viewed as one larger racial group. There is a need to disaggregate data in studies on the experiences of Asian American students, as there are several groups who are particularly underserved and understudied such as students who identify as Filipino, Cambodian, and Pacific Islander. New Directions for Student Services: Working with Asian American College Students reveals how traditional psychosocial student development theories based on mainly white students are not appropriate for understanding Asian American students. The publication presents a new model that emphasizes racial identity and external influences, such as traditional Asian family and cultural values. These areas likely affect how Asian American students see themselves as individuals, in relation to others, and their life purpose, which all influence how these students navigate college.

A main theme highlighted in the New Directions book is the contrast in Asian collectivism versus Western individualism, which is emphasized in traditional student identity development models. For example, many Asian American students pursue higher education as a pragmatic, job-related endeavor where academic achievement is motivated by economic security for one’s family. Loyalty to family is a high priority, as well as generally maintaining relationships with others, as interdependence is central to Asian cultures. This is in contrast to autonomy and independence, which are often viewed as end goals in traditional student development theory models. Also, identity development models usually focus on defining one’s individual values and openly expressing one’s emotions, while Asian American culture focuses on representing and remaining tied to one’s family. Ultimately, the authors explain how external influences are likely to have a greater impact on Asian American students than traditional theories support. Therefore, it is important to create opportunities for Asian American students to explore their values while viewing their intimate ties to family and community as a strength and not an area to overcome in meeting dominant society’s more individualistic expectations for personal growth and development.

Latino/a Students
An emphasis on strong family influence is also seen in another student population that has received increased attention in scholarly literature. Latino/a college students are a growing segment of the U.S. and college student population. The term Latino/a embraces a diverse group of ethnic identities, including Chicano, Hispanic, and Mexican American. There is much debate over the label for this broad ethnic group that can also sometimes be based on geographic areas for one’s families of origin. In contrast to the common perception of Asian American students as high achievers who excel in college, Latino/a college students often face perceptions that they are underachieving or not deserving of higher education opportunities. Current public debates surrounding immigration policy affect the experiences of Latino/a students from all backgrounds, as many Latino/a college students feel the stress of a hostile campus climate based on the assumption they are undocumented immigrants. Despite facing outward hostility related to racism deeply embedded in U.S. society and higher education, Latino/a college students demonstrate resilience in succeeding in college while focusing on the importance of maintaining biculturalism, seeking mentors, and keeping strong ties to one’s ethnic identity.

A leading scholar in the area of Latino/a students, Vasti Torres, studies the identity development of Hispanic college students including examining familial influences on the identity development of Latino/a first-year students. In a 2004 Journal of College Student Development article, she explains the particularly strong influence of familialism in Latino/a cultures. She defines familialism as the cultural value of strong identification and attachment of individuals with nuclear and extended families and strong feelings of loyalty, reciprocity, and solidarity among family members. In considering practice, it is important to value the close family ties significant for many Latino/a students. Also, Torres writes that many programs are created as though all Latino/a students are the same, yet it is important to remember there is great diversity within the Latino community.

Biracial and Multiracial Students
This diversity within communities is also reflected in recent scholarly work focused on the understudied group of mixed-race college students. Biracial and multiracial college student identity development is researcher Kris Renn’s focus. Filling a gap in the literature, she studied this population specifically in the college setting and by considering both ecological factors and the labels multiracial individuals use in identifying themselves. Renn identified the following five patterns of multiracial identity: 1) Monoracial Identity, or choosing one race to identify with; 2) Multiple Monoracial Identity, which shifts according to situation; 3) Multiracial Identity, or not choosing one or the other race; 4) Extraracial Identity, meaning deconstructing race or opting out of identifying with white-constructed U.S. racial categories; and 5) Situational Identity, where students have a stable racial identity and can identify differently in various contexts. She found that students come to choose these identities based on areas such as physical appearance, cultural knowledge, and peer culture. Understanding these patterns and how students arrive at them is important, as Renn explains that positive multiracial identity is linked to good psychological health including higher self-esteem, sense of efficacy, and lower stereotype vulnerability. It is also important to note that campus spaces, both public and private, are often monoracial. She writes that identity-based space for multiracial students can play a role in these students’ comfort in carrying out their identities with others as they move through communities on campus. Overall, she found it is important to accurately track biracial and multiracial student data to use this information in assessing the campus climate. Other essential institutional commitments include developing welcoming programming, having role models for students, creating an inclusive curriculum, and facilitating student interactions with others from various backgrounds.

Unions are examples of campus spaces that can facilitate some of these efforts to create a welcoming environment fostering the growth and development of multiracial students. There are several ideas to consider in moving past a monoracial environment and beyond a black/white binary to create welcoming, inclusive union spaces for students. Creating this welcoming space with multiculturally competent staff can include additional optional training programs that provide a “safe space” sticker to visibly display in an office space. In addition to displaying diverse artwork and architecture, unions can be mindful of providing diverse cuisine in food courts. Additionally, unions can proactively seek and host a variety of diverse programming, while also visibly celebrating various times throughout the year designated as a history or awareness month for diverse groups. Students also benefit from interacting with union staff who are trained on issues of diversity and who are comfortable and knowledgeable serving all community members. Finally, unions can be a welcoming space when students see positive role models who visibly represent them in union leadership.


Similar recommendations about the need to identify and support diverse student populations are found in literature exploring the identity development of lesbian, gay, and bisexual (LGB) college students. As attention to LGB rights grows in media and politics, these students also are more visible on campus and in student affairs research. Although earlier studies focused on lesbian and gay individuals, bisexual students have been added to the cannon of scholarly work. This inclusion supports current understandings of sexual orientation as a spectrum of identities instead of a binary seen in earlier sexual orientation stage models that were critiqued for rigidity.

In addition to updated views on the fluidity of sexual orientation, more research is being conducted surrounding the spectrum of gender identity development. In this scholarship, it is commonly accepted that sex refers to biology, which is related to, but separate from gender. Biological sex falls on a continuum ranging from female to intersex to male. There are also continuums for gender expression ranging from feminine to androgynous to masculine, and for gender identity including one’s sense of self as man, woman, or elsewhere on a fluid spectrum. Transgender refers to gender identity and gender roles that do not align as expected with biological sex. This is in contrast to cisgender, which means one’s biological sex aligns with one’s socialized gender roles. Although gender identity development occurs in early childhood, college is a time of exploration for many students. This can be exciting but also can lead to feelings of isolation for students exploring gender in a climate that reinforces a traditional gender binary.

Historically, research on transgender identity was founded in medical and clinical psychology work, which implied that transgender individuals have a mental illness to be cured. Current student affairs scholarship rejects this medical model and has adopted a human development perspective. For example, Brent Bilodeau, a leading scholar in the area of trans college students, identified several key issues in the development and experiences of this student population. In emphasizing the fluid, context-specific nature of how gender is shaped throughout life, Bilodeau addressed how genderism impacts campuses. Genderism is how college campuses are governed by a set of assumptions that reinforce the gender binary that all campus members are expected to follow. These expectations restrict opportunities for students to explore gender identity and expression including the ways in which one publicly enacts gender roles through clothing, grooming, speech, posture, and other behaviors.

Unions can help create a space to combat genderism by not reinforcing the gender binary. These efforts include having diverse people in visible union leadership roles and providing inclusive educational and social programming, such as rethinking popular events like speed dating or date auctions that often subscribe to gender and sex binaries. Incorporating a spectrum of identities in the daily functioning of the union can also occur through training staff on inclusive language and updating data systems. For example, paperwork and tracking methods can be changed to move beyond the forced binary choices of “M” or “F” checkboxes to include fill-in-the-blank options for students to self-identify. Unions can also make physical changes such as updating restroom facilities to be gender inclusive with single-stall, lockable doors that are not labeled as either “men’s” or “women’s” restrooms. Students who do not fit conventional gender expression norms report being questioned or harassed for using gender-specific restroom facilities, so providing inclusive restrooms in highly trafficked union areas can have a positive impact on students’ sense of safety and belonging in their daily routines. New Directions for Student Services: Transgender Issues on Campus reports that incorporating these ideas on campus can help cisgendered people too, as everyone benefits from inclusive, mixed spaces, easily accessible restrooms, and overall education about human diversity. 

Exploring Identity

Overall, unions are spaces for all students to feel safe and supported. Some students may explore their identities on their own, while others pursue participation in identity-based organizations. Supporting this developmental process might require examining training programs, leadership, policies, procedures, traditions, and the physical facility to make adjustments. In doing so, it is important to involve diverse populations in the conversations. For instance, even among identity-based student organizations, some could want a visible, highly trafficked office or meeting space so they do not feel marginalized, while other student groups may be seeking a more private space that is not highly publicized throughout the union on kiosks or meeting boards. This emphasis on inclusivity can create a more welcoming and vibrant space for all community members.

The College Union Idea provides a union philosophy that emphasizes creating purposeful environments promoting leadership, citizenship, and cultural competence in students while building community among diverse campus constituents. As a hub of activity and site of learning and community building, unions hold great potential for serving diverse student populations and facilitating positive growth and development in all students. Having a working knowledge of current scholarly literature is one way to reflect on the practice of serving diverse student populations in this campus space.


SheltonLeslie Jo (LJ) Shelton is a doctoral candidate in Michigan State University’s Higher, Adult, and Lifelong Education program. She earned her bachelor's and master's degrees from Ohio University where she studied sociology, women’s studies, and college student personnel. Her research and teaching currently focus on the college experiences and identity development of diverse students, learning outcomes for graduate education abroad, and the scholarship of teaching and learning. Her email is shelto84@msu.edu.