Servant leadership: a phenomenological study of Southeast Asian women's career advancement experiences in community colleges

This study utilized a phenomenological approach to explore the career advancement experiences of 10 Southeast Asian women who worked in various California Community Colleges. Participants held different leadership positions in departments such as student services, human resource, library, marketing and outreach, and college administration. The women’s ages ranged from the 30s to 50s. Theoretical frameworks employed in understanding the findings are based on symbolic interactionism and resiliency. The women’s stories of career advancement represented a process of self-positioning as figures of authority and support within their work context. Data analysis revealed four themes that highlighted their career journeys: 1) Difficulties in viewing themselves as leaders; 2) Unintended recipes for leadership emergence; 3) The unique experiences of Asian American female leaders; and 4) Foundations, strategies, and redefinitions of leadership. Participants overcame the limitations of a poor self-perception to build a professional identity based on an orientation toward servant leadership. The journey into leadership was an arduous process that caused participants to experience emotional dilemmas. The participants described ways in which they have learned to re-set their minds and attitudes to maintain personal wellbeing. Implications for practice included ideas for leadership trainings and supportive programs for educational leaders to aid our understanding of existing institutional conditions needed to promote equitable opportunities for Asian Americans and others.